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How I Met Your Mother: "Garbage Island"

Illustration for article titled How I Met Your Mother: "Garbage Island"
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When How I Met Your Mother premiered, none of us could have predicted that one of its high points would be the unlikely comic pairing of Kyle MacLachlan and Josh Radnor. Yet here we are in season six, with the Captain’s dialogue becoming ever more baroque and Ted’s position as his friend and cuckolder becoming ever more uncomfortable. And I love it.

MacLachlan’s high-thespian gentility somehow provides the perfect foil for Ted’s enthusiastic (yet guilty) douchery. As the Captain gravely asserts his side of the marriage-disintegration story in his paneled study, adding details about his and Zoey’s attempted reconciliation after the convenient arms-thrown-in-the-air argument that Ted saw as the end of their relationship, he provokes a glorious spit-take from Ted with the solemn statement that they made love that night; “Damn good brandy,” Ted chokes, in a sideways tribute to MacLachlan’s most famous television role. It’s a scene that goes from smile to grin to guffaw, never pausing in its easy, propulsive comic rhythm, played with the straight faces of the best farce. It’s a beautiful thing.

And supporting it is an equally beautiful thing about the broken relationships and genuine hurt that litter every storybook love story. Eggs get broken when people get together, because it means somebody else gets left behind, and all you can do, Zoey asserts, is make sure you use them to make a really good omelet.  

So who are the eggs and who are the omelets this week—and how good do the omelets turn out to be?  The framing story has Ted (in horrendous side-part middle-aged hair, gah!) stuck in Hong Kong in 2021 (“We have cell phones that project holograms, but a light drizzle shuts down the whole airport?), where he meets Wendy the Waitress. Turns out she whipped up some eggs broken by Marshall in a fit of regret over his failure to become an environmental lawyer. Stung by a documentary about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, he devises a two-part plan to regain his green momentum. Phase one involves Wendy the Waitress hauling heavy bags of glass bottles to the recycling center every night. Phase two involves presenting Goliath National Bank with a $12 million environmental initiative. Phase one makes Wendy hate Marshall; phase two gets an unfortunate presentation attendee named Meeker, who makes the mistake of voicing support for the plan, fired when Arthur uses him as a scapegoat for the recently bereaved Marshall. Meeker and Wendy bond over their hatred of Marshall, and 10 years later, they run into Ted on their second honeymoon in Hong Kong.

While Marshall is obsessing over the garbage, though, he’s avoiding sex with Lily (Barney, who has a gift for such things, pegs the dry spell at five weeks, three days), which leads to Lily throwing herself at him in increasingly awkward and aggressive ways. Unforunately, the writers can’t find their way out of this plotline without having Marshall give yet another speech—this time in a dumpster!—about how he’s trying to prove himself to his dead dad and how if he doesn’t get out from under GNB now it’ll be too late, and how he’s avoiding getting Lily in the family way because kids will cut off his last route of escape. Not that any of that fails to resonate at some level but spouted in one expository monologue after another, the reasons seem less organic to the situation and more a set of captions for the audience about the significance we’re supposed to find in this moment. Come to think of it, as much as I’ve pingponged back and forth between appreciation for Marshall and Lily’s emotions and frustration at the way the show has jerked them up and down on a malfunctioning roller-coaster all season, I’m perhaps most annoyed that we can’t come to understand where they’re at without repeated soul-baring speeches from Jason Segal. Do we love his hangdog self-realization schtick that much, writers?

On the other hand, picking up the supportive slack for this fine episode from the rather frenetic Marshall/Lily plotline is the interaction between Barney and Robin over Barney’s refusal to admit he has feelings for Nora, Robin’s co-worker and Barney’s Poughkeepsie laser-tag partner. After Nora said she couldn’t go have drinks with Barney, he tuned her voice to the Charlie-Brown’s-teacher frequency and wrote her off. (He does the same whenever Lily prefaces a sentence with “here’s some advice.”) But Robin catches him smiling uncontrollably whenever he says Nora’s name and getting frantically jealous when Robin invents a new beau who’s taking Nora to the Cafe L’Amour (“But l’amour means love! They’re going to the cafe of love!” Barney sputters). So she challenges Barney to make good on his offer to have sex with her to end her own dry spell (Barney-meter: 18 weeks). When he shows up, it’s not to give it to Robin, but to get Nora’s number so he can act on the smitten-ness he denies. Robin’s little pang of regret as she lets him go is a cracked egg, no doubt about it, and charmingly, Barney acknowledges it with an intimate smile of his own. And we’re left to wonder whether an omelet is in the offing, and in whose kitchen it will be cooked.

Finally, back in the framing story, the creative team reminds us, the viewers, that they know we are waiting for the big omelet, as it were. When Wendy asks Ted if he and Zoe are still together, he denies it with a laugh and launches into the story of how he met the mother of his two kids—“I was best man at this wedding …”—before getting cut off by Wendy. Yeah, we’re getting to that wedding. Still don’t know whose, but we’ll be there by season’s end. The abbreviated story of how she and Ted met starts there, and probably ends with “the rest, as they say, is history.” The long version to which we’re privy, though, will fill in all “the rest,” and if it can keep throwing in serendipity as wonderfully as Ted’s tête-à-têtes with the Captain, then let that post-meeting story go on as many more seasons as the ensemble and crew are willing to give us.

Stray observations:

  • Both Ted and the Captain have simplified and romanticized versions of Zoey and the Captain’s breakup. And in both, the Captain argues by flinging his hands in the air repeatedly. But in Ted’s, he is careful not to cross friendship lines with Zoey, going so far as to eat his popcorn across the room during the scary movie lest he be tempted to put his arm around her, while in the Captain’s he’s mustachioed, shirtless, and very much right next to Zoey.
  • One other difference: In Ted’s version, Zoey was never happy with the Captain, while in the Captain’s, “I daresay Scylla and Caribdis could not have torn us asunder. We had great big boners for each other.”
  • It’s not just the big setpieces and exquisitely-expressed themes that lift the best HIMYM episodes above the pack. It’s that they are garnished with little moments like Robin comforting Ted after he realizes that in the Captain’s story, Ted is the bad guy: “In the story of picking up the box for Zoey, you’re the hero.” “Dammit, the box!” Ted explodes, and rushes out of the bar.
  • The Captain identifies the mustachioed Zoey thief (“yes, limit your search to men with mustaches,” Ted encourages him) as his doorman, and protests as Ted tries to hold him back from assaulting the villain with twin maces: “Maritime justice demands physical retribution! Who is this flower child and what has he done with my friend Ted Mosby?”
  • Physical comedy of the night: A tie between the Captain wearily gesturing from his chair with the mace (menacing Ted, standing nearby) and Robin’s look of disgusted bewilderment at Barney’s shushing finger mashing her lips.
  • “It’s all worth it because at least I know I’m making the world a… place.”
  • “She had a nice face, her booty was in place, but Barney don’t chase.”
  • “Rapscallion may be going a bit far, Ted.”