Back when the three-days-in-Farhampton gimmick of this season was announced, one of the reasons I got excited was the built-in opportunity for complex flashback and flashforward structures within individual episodes. I’ve always loved the way this show has rung the changes on stories within stories within stories; it’s truly the Scheherazade of sitcoms, and not just because it went on for a thousand and one episodes. (Cue rimshot.) The return of hairstyles, wardrobe, minor characters, and bits of mythology as one recollection prompts another, framed by quick whip-pans, provided an extra meta-level of snappy, high-flying delight that practically became a source of comedic joy in itself.
“Gary Blauman” is the first episode this season, though, that approaches the sublime way the show has been able to use these elements at its best. And it’s because the stories-within-stories-within-stories structure now has a new future to set up as a frame. The episode begins with Ted on his first date with the Mother, the Wednesday after the wedding. When the live music at Pedro McKinnon’s (Scottish-Mexican fusion) drives them away from their first choice of dinner plans, Ted warns that you can’t just walk in off the street without a reservation, and begins telling the story of quasi-wedding crasher Gary Blauman to illustrate. Within that story there are no fewer than five other stories, as Ted, Lily, Barney, James, and Billy Zabka talk about their polarizing encounters with Gary over the last few days or the last eight years. Back in the near future, on Ted’s date, the Mother cuts things short when seeing her recent ex makes her realize it’s too soon to start something new. And just as the story reaches its breaking point, with Gary storming off angrily and promising that the gang will never see him again, the two reach the Mother’s building, and it’s time to take their leave.
The flashbacks to everyone’s history with Gary (played, as he has been in the handful of other episodes* where he appeared, by Taran Killam aka Mr. Cobie Smulders) have some terrific laughs. Even better, they are cleverly deployed, with the fleetness and touches of hyperbole that might escalate those laughs or undercut them for an extra chuckle. Ted engages in a Teddy Roosevelt Appreciation-Off with Gary to win the heart of a girl at a party, and at one point the two rivals exchange wordless glares with telepathic dialogue that includes the hilarious line “Go sign the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act, Taft!” Gary dissuades Lily from getting the rest of her butterfly breakup tattoo inked onto her back (“Gary Blauman saved you from a lifetime of looking at Sugar Ray every time we do it on your birthday,” she tells Marshall). Gary becomes the first person ever to recognize Zabka for his poetry. James has an affair with Gary, which causes his estrangement from Tom. And best of all, Gary helps himself to not one (“It would have been one thing if he took one of my fries, it would have been one thing, Lily!”), but four fries in a basket that Barney ordered at McLaren’s, including the accidental curly. And as we all know, “regular cut with a few accidental curlies in, that’s what you want!” (“That’s the dream!” Barney chimes in fervently.)
One of my mentors used to always talk about how life is like a crowded party. You arrive late to find conversations already underway; you listen for awhile to get the gist of what’s happening, you join in with your own contributions, and then, before any conclusions have been reached, it’s time for you to go. It seems so unfair that we don’t get to have the last word and see how it ends—that the geography of our lives doesn’t map neatly onto the temporal division, allowing us to reach our destinations just as the stories draw to a graceful close. I think I’ve been drawn to narrative art, and to this show in particular, because it promises a beginning, a middle, and an end. This show in particular involves one long story that has an assumed unity in time and space. The kids are on the couch, Dad starts talking, and no matter how many false starts and detours and forgotten details and unreliable memories and intentional bowdlerizations there might be, it’s all going somewhere, and we’re going to be there when it draws to a close and it all makes sense.
The moment when Ted says goodbye to the Mother and starts to walk away is framed by Future Ted’s narration about how he wasn’t going to play it like he would have eight years before (with Robin), declaring his love with a grand romantic gesture. But when the Mother calls him back, it’s because she recognizes what we viewers know: that it would be unutterably cruel to make Ted leave in the middle of a story. Yet in reality, all of us have to leave in the middle of a story. The anger about the hints dropped a couple of weeks ago about the Mother’s fate was directed at the creators for contemplating ending the show this way. But within the theme of narrative that the show has always come back again and again to explore, this is a poignant recognition. A mother looking forward to a daughter’s wedding that she will not see? We all leave the party before we get to see how it all turns out. Some of us earlier than others, certainly, but none of us get to ring down the curtain on our own story and send the audience home, because the other players in our tale come and go on their own timetables.
But the beautiful thing about narrative is that the best storytellers can shape it to be both true to the complexities of real experience, and generous in fulfilling our wishes. Future Ted talks about how nobody means to, but everybody loses touch with people who were once central to their lives. There are people we never see again, whose rest-of-the-story we never know and are not a part of. Yet Gary comes back, and this prompts a glorious pan around the Farhampton Inn parking lot, where scenes from the futures of minor characters from the whole history of the show are set up like little living dioramas. There’s Carl passing down the bar to the next generation; Jeanette hooking up with Kevin after her court-mandated counseling; Patrice getting calls from Robin on her advice show “Patrice! In The Morning”; Zabka earning a poetry medal; Scooter serving school lunches with Lily’s stripper doppelganger; Sandy Rivers sexually harassing his Moscow television cohosts in Russian; Ranjit living the high life as the owner of the limo service; Zoe getting attacked by the Central Park hawk she’s trying to save; Blitz giving up gambling at precisely the wrong moment; and Blah Blah finally getting a name (Carol). It’s a beautiful bit of miniaturization, reminiscent of the stagecraft and practical effects of the Superdate sequence, one of my favorite HIMYM moments of all time. And it allows Ted to give all those people a final bow, no matter how small or large a part they played in his tale.
This close to the end, it seems especially fitting that the perfections of this episode point us toward the ways that no story can ever be perfect, but that art has the gracious power to redeem those imperfections. Whatever we find out and whatever is left unsaid at the end, I’ll be sure to remember that.
- * Such as “The Chain Of Screaming” (season 3), “Sorry Bro” (season 4) and “Jenkins” (season 5).
- Teddy’s last Roosevelt fact ever (not really): He went blind in one eye… from getting hit too hard in a boxing match… when he was president!
- I realize that the constantly one-upped tortured lines of dialogue as Barney, Zabka, and James reveal whether they like Gary, hate Gary, or hate to love Gary in some bizarre fashion, might not be for everyone. They are catnip to your reviewer. That was the best.
- In his reunion with Tom diorama, James reminisces with amazing economy to their two kids: “Have I ever told you how I met your father? It was at a party.”
- After Ted and Marshall get Gary into the seating chart, they’ll work on the fat guy table, because that would be awesome.
- “Oh, but he was not good thanks! He was not good thanks at all!”
- “This is the Robin’s hair of seating charts.”
- “If I was going to do anything it would be sweep the leg and put you in a body bag, everybody knows that.”