Men and their dads. This relationship permeates just about all of the art made by people of my generation. As a woman, I can’t pretend to understand it, but its ubiquity certainly points to a huge crater left in the male psyche by absent or inadequate fathering. And this season of HIMYM has been singularly father-obsessed, from Marshall losing his dad to Barney wondering if he wants to gain his. We’ve even gotten glimpses of the female side of the equation, with Robin suffering under her father’s desire to have a son instead of a daughter.
There are two ways Barney finally meeting his father could go. It could be an Event: as a Very Special Episode (to coin a phrase) or as an excuse for crazy guest stars and super wacko hijinks. Or it could be a turning point in quite another sense, an episode that starts setting up the pieces for changes still to come. “Legendaddy” is the latter. It’s not the home run the promos have been setting it up to be, hyping John Lithgow’s appearance and trading on Barney’s breakout character status. No, it’s just a moment that Barney would like in some ways to pretend never happened. But he can’t. Not a breakthrough. Just a pivot toward the future.
What Barney is looking for in a father, it turns out, is someone to validate and explain how awesome he is. The legend of Jerry, hard-partyin’ roadie, has remained evergreen in Barney’s memory. And when Jerry himself shows up on Barney’s doorstep clutching his son’s letter, Barney feels compelled to invent the daddy he doesn’t get. Instead of drinking neat whiskey and scamming girls’ numbers like a pro, Jerry drinks skim milk and begs barflies to write down random digits. Instead of tours with the Stones, Jerry has produced two non-fiction books about asparagus (“and one fiction!”). When Barney tells the Barney-ized version of his awesome dad to his friends, Jerry gives a familiar neckroll and shoulder set before heading out to pick up chicks. In reality, Jerry tries to loosen his neck and gets a crick in it, wincing in pain.
And that’s why the gang stages an intervention (complete with the familiar banner) at Ted’s long-neglected dream house so that Barney will go to dinner with Jerry, his wife, and his young son (there’s also a daughter away at college). Barney at first searches for ways to avoid insulting the decor, so conspicuously lacking the modernist, corporatist taste that he espouses. Then he takes to challenging J.J., Jerry’s other son, for first place in their father’s affections, deriding his lack of a job and wimpy physique. “What gym do you go to?” Barney demands. “Fourth period,” J.J. offers. “More like you’re having your fourth period, amirite dad?” Barney crows, earning a “Got him again, son!” from a Jerry who seems just as eager to find his way into these strange affections.
Meanwhile, the gang is poking holes in each other as usual, exposing the flaws—here, gaps in common knowledge—that compromise their public images of competence. Ted learned the word “chameleon” from reading it in books, leading him to pontificate to his clase that Daniel Burnham was “a true architectural Chamma-Leon.” Robin thinks the North Pole is fictional, like Narnia. Lily has terrible aim, leading her to fling beer bottles against the wall when trying to toss them to Marshall. And Marshall just wants to be the butt of his friends’ jokes again, but he has to beg them for a burn since they’ve all been walking on eggshells around him after his dad’s death.
I see where the writers are going in their attempt to bring this all together. The house where Ted is already arranging the family he knows he’s going to have someday, getting ahead of himself in a typically idealistic fashion. Marshall's determination to re-enter his usual routine after undergoing a shock that is at the same time devastating and completely normal. And Barney pinging wildly back and forth as he tries to calibrate his course forward between an ideal that exists only in memory and imagination and a reality that is distressingly predictable and ordinary.
They don’t quite pull it off, do they? The lines never intersect to form a figure that lifts off the ground and shows us something new. But they achieve a few quite remarkable minutes, as do Neil Patrick Harris and John Lithgow, in the strange setpiece of Barney trying to tear the basketball hoop off of Jerry’s garage. Back comes the motif of the screwdriver, briefly introduced in the cold open as Barney calls the super instead of hauling out the toolbox as Ted would have done. Barney’s determination to make off with a piece of the normal childhood he never had—angry, as well, that J.J. is getting the best of Jerry—leads to a moment when Jerry does get to act like a father and Barney gets to learn like a son.
Best, though, not to make too much of this moment, iconic as we all might like it to be. It’s not the end of fatherless Barney but the beginning of a new stage of his maturation. We all knew Barney’s transformation would end up being the most difficult; he’s seemed so comfortable so long being a cartoon, and many of us, frankly, don’t want him any other way. The birth of a new Barney will be painful, but if it comes with more images like his leaving with the basketball goal under his arm, it will be a process worth seeing through to the end. Even for those of us without father issues.
- Best laugh of the night, Breaking the Tension division: Barney takes the screwdriver from Jerry and raps the handle of it against the backboard.
- Non-spontaneous Ted: “I don’t know whether I’ll put the fern on the right side or the left side yet. Sometimes you’ve just gotta wing it! … Left side.”
- Weird attempt at CBS basketball cross promotion, as Marshall complains that Barney has left them without a working TV, just as March Madness is starting, and then Ted asserts that he can fix an HDTV with a screwdriver.
- Best Lithgow line: In Barney’s fake version of their MacLaren’s meeting, Jerry responds to Barney’s admiration for his feat of getting the girl’s number in “like five seconds” by tearing up the napkin and mumbling “Life’s too short for chatty chicks.”
- Marshall’s flaws: He can’t wink, can’t swallow pills, adds too much water to oatmeal, and consistently misses one belt loop.
- “It ages well, that’s the thing.”