We’ve known for awhile that Ted has unresolved feelings for Robin. He’s been doing his best to hide them under the guise of being both Robin and Barney’s most supportive friend, but it doesn’t take a tea-leaves reading to foresee that Ted’s inability to completely fall out of love with her is going to be a factor in the rocky aisle to the season finale altar.
But I didn’t expect it all to be out there on Front Street, as the kids say. (Seriously, I heard a 22-year-old say that just last week. Previously I thought the expression had gone out with Miss Cleo.) When Ted showed up at the Central Park carousel at the end of the third act, Noel did a double-take at the progress bar on the TiVo, surprised that there were still several minutes left to go in the episode. And I’m not sure Ted showing up wouldn’t have made a better ending. I’m not one to rewrite the shows I review or second-guess the creative team. And I’ve been fully behind many, many big speeches and declarations of principles this season. But having Robin tell Ted flat-out that he’s better at caring about her than her fiance, and having them share a long—long—moment holding hands in the rain while Wilco saws away on the soundtrack? Doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Worse, doesn’t leave any more room for Ted to pine stoically, which (along with behaving like a douche) is one of his best moves. I’m going to miss stoic, pining Ted.
And while Jeff Tweedy was crooning all over his big speech, Ted was doing a great job talking himself into falling for Robin again while trying to talk her out of doubting her relationship with Barney. “Maybe we don’t need the universe to tell us what we want,” he argues against her insistence that the missing locket and the pouring rain represent the universe giving her clear signs that the marriage is doomed. “Maybe we already know that deep down.” I know Ted is susceptible to that line of reasoning. But the only way Robin thinks Ted is what she really wants, is if she’s desperate and nervous enough to talk herself into trying to fall for him because he already loves her. She doesn’t want him, but she’s willing to try to want him because she knows he won’t hurt her the way she’s afraid the man she loves might.
I recognize that desperation, and my suspicion is that Ted will have to struggle with the opportunity she’s offering him. Knowing what he wants, and knowing what she really wants, romantic Ted and friend Ted will square off against each other in an epic battle, made more difficult by the way Barney has taken Robin for granted while trying to close out his bachelorhood in his signature legendary fashion. If that’s what’s coming, I think it’s exactly right for the show and for Ted’s character. But I might still take issue with the way it’s starting in that final act tonight, all truth-telling and rain-soaked drama, rather than with a subtler moment and a quieter, quicker, more evocative opening of previously closed doors and previously denied feelings.
Part of my hesitation to endorse “Something Old” comes from the whipsawing between plotlines with very different tones. Ted helping Marshall and Lily pack for Italy is a classically-constructed (and very funny) HIMYM story. Robin getting blown off by her dad and her fiance when she asks for their help is a heartbreaking set of interludes. And then there’s Barney and Robin’s dad playing laser tag, which never comes together despite plenty of good writing and performance. I don’t know why the dinky laser tag set with its blinking vests bothers me so much when the Central Park set, equally as fake and reduced in scale, seems well enough suited for the scenes set there. Maybe it’s the oversized testosterone on display from Barney and Robin Senior, dwarfing the cheap, cramped surroundings and making it hard to suspend disbelief enough to follow the supposed team battle royale in a space intimate enough for a book club meeting. The mismatch between the size of the adults and the kid-scale arena is part of the joke, arguably, but when intercut with the two other storylines, and when deprived of interaction between our main characters—isolating Barney with an outsider, who could even be called an interloper—the effect is jarring and borderline bizarre.
Thank goodness that storyline is overshadowed by Ted’s work sorting Lily and Marshall’s possessions into boxes marked “Italy” and “Triangle” (the latter a reference to the sidewalk zone featured in season 5’s “Robin 101”). Ted shows up quoting Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live, then has to take a break when he swallows the bubble gum he’s all out of (“Dr. Goldsmith says I should be fine, just have to look for it in my stool”). Ted claims mystical packing prowess based on the nickname he earned traveling through Spain for two weeks carrying nothing but a hands-free belt satchel: El Ganso con la Riñonera (Fanny-Pack Dork). He has a simple rule: “Have you used it in the last year? If not, triangle.” Terrific scenes of rapid-fire sorting and reaction shots lead up to conflict over a beanbag chair held together with duct tape that Ted doesn’t want to consign to the triangle because it was the first piece of furniture they bought when they moved to New York and the only piece they had for quite a while. “What if our friendship doesn’t pass the have-you-used-it-in-the-last-year test?” Ted worries.
Which, put precisely that way, is a little too on-the-nose for the moment, isn't it? Just like that long—long—crane shot at the end. I’m nitpicking here; I think this season has been frequently remarkable and almost uniformly very good. There’s just a few choices that seem off-model when considered episode by episode. Given the elegant reversals of tone and the mastery of the long game on display at this season’s high points, I’m willing to believe that these too-glib, too-literal moments will be subsumed and transformed before we’re done with this wedding. There’s only a week to get there, though. The creative team is going to have to be quick.
- Marshall wants to save all of his Sasquatch research, including an entire notebook devoted to December 1999 (“Y2K was coming, a lot of people took to the woods… saw the truth”). Lily wants to save the handbags she shoplifted back in the day (“You get older, you have kids, you stop stealing, it’s sad!”).
- Best gag by far: Ted’s sometimes arbitrary rulings. “Let’s Go Italy? Triangle. Triangle? Let’s go Italy.”
- Close second: Anything to do with the beanbag chair. Lily objects to Ted throwing Marshall into the chair because “Every time he lands, that chair farts out 10-year-old Doritos dust.” Marshall responds: “Yeah… it’s the chair.” And when Ted refuses to leave the chair, Marshall proclaims: “Ted, unlike that chair, you, sir, are full of beans.”
- Robin’s dad is way too excited about palling around with Barney, or B-Dog as he insists on calling him. “Woof woof! That’s our thing,” he explains after greeting Barney with all the love that the son he never had could want.
- “Buying a fanny pack is inherently a fool's errand.”