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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How I Met Your Mother: "Subway Wars"

Illustration for article titled How I Met Your Mother: "Subway Wars"
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Adulthood sometimes feels like an endless race.  Even when we’re making good progress from a macroscopic viewpoint, little moments of stasis can feel like major setbacks, or even like failures.  Tonight we see what’s making each character in the HIMYM gang feel like a loser.  Robin’s new co-host, the preternaturally bubbly Becky, has instantly (and quite literally) eclipsed her on Come On Get Up New York.  Lily and Marshall have been trying to get pregnant for two months, but so far have faced nothing but negative signs on the little white stick.  Barney — well, actually Barney doesn’t feel like a failure.

And Ted is obsessing over one bad review on an online professor rating site — the one that said “boring” (although all the rest of them are glowing, one even complimenting his “brilliant puns”).  The concept that drives “Subway Wars” is the idea of “needing a win,” and let me tell you, that one bad review, that one student whom you rubbed the wrong way, that one beef somebody has with you that you had no idea about?  That’s exactly what those circumstances lead to.  They’re bad cards you got dealt, and you want to hang on until you get a leg back up in the game so you can feel like a winner again.  (Not for nothing does Barney twice mention his Tuesday night poker game.)

Tonight’s episode has a classic HIMYM premise, with all kinds of gimmicks surrounding a central storyline filled with artifice, culminating in another step toward maturity.  I don’t think it hit the sweet spot all the way through, but it hardly needed to.  When a show is this excited about entertaining you, throwing everything it has at the screen and peppering the dialogue with quotable bon mots, you can’t help but appreciate it.  “Subway Wars” starts with the competition to get to a bistro a few miles away to catch a glimpse of Woody Allen, but it layers on several other running jokes: the Spy magazine style heads superimposed on a map of Manhattan, the Woody-style intertitles and jazz music, and the secret reasons everyone wants to prove themselves — whether it be qualifying as a real New Yorker or demonstrating mastery over the machines.  (Yes, Maury Povich is also a running joke, but I’m pretending that one didn’t happen.)

I also like the near-chaos of the race itself, with everyone at one time or another taking refuge in Ranjit’s town car and giving him conflicting directions, and with Ted’s tone-deaf desire to spend the bus trip teaching his seatmates about architecture.  When all the passengers burst out in cheers and applause as Ted exits, happily resuming their seats on the right side of the cabin previously contaminated by the crazy, it was a Seinfeldian moment that made me laugh out loud with delight.

And that’s what’s so interesting about “Subway Wars.”  It’s a Seinfeld episode — a meaningless but hotly contested competition for bragging rights and urban credibility.  But because it’s HIMYM, the characters need to come to terms with deeper motivations, and need to learn something about why they care so much and whether it’s about the right things.  Seinfeld’s refusal to add that layer is what gave it that bracing quality.  HIMYM’s insistence that there’s more to say and there’s somewhere to go is what gives it that heart.

Stray observations:

  • Barney’s slow road back to Robin-hood is signalled by his tackling Ted at the end to give Robin the win she really needs.  We’re going to take our time getting there, but mark my words, that’s where we’re going.
  • “Every time I take the bus, there is one crazy person no one wants to sit near,” Barney explains.  “That’s why I’ve never taken the bus.”
  • Marshall’s “John Henry”-esque folk song details the times he’s beaten the machine (Atari pinball, knocking down the beeping smoke alarm, turning on the jukebox with a “Fonzarelli arm”) but also the times he’s been beaten by the machine (trying to get the Playboy Channel on the cable box, stabbed by a stapler, trying to get the Spice Channel on the cable box).
  • Barney’s initial plan to win the race involved ordering a juicy steak first (“how?” Marshall inquires; “Medium rare, but that’s not important right now,” Barney replies), then faking a heart attack (“Elizabeth!” he croaks in homage to Sanford & Son) and getting an ambulance to bypass traffic.
  • How is Becky able to get away with those chocolate chip cookies when the sign clearly states that no food or drink is allowed on the set?
  • Lily and Marshall have a list of things they need to do while enjoying their last years before parenthood, and it includes “really learn how to ski, not just go up and get faced in the lodge.”
  • “She’s so sad and defenseless … anybody have a condom?”
  • “First person wins!” “Doesn’t matter how you get there!” “Stay sad, I’ll be back!”