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It’s rare that a major compromise or character shift completely disappears on HIMYM. For everybody who was wondering what happened to Lily and Marshall trying to have a baby, or Marshall’s dream of working in environmental law, or Zoey’s fight against the new GNB tower, “The Exploding Meatball Sub” exists to bring all three back into the mix.


These are the conflicts that temporarily disappeared under the crushing weight of Marshall’s dad’s death, Barney’s dad’s appearance, and Ted and Zoey hooking up. When something terrible or marvelous or marvible happens, we tend to push down the things that are bothering us, temporarily. But they always come back. (Which is why we know Barney has yet to deal with his daddy issues, since he makes out his anger at Marshall to be all about the sweet meatball-sub-marinara revenge he so meticulously planned. Convincingly, granted, but what’s unresolved will make its way to the surface eventually.)

I’m glad the episode was titled “The Exploding Meatball Sub” rather than “Graduation Goggles,” which is the supposedly universal experience named and explained and then exemplified in the episode in that signature (and often annoying schematic) HIMYM fashion. As Robin explains it, graduation goggles are when you’re about to leave something you hate and suddenly get nostalgic for the very things you hate about it, like the jerks who make fun of your braces “even after the braces come off and you can walk just fine!” In Marshall’s case, it’s the endless paperwork and awful coffee and coworkers’ dirty stories (complete with bewildering over-under spanking gestures) and boss clipping his fingernails during meetings (ugh) that abruptly become misty-eyed memories when he decides to leave to take his dream job at the Natural Resource Defense Council.

A job that turns out to be filled already, forcing him to take a rather large pay cut—down to zero—and canceling the trip to Spain that Lily was looking forward to. And that’s what dredges up all the other unresolved stuff. Ted describes Marshall and Lily’s marriage as a “hermaphrodite blob” with no distinction between the two of them because they never disagree, while he and Zoey fight all the time (or as Ted prefers to put it, they “challenge each other”). But underneath all the supportiveness and agreeableness, Lily is sick of rolling over for everything Marshall wants ever since his dad died.  Having to be fine with him quitting his job and making no money and seeming to forget all about trying to have kids sends her to the breaking point.

And underneath the feistiness of Ted and Zoey’s relationship is frustration, too: Ted’s frustration that Zoey has to disagree with him about everything from whether Tommy Boy is a pastiche on Henry IV or Don Quixote, to whether Ted should get to fulfill his dream of building a skyscraper in New York. Ted claims to know that Lily is unhappy about Marshall having no job because “the downside to having giant Japanese anime eyes is that you can’t hide your true feelings,” which causes Lily to retort, “The downside to having a woman’s mouth is that your feminine pout gives away your true feelings,” which are all about wishing Zoey would let Ted be on top for once. (“We take turns!” he insists. “Sometimes.”)

She’s right. When Lily agrees with Ted, he breaks down: “Is that how support feels? It’s so warm and wonderful! Nobody likes to be challenged!” Maybe that’s why Lily backs down from her not-all-the-way-thought-through plan of hopping a plane to Spain by herself, leaving Marshall hosting a party at their apartment for a bunch of NRDC folks all by himself. Because Marshall is supportive, too, he knows he has to give back something for all that he’s gotten from Lily, and before she can even ask, he’s promising to go find a paying job.  

That’s what Ted is never going to get from reflexively-disagreeable Zoey, but before he can act on his realization that he needs to break up with her, he gets graduation goggles for their fights. It takes time to wrest your life around, even when you know you have to. So many big things have happened so suddenly this season, changing the characters’ courses so abruptly. It’s oddly wonderful to watch them wrestle with returning to their old debates, their unfulfilled dreams, and the steps they’re not yet ready to take. Being forced to mature is ultimately quite different from choosing it. Maybe that’s the theme that will play out over these last few episodes; if so, “The Exploding Meatball Sub” is a promising start.

Stray observations:

  • I don’t think this was the funniest or richest episode of the season; the timing seemed off at the beginning, and a couple of the flashbacks ended with lame groaners (like Barney suggesting “Chinese?” after Robin sees him trash his office). But I’m impressed with the way the writers have dealt with the consequences of huge departures from normalcy; I couldn’t have predicted this set of reactions and framing concepts, and I think they represent developments of unexpected elegance and sensitivity.
  • The only debate Lily and Marshall have about Tommy Boy is whether it’s awesome or super-awesome.  “That’s love, bitch.”
  • Barney tries to lure Marshall back by telling him that “the lady with the big nipples is coming back to do another sexual harassment seminar, and I bribed the maintenance guys to keep the room at a brisk 55 degrees.”
  • My biggest laugh was a little acting moment from Neil Patrick Harris, almost edited away too fast. After describing Marshall’s made-up replacement Herschel—“He’s tall, much taller than Marshall, and he knows a lot more laws”—he protests that he doesn’t even want Marshall back. “Herschel’s way better!” he asserts, and then immediately puts his head in his hands as if the effort of the bluff has taken it all out of him.
  • Barney’s rejected ideas for getting revenge on Marshall for pointing out a marinara stain on his tie: poison, cut brakes, frame for treason, crank call really late at night.
  • Saving the world? More like “saving chicken bones and an old boot to make hobo soup.”
  • “Is support really better than being challenged? Yes. Support is better. Way better. But I’d have to learn that the hard way.”