A lot needs to happen in this hour-long season finale. A lot does happen. And many of our surmises come true, some which contradict each other. Some things that happen come way out of left field and backpedal away from the resolutions that have to arrive eventually. I’m willing to bet that few of us are going to be completely happy with all these developments; some of us might like some but be disturbed by others.
But this isn’t just a season finale, with a finale’s obligation to answer some questions and dangle some more off cliffs. It’s also an episode of a longrunning sitcom that has developed signature stylistic tropes and storytelling methods. And in that vein, I think we could hardly have asked for a better half-hour to end the season than part 1 of “The Magician’s Code,” the part where Marvin Waitforit Erickson comes into the world.
It’s not a perfect episode, by any means. It suffers from being The Big Birth Episode, something so festooned with ratings expectations and encrusted with decades of accumulated cliche that there’s virtually no way for it to bust free. But give the writers credit for injecting it with as much zip as they possibly could, via the “tell me a story” structure. Lily has to wait to go to the hospital until her contractions are four minutes apart, and she’s desperate to be distracted from her pain and Marshall’s absence, so she demands that Robin and Ted tell her stories, even if she’s heard them before.
So we get no fewer than ten mini-flashbacks to incidents in the gang’s years of friendship. Some come in multiple stages, like Where Does That Door Go. Most are just momentary, like Second Base With Neil Young (“I just spent a magical night with Neil Young!”) and The Halloween We Decided To Go As The Breakfast Club But Failed To Coordinate Our Costumes (they all show up as Judd Nelson). A couple are connected backwards in time: The Time Barney Tried To Pick Up Girls As The Terminator (arising naked from behind the dumpster) gets told just before Ted And The Freakishly Long Arm Hair (which turns out to be a thread from his shirt, but ends with Barney deciding to try a different part of the movie). Whenever we return to Marshall and Lily’s apartment, Robin has a new prop from her teenage experience at her dad’s ranch during foaling time (curry brush, salt lick, sugar cubes, elbow-length latex gloves and huge forceps).
Meanwhile Barney’s trying to help Marshall get back from Atlantic City, a subplot that derives most of its laughs from the contrast of super-drunk Marshall hallucinating at the ATM and super-cool Barney trying to make off with the motorcycle they tried to win at the wrong slot machine. (Leading to the sign “No Motorcycle Riding on the Casino Floor” which was mentioned in the Saget voiceover as a sign that you have truly lived in Episode 9, “Disaster Averted.”) It’s not like this plotline isn’t just as chock full of flashback and alternate-memory nuts as “tell me a story”; I especially like the three versions of the “big thing that was in Atlantic City that weekend” that made it impossible for Barney and Marshall just to sober up and drive away from the casino. But underneath all of its winning elaborations, the Atlantic City detour is a standard-issue dad-might-miss-the-birth machine.
The only thing that sets it apart, and it’s a big thing, is the way the writers use it as a hinge to get to the second part of their two-parter. Barney gives a big speech on the bus of senior citizens to convince the driver to let them off at the hospital on his way to Buffalo, and talks himself into regretting how he abandoned Quinn. Later at the hospital, he decides he has to go home and face her, and finds that she’s redecorated his “American Psycho” pad with a more “inside of Tinkerbell’s vagina” vibe. (How Hello Kitty got up in there I have no desire to find out.) But she forgives him for dropping off the face of the earth for two days, and they embark on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Hawaii to rekindle their romance. But when the TSA inspects their luggage they find a magic box that Barney refuses to explain, citing the magician’s code. Eventually, after they’ve missed their flight and he finds out Quinn has quit stripping for him, he performs the trick (in a truly magnificent performance, very well staged) which ends with a ring emerging from a flower inside a box and the security agents snapping pictures of the proposal.
In the same hospital waiting area, Robin, now that she’s able to have frank heart-to-hearts with Ted again, tells him that Victoria was the only girl he ever dated where they really had a future — no ex she was really in love with, no Kyle McLachlan she was married to, no determination never to get married or have kids. When he takes her advice and calls Victoria, inviting her to MacLaren’s at two, she asks if they can make it one-thirty because she has a thing. I think we all knew immediately that “thing” is the wedding to fiance Klaus that she told him about eight months ago, and sure enough, she shows up in a wedding dress. She tells Ted she never stopped thinking about him and invites him to drive her into the sunset.
Part 2 reboots, a bit abruptly for the middle of an hour-long finale episode, to tell the story of Barney’s wedding an unspecified time in the future, and how the gang got from here to there. And naturally, we don’t find out at all how we got there. That doesn’t bother me, really. Par for the course. It’s not time for answers. What doesn’t work about Part 2 is the disconnect between that truly beautiful extended scene in airport security and the lack of surprise in the fact that all we get are surprises. Yeah, I get that it’s a big comment on misdirection. Barney proposes to Quinn, Ted doesn’t run off with Victoria (oh wait, he does! What?!), but when we get to the wedding at some point in the future, Robin is the bride and we already know Victoria isn’t the mother. But misdirection of this kind is a season finale staple. It’s not a clever trick to fail to show us how the trick is done. What makes a magic trick splendid is when what happens has an unexpected resonance, a philosophical or aesthetic transcendence, a suggestion that the mystery isn’t in how it was done but why it haunts us so.
“The Magician’s Code” bothers me because it seems to say that the writers think they’re doing something noble by not giving us answers. Again, don’t get me wrong; I don’t care nearly as much about what the answers are as about how they are presented, what emotions they invoke, what stories they end and begin. If that’s what HIMYM thinks magic really is — misdirection — I have to register disagreement. Misdirection is the method, not the magic. What disappoints me here is that Part 2 is all about the former, and like Barney’s self-satisfied “whaaa?” expression when he pulls the coin out of Quinn’s ear or the watering can out of his coat, the episode seems to expect us to applaud the mere presence of the twists and turns without worrying too much about whether they have any meaning.
Having said that, I have to admit the possibility that having been renewed quite early, the writers are playing a long game with this Magician’s Code trope. Season finale schmeason finale. We’re still in the middle of the trick. The magician has made his flourishes on stage, the lady has disappeared from the box, but the way she will come back and what might appear with her and who might disappear instead is still to come. I can only think of a few occasions when the creative team has whiffed on the emotional resonance front completely. Something tells me the twists upon twists, the dramatic reveals, the surface mystery connected to the flash-forward wedding and of course to the eternally-delayed titular mother, are not really meant to be enough for us. The trick will continue to unfold.
Maybe. If I’m right, then this is quite a piece of misdirection in itself, the form of a season finale with all its cliffhangers and switchbacks but really meant to be a comment on how that’s not what the show’s all about. But that’s quite a leap. For now, a cigar is just a cigar, and a finale with a lot of things happening is just par for the course.
- Best instruction from Robin to Lily: “Get on all fours, it widens your hindquarters.”
- Best throwaway line, after Ted And The Cuban Sandwich Crisis: “That was not cool, Ted!” “Contraction!” “That … wasn’t cool, Ted?”
- Chris Elliot has been underutilized as Lily’s dad, but it might all be worth it for his string of complications delivered to child Lily about to undergo a tonsillectomy: “If you permanently lose the ability to speak, we’ll give you a chalkboard.”
- So many callbacks. I liked the Proclaimers playing during the flashback of beer-stealing Lily diving headfirst into the car. You?
- Are banana peels slippery? Ask the A.V. Club got there first, friends. Read and learn.