When a show gets canceled in between seasons, fans tend to bemoan the fact that its creators didn’t get a chance to bring it to a close. If they know the show won’t continue past episode X, the theory goes, they can say goodbye on their own terms, give their characters whatever closure they feel is appropriate, and generally give their creation the end that everything with a beginning and a middle deserves. But crafting that end is a challenge that creators of television shows don’t normally face. Television people have a lot of practice at beginnings, and middles aren’t that uncommon. Endings, though, at least the ones that are planned and executed as endings, are rare birds. People can work in television for decades and never participate in one. There are a thousand stories about the unaired pilot and the unceremonious axe and the summer burn-off and the unordered back end and the network house-cleaning for every intentional final season or arc.
So maybe it’s not that surprising that endings often don’t turn out to be the graceful, satisfying affairs that fans tend to think creators always have in their back pockets. And the more extended the ending, the harder it is to pull off. Here we are in How I Met Your Mother’s final stretch, and I’ll bet nobody thought we’d be reeling from the most divisive and controversial episodes of the season. And yet we probably should have known. Ambition is always controversial. The all-rhyming episode struck me as a high-wire triumph, full of surprises in the editing and the wordplay, but others found it gimmicky, self-congratulatory, and unfunny. The martial arts genre parody last week got slammed in some quarters as modern-day yellowface, and the creators found that the racist reading of “Slapsgiving 3” cut close enough to the bone to deserve an apology. And the drumbeat of criticism over how little we’ve seen of the Mother has only grown louder every week she fails to appear. At this point, the slams on the final season feel like their own storyline, with a life of their own that no imaginable string of concluding episodes could derail.
But here’s my prediction. The opportunity to give these characters an ending means an opportunity for us to indulge all the emotions we’ve invested in them over the years. Our feelings, negative and positive, are bound to be heightened. There are very few shows that have an emotional arc like this one, where we have waited for years not for who knows what, but for exactly we know what. For someone who almost gave up to find his future, and for everyone to turn from broken seekers to whole families. When it happens, it’s going to be intense, and none of the ups and downs and cavils and criticisms of this season are going to be on our minds.
And here we go. Here’s a taste, in “Unpause,” of how it all feels as the future in which the show’s framing device is set now rushes back, faster and faster, closer and closer, to meet the past eight seasons and the present unfolding a half-hour at a time. Nothing good ever happens after 2 am, or so Ted’s mother once said and a season 1 episode served to prove. In “Unpause,” three things happen after 2 am, two in the show’s present and one in its future. Only one is clearly bad: Marshall and Lily’s fight, which has Lily insisting on her dream and Marshall dredging up her failed sojourn in San Francisco to demonstrate that she isn’t as committed to their family as he is. (When he calls her art career a hobby? Ouch.) It ends with Lily calling up Ranjit (I’m guessing, since she gets in the back of the car) and fleeing the Farhampton Inn.
The other pre-wedding post-2 am event doesn’t seem bad at all, at first glance. With Barney drunker than they’ve ever seen him before—past Richard Dawson drunk, plans with strangers drunk, mime drunk, and even gibberish-spouting Jabba the Hutt drunk—Robin and Ted ply him with questions to take advantage of his brief interval of truth-serum drunk. They find out that he didn’t get to second base with Ted’s mom, that he spends an amount of money Future Ted euphemizes as “one crapton” on suits, that his job is to sign legally exculpatory documents that will make him the fall guy for GNB if he weren’t already working of the feds, and that there is a ringbearer named Trevor Hudson whose mom works with Barney (but who also still might be a bear). And Ted finds out that Barney is happy to be getting married to a woman who has fixed what was broken inside of him and made him finally 100% awesome.
That last bit might be good for Barney and Robin, but it might also qualify as nothing good for Ted. Was he hoping that truth-telling Barney would reveal jitters, second thoughts, regrets, a longing for his former non-monogamous life? What does it mean that what he thinks is desperate, doomed, last-chance love is also betrayal of his friend? Barney just took away his toehold on the romantic cliff. He was already planning to fall into exile to spare them, an extravagant and lonely gesture, but he was hoping that there was still some chance that it would pay off somewhere down the line, that when Barney failed her, he would still be there. Now that’s extinguished.
And yet from our vantage point straddling the future and the present and the past, we can see that Luke, Ted’s second child and the baby with whom the Mother is laboring after 2 am in 2017, isn’t the only exception to Ted’s mom’s rule. The hope Barney took away was also a good thing, even if it brings only sorrow over the next 24 hours; would Ted have been able to really meet the Mother without it? Maybe the fight Lily and Marshall had is a good thing, too, although it’s hard to see Lily fleeing without Marvin as anything other than disastrous. But it’s an emotional consequence that is true to the stakes that have been established. For us fans and viewers, it’s all a good thing, because it’s leading somewhere we all want to be.
- As a wife who leave shoes around the house, I wish I had a terrible mother-in-law to throw back at my husband’s face. Unfortunately, she’s awesome.
- Lily and Marshall yell “the elevator!” when asked where their baby is, a little in-joke that Ted repeats three years later to the Mother about their daughter Penny, and that Marshall assures us unconvincingly is “not at all inspired by real-life events.”
- Other truths Barney tells with his eyes slightly crossed: he buys his magic doves dehydrated in Chinatown; Robin has a family fortune of six thousand Canadian craploads; he’s had sex in Ted’s bed fourteen times; and yes, he has once, with a French guy, split a cab.
- I really like Jason Segel’s new svelte look, so I don’t mind the bit where he has sex with Lily as long as he can in order to avoid getting to unpause, even though it’s just script-vamping, really. Also his list of unsexy things to think about is not only alarmingly specific (the way your TMJ night guard smells in the morning) but also delivered in an amusing Barry White baritone slow jam.
- I know we’ve had our differences about this show, people. But when I see a throwaway gag like Barney’s Richard-Dawson-drunk level executed not only with perfect Dawsonesque kissing-the-sister panache by Neil Patrick Harris but also with a red carnation in the lapel? I will never not love it, and all the people who made it happen. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.