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The HIMYM Finale And Narrative Logic (Or Lack Thereof)

Posted on 03.16.2015 at 13:28
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It’s been nearly a year since the furor over the How I Met Your Mother series finale. I had thoughts about it then, but the rest of the Internet did such a good job grumbling that I saw no need to add my voice to the chorus. But while I saw some of my ideas given shape—Chunk Wendig’s write-up is pretty spot-on—nobody said just what I wanted to say. So I’m saying it all now, in the hopes that pinning my ideas down on the page will exorcise them from my mind.

Spoiler alert, just so you know.

I confess: I was wrong about Robin being the mother. Still, I suspected Ted would wind up with her, which is probably the outcome I should have explicitly predicted in that post. For one thing, sitcoms have a strong tendency to maintain the status quo; whatever the wacky high jinks, everything’s resolved at the end so the slate’s clean for next week. Granted, as TV has moved away from the episodic toward the sustained narrative arc, sitcoms are not as conservative as they used to be. HIMYM is a particularly good example of a sitcom with continuity, a sense of its own history. One in which things change. But the more things change—you know the rest. I wonder if the appeal of sitcoms isn’t so much the curiosity over what happens next as it is what’s happening this week with a cast of familiar, likeable characters. I’d be spit-balling, though, and I’m sure any number of people would tell me that HIMYM is different, that the audience was prepared to watch the characters change—did in fact watch them change—because of a genuine investment in them.

Fair point. Another reason I suspected a Ted-Robin pairing—what’s the cutesy couple portmanteau for them?—is because of the blue horn. Chekhov’s gun—a gun introduced in the first act has to go off by the third. The creators didn’t introduce a distinctive object like that without a plan to have it return later. (Whether that plan is fair or not is something else. I’m getting to that.) They could have never brought it up again, and I doubt many people would have complained about its absence. Still, it would have been strange to make so much of it in episode one—beginnings teach you how to read the story that follows—only to have it remain insignificant  through the rest of the series.

Strange, but not such a big deal that it would have screwed up the narrative (more than it already is, anyway). The other big thing that made Robin so important in my eyes as a romantic interest is the law* of economy/conservation of characters. In a mystery story, you can’t (typically) pull a culprit out of thin air and have it be a satisfying reveal. That’s a deus ex machina, and enough people would bristle at having been cheated so. At the very least, it should be someone mentioned in the story, if not an actual character involved in the action. “So,” I imagine hearing, “the mother could have been the mother and bugger all this Robin romance pulled out of nowhere.” Another fair point.

What kept me sold on Robin was that spending several seasons with her made her a dimensional character and, if the creators had played their cards right, making her Ted’s ultimate partner could have been more satisfying than developing a new character in the final season. One of Ted’s previous partners could have been another possibility, but the core cast was laid out for us in the first episode—and, in some sense, so were the relationships among them. Enough sitcoms have debuted with one character mooning over another. Even Seinfeld, which introduces Jerry and Elaine’s romantic past early on, almost revisits that territory in the finale only to swerve away before descending into cliché. To add to or subtract from an initial group (and their dynamics) is always something of a hard sell.**

Hard, but not impossible. I admit, I tend to imprint on the first romantic coupling a TV show presents to me. I never warmed to Robin-Barney the way I did to Robin-Ted, though that may be due to how I watched it—the first five or six seasons all in a rush before losing interest***. So I admit I’m biased. Even so, despite the fact that I watched Ted and Robin wind up together, the way they did didn’t fit. It wasn’t because of the mother being written out so abruptly or Robin and Barney’s marriage falling apart so abruptly or any of the other rushed/unearned choices in the finale. It’s because the ending doesn’t follow the middle.

It’s pretty basic storytelling—beginning, middle, and end should flow out of each other so that the conclusion is surprising but also inevitable. Anything else feels like a cheat. That’s why deus ex machina endings suck—because they come out of nowhere and insult the audience. “Bet you didn’t see that coming!” Well, no, we didn’t, because it flies in the face of the cause-and-effect logic that narrative is often founded upon.

The show spent enough time illustrating the poor match between Ted and Robin and the good match between Robin and Barney that Ted’s finale decision comes more or less out of nowhere. No clues that Ted still pines for Robin or vice versa. No scenes of regret, of what-ifs. It’s not subtext; it’s non-text. We like to be surprised, yeah, but we also like to feel that, if we had just caught this moment or that one, we could have put the puzzle together ourselves, that it was there all along. Swapping the final image for a different one than what we’d been assembling is, to put it charitably, unfair.

I have at least a small measure of sympathy for the writers. If they were writing a novel, when they reached their ending and realized the middle didn’t click, they could have then revised the whole for consistency. But because sitcoms become victims of their own success and get strung out as long as people keep tuning in, the story the writers had in mind gets diluted, padded, and it becomes harder to wrangle it back into the shape they envisioned. Because TV shows are serialized, writers don’t get as good of a sense of the big picture and, unless they want to retcon everything, they’re stuck with the choices they make. No revisions, no takebacks.

There’s probably a lesson or two in all that for fellow writers, but I’ve blathered enough.

* There’s no such thing as an inviolable law in storytelling, so everything I refer to in this post is really more of a guideline.
** See Cousin Oliver and Jumping the Shark.
*** I binge-watched the first few seasons, and by the end of my marathon, I was already tired of the conceit, the resolution dangled out far ahead. My emotional investment fell just as sharply as it rose, so when the finale aired, I was already seasons behind and had no stake beyond the intellectual in the outcome. I hadn’t spent years of my life with these characters. So with the finale, I was ambivalent—satisfied in having a hunch confirmed, disappointed by the narrative convolutions to get it.

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