In defense of the How I Met Your Mother series finale

After nine seasons and countless stories of friendship and relationships to cherish, the series finale to HIMYM was upsetting to a vocal faction yet legendary to all. Warning: Spoilers Ahead.

The hour-long series finale of CBS’s hit romantic comedy How I Met Your Mother aired Monday night, ending with a twist that many didn’t see coming. It was a curveball met with howls of frustration on Twitter and downright vitriolic critical outrage. But as the episode concluded, it wasn’t the television screen at which I sat staring, mouth agape, dumbfounded. It was my Twitter feed. 

For those who have not been long-time fans of the show, the premise is laid out in the title. In September 2005, Ted Mosby (voiced by Bob Saget) sat down to tell his two teenage children how he met their mother. What ensued was nine seasons, spread over eight and a half years, during which Ted told story after story after story about the years leading up to his introduction to The Mother (played in the last two seasons by Cristin Milioti).

We saw Ted (played by Josh Radnor) as he moved through his twenties, growing and changing alongside his friends Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segel), the perfect couple; Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), the playboy; and Robin (Cobie Smulders), the love-interest-turned-best friend. He also moved through several serious and potentially “mother-worthy” romances, including the on-again, off-again, emotionally intense and heartbreakingly ill-fated relationship with Robin. Eventually, the pair gave up, and it is Robin who finally tamed Barney. In a sweeping proposal scene in season 8, Barney proposed. Robin said yes, and Ted was happy for them, but devastated.

Throughout the series,, the chemistry between Ted and Robin was palpable. From their meeting in season one to their deeply emotional post-relationship friendship, their care for one another has always been undeniable.

The final season, which began in September 2013, was entirely set during the 48 hours leading up to Barney and Robin’s wedding. Now, why would a show set itself up to spend so much time and effort talking about people other than The Mother, if The Mother was supposed to be the be-all, end-all of the series? Why the whole locket storyline? Why the focus on Ted feeling so trapped in his love for Robin, so much so that he needed to move 800 miles away?

In the final ten minutes, Ted and The Mother (who we finally learn is named Tracy) had their long-awaited, spark-filled meeting on the Farhampton train platform. It was as touching as it should have been. We also learned that, after marrying Ted and having two children, the mother became ill and died in 2024. Ultimately the big reveal was not “who is the mother?” It was the fact that this whole time, Ted was telling his kids the story of how he met their dead mother.

Long-time fans of the show exploded on Twitter in anger and betrayal.

And the show didn’t end there. As soon as Ted said those iconic words that we’ve been waiting nearly a decade to hear - “that’s how I met your mother” - the kids finally pushed back. 

This was never a story about how you met our mother, they said. This was about something else entirely: your love for Aunt Robin. The kids gave him the go-ahead to call her, and the finale ends with Ted showing up at Robin’s apartment holding - you guessed it - that blue french horn from their first date. 

Sweet, conclusive, and true to the tendency of the show toward reference and recall. So why all the outrage? Why the vitriolic critical response? How is it that we didn’t see this kind of ending - if not this specific turn of events - coming years ago?

You see, it’s the obviousness of the kids’ final “revelation” that has me puzzled at the response of fans and critics. To all who say that the writers insulted their fan base or tricked us into thinking this was something it wasn’t, I have a question: when was this ever a show about how Ted met Tracy? Weren’t 90% of the stories not about The Mother at all?

To put it another way: when were Ted’s stories ever about what he said they were about? There was always a twist. There was always a lesson to be learned, or a change of fate that led to the next adventure in the long, wandering epic that was this show. It was this meandering journey that made the show what it was, and kept us coming back.

Did the ending feel tacked on? Of course it did. We met the mother, learned her story, and saw her demise in the span of less than half an hour of a show that took up a cumulative 76 hours of our lives. Then Ted called Robin, blue french horn, the end.

But that whirlwind is not the fault of the writers. This is the problem with series that are allowed to go on essentially forever, instead of having a pre-arranged cut-off that allows for a carefully planned-out, refined storyline that ties up all loose ends (if it wants to) and doesn’t leave us feeling like we’ve just raced through the most impactful part of a decade’s-long story in ten minutes. 

Alan Sepinwall has a great rundown of how the writers painted themselves into a corner, not knowing that the show was going to be such a success, and not allowing much wiggle room for a different conclusion. The show’s creators talk about the need to build constraints and operate within them. True, constraints are important for world-building and character development, among other things. 

The problem with the constraint HIMYM’s writers created is that it was a story-specific constraint. Worried that Ted’s kids would grow up and no longer appear to be the same age at the show’s conclusion, who-knows-how-many-years in the future, the writers shot their ending scene in 2005, and that was all she wrote. 

There are other, less constraining limitations that allow for more creative leeway, and have defined many of the greatest television in recent history. This is why I’m so excited about shows like True Detective, which have a pre-determined amount of time during which to build, develop and conclude their stories. Even The Wire, which lasted for six years, restricted itself by choosing sub-themes within the larger theme and setting of Baltimore. This helped shape the story, but didn’t confine it. House of Cards can’t go on forever, either. Frank went from majority whip to vice president, and now president. Where else is there to go but down and out? These constraints are constructive, not imprisoning.

That said, could Carter Bays and Craig Thomas reasonably have created a different escape hatch? Perhaps. But I have yet to see a convincing argument as to why this one was so awful.

I understand your frustration if you didn’t want Robin and Ted to end up together. If that’s your beef, you’re entitled to your beef. (Personally, I was always rooting for them.) However, to me, the level of hatred for Robin that emerged in the wake of the finale was far more shocking than the ending itself. 

In the case of many fans and even some critics, the anti-Robin-and-Ted criticism amounted to a shockingly dismissive “she’s a bitch” argument that I’m surprised hasn’t spawned the kind of think pieces that sought to redeem Skyler White last year. There’s something to be said about such acerbic rejection of a woman who prioritizes her career over her relationships and doesn’t find it easy to slip into the role of “girlfriend” or “wife,” but that’s a discussion for another day.

I agree with all that has been said about the chemistry between Cristin Milioti and the rest of the cast, and the fact that ending with a happily ever after for her, Ted and the gang would have been just fine.

What I don’t understand is the outrage over being “duped.” In the end, did it feel like the mother story was a total Macguffin? Absolutely. But I still don’t understand why that is such a problem. This was always about more than just the mother

What it comes down to is that the killing of the titular mother, while somewhat dismissive, was entirely inconsequential in the scheme of the larger story - or rather, stories, lest we forget the show’s four other important characters. At its core, this show’s arch was about friendship and the complicated nature and intersection of love, self-discovery and personal growth. It was never truly about the mother. If you were surprised by the “twist,” you weren’t paying attention.

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