(Warning: series spoilers ahead)
Upon the heels of the How I Met Your Mother series finale – and the subsequent polarizing uproar it created – I feel compelled to share why I actually think it was a moving and fitting conclusion to the nine-year story. I hope even the naysayers will hear me out. I personally thought the writers did an excellent job of preparing us for the fact that the Mother was dead, and the fact that Ted might ultimately end up with Robin years later. Sure, it would have helped if they’d spent more time on this detail during the finale (I admit, they did rush through and somewhat minimize the death of the Mother, a major story point). But I also think the ending was very cleverly revealed to us in several ways throughout the duration of the series, and a look back at some of the previous episodes might just give a different perspective, and even maybe change the minds of those loyal viewers who felt cheated and outraged by the finale. I think it’s worth taking another look, because like the series itself, there’s more here than meets the eye.
HIMYM was one of those shows that I didn’t “get” at first. I’d caught a few moments of it over the years, but I never really watched it long enough to give it a fair chance. That all changed during a very long medical leave in which I couldn’t do much else but watch TV. The beauty of syndication is that it gives many shows a second chance at attracting new viewers, and the fact that HIMYM airs on, literally, six different channels in my area (and I literally mean “literally”), made it very easy to catch a rerun at almost any time of day. At first, I thought the humor and storylines were silly and seemingly simplistic. But much like Stairway to Heaven and Ted Mosby himself (as he states when he’s trying to win over Stella), the show is actually quite complex and requires “multiple listens.” There are layers, many layers. We may not notice them at first, but when I started to peel those layers back, I found an intricate and brilliantly crafted show. When I really paid attention to the whole picture, I found it all of it to be very clever. Hence, I became a huge fan of the show, and for lack of a better word, my HIMYM “obsession” began.
The impeccable Neil Patrick Harris portraying Barney Stinson was one of the first things that drew me into the series, and is actually a good metaphor for the show itself. At first glance, Barney is seemingly quite one-dimensional: a rather despicable, pathological womanizer (and even a caricature at times), and yet, somewhere along the way, I found myself asking (much like I do with Stewie Griffin from Family Guy): how can someone be so diabolical and so adorable at the same time? This dichotomy is partially due to Harris’s performances and partially due to the multidimensional character the writers created. Barney’s longing to know his real father always struck me as one of the most beautiful and heart wrenching storylines of the entire series, and his Darth Vader-like transformation as the result of romantic heartbreak is surprising yet strangely telling. The character of Barney Stinson is a good analogy for the show’s own complexity and even the series finale. Just like my advice to anyone who is quick to judge the character of Barney Stinson: I think it’s worth taking another look, because like the series itself, there’s more here than meets the eye.
Which brings me to the series finale. Although it’s ruffled a lot of feathers, I found it to be an appropriate and very satisfying ending to the series. This is mostly based on all the clues and little details the writers left us along the way. In addition to being a comedy that tugs at your heartstrings, the series is also a mystery. It’s one big story comprised of many smaller stories, interwoven with clues, hints and motifs in which the creators were setting us up for this particular ending. And much like The Mosby Boys, I found it quite fun to play detective and put all the pieces of the puzzle together. (Why do they call it Puzzles? That’sthe puzzle!)
When I first heard the rumor that the Mother might be dead, I initially dismissed it, thinking that there was no way the creators would go that direction. But one day, I really started to think about it, and it actually started to make a lot of sense. There was an episode that had always bothered me, the only episode of HIMYM that I just didn’t get. As most viewers know, the writers have a gift for bringing all the details together at the end of an episode or story arc, tying everything together and surprising us with an ending we may not have seen coming. We have that “aha” moment and everything makes perfect sense. But I never understood the ending of “The Time Travelers.” At the end of the episode, which takes place 45 days before Ted would meet the Mother, Ted desperately wishes he could go back in time, find her that night, and have just those 45 more days with her. It was sad and dark, and I couldn’t understand why Ted would so badly desire those extra 45 days if he was about to spend the rest of his life with her anyway. Why would that matter? But when looking at it from the perspective of the Mother having passed, the ending takes on a whole new meaning: you see the profound love Ted has for the Mother, you see how much he wished he had more time with her, and you get a sense of his heartache after her death. The creators may have assumed that most viewers understood that ending, therefore, not giving it more screen time in the finale. But I think if they had brought that sentiment into the finale and took the time to allow viewers to see that Ted did not view the Mother as some consolation prize or surrogate mother, viewers may have more willingly accepted the finale. Ultimately, Tracy/the Mother was the woman who made all of Ted’s dreams come true. She was not an afterthought or someone he settled for, she was a great love of this life. But sometimes, those loves are taken from us.
Which takes me to the next major clue the writers gave us. In the episode “How Your Mother Met Me,”the writers beautifully set up the motif of love, loss, and redemption. In the episode, which despite all the laughs is driven by a haunting melancholy, the mother is struggling with the death of her first love, Max. Believing that we only get one true love in a lifetime, she declares that she has no interest in dating again: if her true love has left her in the most eternal way, there’s no point in going through the motions with someone new. She is firmly set in this belief, and can’t even give herself fully to her eventual boyfriend, Louis. But we know this all changes when she meets Ted. So just as the Mother loved and lost the person she thought was the love of her life (Max) and then got a second chance at true love (Ted), we can assume that Ted might lose the person he believes is the love of his life (the Mother) and yet, will eventually have a second chance at happiness with Robin. (And in a sweet, yet morbid way, the Mother will also be reunited with her first love, Max.) Despite the flaws in Season 9, I found this episode to be one of my favorites of the entire series. It told us a lot in just a short 30 minutes.
But for me, the confirmation that the Mother would die came in “Vesuvius.” There seemed to be so much speculation as to what the ending meant (“maybe Ted has Alzheimer’s”; “maybe they’re referring to someone else missing their daughter’s wedding”), but it was clear to me that the writers had revealed the speculated story point and given validation to the rumor. As far as I was concerned, we found out five episodes before the finale that the Mother was terminally ill and was going to die. Being that this twist was revealed several episodes before the finale, I suspected that the writers had some further twists lined up for the final episode.
Now, here’s where a lot of subjectivity will come into play. Some viewers are Ted/Robin fans and others, Barney/Robin fans. I actually loved Barney and Robin together. From the moment they hooked up to the moment they got engaged (that engagement makes me cry every time), I was onboard for the BRObin/Swarkles union. But at the same time, I had a feeling it would end somewhere along the way. And are we really that surprised? The commonality that makes Barney and Robin such a good match is the same commonality that would break them up. They both come from broken childhoods, longing for something that was always missing in the father/child relationship. They are two damaged souls, sometimes selfish and self-absorbed. Because of this, they understand each other. But unfortunately, this also created a shaky foundation, as both ultimately chose their own selfish needs over a lifetime commitment (does anyone else see Sandcastles in the Sand as a perfect representation of this? Although a sandcastle might represent “home” and security on one hand, a sandcastle is also fragile and easily destroyed in a single swoop…unfortunately, not a solid foundation). Sure, it’s Robin who is the first offender (as her globe-trotting job becomes the catalyst for their divorce), but it is also Barney who asks his friends to just accept him for who is he meant to be: an “awesome” eternal bachelor. Of course, if there is one thing on which all of us viewers can agree, it’s that seeing Barney finally finding the love of his life in his daughter was one of highlights of the finale.
A lot of viewers are also upset by the fact that the show spent an entire season building up to a wedding that would only end in divorce just a few short years later. But we can’t forget that a good portion of that build-up was freak out after freak out by both Barney and Robin, both unsure of the commitment they were making. They tried, believing that love would conquer all, but in reality, love is not always enough. And remember, after Barney’s frustrating struggle with what he should write in his wedding vows, he finally settled on only one promise: to always be honest with Robin. No “til death do us part” or any commitment involving “forever.” For me, that was the biggest clue that this marriage was, unfortunately, not going to last.
So with Barney and Robin’s marriage ending and Ted eventually losing Tracy/the Mother, is it really that surprising that Ted and Robin would eventually find each other many years later? The creators have set up this concept from the beginning, whether we like it or not. True, the back and forth maybe could have been pulled back a notch, but we can’t say we never saw it coming. Clearly, Ted’s story focuses more on “Aunt Robin” than it does on the Mother herself, but I don’t believe this lessens the importance of the Mother in Ted’s life. I believe the creators are setting up the idea that we might have more than one love in a lifetime, and that in the end, destiny always persists (a common theme throughout all seasons of HIMYM). And remember: Ted and Robin didn’t break up because they stopped loving each other; they broke up because they both wanted different things in life: Robin, a successful career, and Ted, marriage and kids. In this scenario, both would have had the chance to pursue their respective dreams and yet find each other again after they’d achieved those dreams. This doesn’t automatically make the Mother simply a “surrogate” for Ted; it simply mirrors real life. Almost everyone experiences love and loss in some form, and the idea of redemption or rebirth – i.e. finding happiness and love again – is a sweet, optimistic, and comforting take on the concept of fate and destiny. The show’s butterfly motif – as evidenced by Ted’s tramp stamp tattoo, Robin’s necklace, Lily’s surprising shoulder tattoo, and the Mother’s butterfly pajamas — also alludes to this theory of rebirth.
The show is beautifully summed up by this narration from future Ted: “The universe has a plan, kids, and that plan is always in motion. A butterfly flaps its wings, and it starts to rain. It’s a scary thought but it’s also kind of wonderful. All these little parts of the machine constantly working, making sure that you end up exactly where you’re supposed to be, exactly when you’re supposed to be there.”
The theme of destiny, and the journey that takes us there, is always at the forefront of the story. “Lucky Penny” is a good example of this (and also gives special meaning to the name of Ted’s daughter). It was destiny that Ted would meet Tracy/the Mother, but it’s important to note how he got there. Aside from the yellow umbrella, there were many people responsible for their meeting, and most of them were from Ted’s failed relationships: because of Ted’s breakup with Robin, he gets the butterfly tattoo; because of the butterfly tattoo, he meets Stella; because Stella leaves Ted at the altar, her and Tony’s guilt lead to Ted getting the professor position (even though Tony later writes an awful screenplay that wrongly humiliates Ted – I admit, I never understood that logic); Ted’s professor position leads to Ted meeting Cindy; and both Robin’s wedding and a chance encounter with Cindy lead to Ted meeting the Mother. Not only did he learn life lessons along the way, but he experienced the chain of events actually leading to her arrival in his life. Robin really bookends these events: she first launches the chain of events and later is the final catalyst in Ted and Tracy’s meeting. After all, if Robin never married Barney and insisted on having a band play at the reception, Ted never would have met Tracy. In a sense, Robin brought them together. Although many see her as selfish, she was a key component in Ted finding happiness and realizing his dreams of marriage and kids. Even her pulling away in the finale could be interpreted as her lack of presence allowing Ted to finally be happy and not be torn by their sometimes tortured relationship. She had to distance herself to allow change to happen, so they could each become the people they were meant to be. By the year 2030, we know Ted has changed, and we can assume that Robin has also changed by the fact that she ends up back in a New York City apartment with five dogs (remember she initially gave her dogs away as a sacrifice for Ted), implying she has finally matured, planted roots, and found herself again. In the end, I think Ted and Robin’s reunion is more about old friends finding comfort in each other after many years, perhaps sharing the heartbreak both of them went through in their separate lives, and learning to move on together (or at least we assume that by the ending). Life isn’t perfect, triumph and tragedy are often intertwined, and sometimes after tragedy, we find comfort in old friends and “family.”
Finally, I could never shake Lily and Marshall’s ongoing bet. Every time Ted and Robin didn’t work out as a couple, Lily told Marshall to “pay up.” His response each time, “not yet,” left the door open for Ted and Robin’s possible reunion. Marshall is Ted’s best friend (sorry, Barney) and knows him best, and it seems that there was something telling Marshall that somewhere down the line, Ted and Robin would end up together. One of the only disappointing parts of the finale for me was seeing Marshall pay up to Lily on Ted’s wedding day, but never getting to see Marshall officially win the bet (he was right, after all).
There are probably so many other hidden ideas and motifs that the writers have have planted (such as the references to Love in the Time of Cholera, etc., etc.) so I think it’s worth watching the prior episodes from a new perspective. Should the creators have spent a little more time making sure we all understood their intentions? Perhaps. But this show has never been one to spoon-feed us information, and I don’t think we should be too quick to judge. In the end, I think the creators did a brilliant job of crafting a detailed, heavily symbolic, heartfelt series which forces us to think, and in turn, see life from varying perspectives. It is not your ordinary half-hour comedy. I think the writers gave us more than we realize, and perhaps there is more to this series than just the obvious. To those who couldn’t understand the finale, I think it’s worth taking another look, because like the series itself, there’s more here than meets the eye.
For more HIMYM goodness, check out The Definitive How I Met Your Mother Playlist.
You perfectly explained how I feel about the ending! Thank you for outlining all the clues and chains of events that make the ending so perfect and clearly well thought out. I noticed that in your article you wrote: “One of the only disappointing parts of the finale for me was seeing Marshall pay up to Lily on Ted’s wedding day, but never getting to see Marshall officially win the bet (he was right, after all).” It’s been many years since this article was written so there’s a good chance you have seen this already, but this scene exists as a deleted scene from the finale! It was very satisfying to watch once I finally found it. I’ve linked it below. Thanks again for the great musing!
Thank you, Katie, and thanks for sharing this deleted scene! 🙌😃