Why the How I Met Your Mother finale is actually a tragic masterpiece

Three years after the divisive final episode of How I Met Your Mother first aired on US television, Popcorn Muncher Podcast co-host Luke Stevenson outlines his view on that controversial ending and why there’s far more to it than meets the eye. There are, of course, spoilers ahead…

Josh Radnor and Cristin Milioti in How I Met Your Mother
Josh Radnor and Cristin Milioti in How I Met Your Mother

I watched How I Met Your Mother’s final episode knowing what was going to happen. Indeed, I watched every episode of the show knowing that Ted would steal the blue French horn for Robin after telling his kids his story, so I was safeguarded against the shock of the show’s final 90 seconds – almost universally hated by fans. I won’t argue that the final scene is particularly well made. You go from finding out the name of the title character to finding out she died almost immediately and then Ted moves on.

I will, in fact, argue that the ending is a natural fit for the characters, and not the betrayal many fans considered it to be.

We all know how it goes by now, unless you’ve been hiding in MacLaren’s for the last three years pretending it never did. Ted (Josh Radnor) spends nine years and 208 episodes telling his children about his love life, leading up to the reveal of how he met their mother and the couple’s short-lived time together. We then find out he is telling this story a number of years after her death and the kids interpret it as his sales pitch to go and be with Aunt Robin (Cobie Smulders), with whom Ted has had an on-off relationship throughout the period he is describing.

One of the major journeys of How I Met Your Mother is the gradual realisation of Ted and Robin that they simply aren’t right for one another. They both want vastly different things and Ted getting past that is something which is left unresolved until the show’s very late stages, where we are led to believe he has grown up enough to see Robin only as a friend, not the manifestation of his romantic destiny. That description may sound stupid, but that’s almost certainly how Ted would say it.

Despite this realisation, earned over many seasons of the programme, Ted and Robin apparently rekindle their romance in the show’s conclusion, which angered a lot of people. This is understandable as it appears to reverse a lot about what How I Met Your Mother is about and vastly undermines its journey, but I don’t think this is the point. What I saw in the final scene where Ted brandishes the blue French horn was a tragedy.

 

In keeping with the characters?

Ted is a romantic. He speaks almost constantly of true love, destiny and grand romantic gestures. It’s this misguided belief that starts his infatuation with Robin in the first place and what makes him see his chance meeting with the titular mother as the culmination of everything he has ever wanted. Throughout the story of How I Met Your Mother, his faith in love and its overarching power is dented, but never broken.

Now, with that in mind, would you not peg Ted as exactly the kind of guy who, years after losing the love of his life and retreating sadly into his stories with the two parts of her he still has left, would run to make a huge romantic gesture for the woman he always perceived as one who got away? Is his declaration of love for Robin in his later years a symbol that he has loved her all along, or instead the last dramatic attempt at rekindling hope for a core belief in love and happy endings that has almost burned out?

Robin’s arc is, perhaps, the most tragic of the pair. She has always wanted her own things and been independent. She did not bend under Ted’s desire for a future of marriage and babies when they first got together. We later see that she marries Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), in an apparent rejection of that, but Barney is equally as dysfunctional, so it’s understandable that this pair would see themselves as being a fit for one another.

Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders in How I Met Your Mother
Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders in How I Met Your Mother

Throughout the show, Robin is surrounded by people who believe in grand love, commitment, babies and marriage. This could be a deliberate or accidental reflection of society’s perceived role for women, but either way it’s a constant pressure on Robin’s character, which is that of an independent career woman, throughout How I Met Your Mother.

As the show develops, however, you see her begin to perceive everyone else’s infatuation with the ideas she finds repulsive to be something wrong with her. This is seen in the breakdown of her marriage with Barney. He can’t deal with her success as a reporter, indeed nor can Lily (Alyson Hannigan), and it drives everyone else to question her commitment to friends and relationships, which she takes as a negative reflection on herself and never something that reflects badly on the friends around her.

It’s this self-doubt that plagues Robyn throughout How I Met Your Mother. Everyone else considers her position on things to be strange and this makes her doubt herself. Despite their differences, Ted at least always did his best to support Robyn’s choices, which positioned him as the natural fit for her when she was forced to doubt her personal identity. Indeed, after her divorce with Barney and throughout the ninth season, Robin makes several comments about the idea she should end up with Ted.

 

The tragedy of Robin’s ‘happy ending’

The tragedy of Robin’s story is not that she finds herself alone with her dogs. The issue is that she is conditioned to think that being a world famous news reporter alone with her dogs is a bad thing. That is why, when the man who embodies the qualities everyone else believes in, turns up at her door decades after they were last together, she then thinks that being romantic with him is the right step.

How I Met Your Mother’s controversial finale is not a well-executed hour of television, but it is a compellingly tragic character piece that, if given enough time to mull over, can leave viewers questioning the fleetingness of love, happiness and why we end up where we do.

Josh Radnor in the final moments of How I Met Your Mother
Josh Radnor in the final moments of How I Met Your Mother

We see a man, broken down by love, reach out for one last attempt at happiness and a woman whose very personality has been questioned so much she doubts herself into pursuing a relationship she deep-down knows isn’t right for her. Maybe the reason the ‘happy’ ending was so poorly received is because it was never a happy ending at all.

Instead, it was a reflection of what our apparent demand for the perfect happily ever after can push us towards – and that it isn’t often what we truly want.

 

What do you think of the final episode of How I Met Your Mother? Have you warmed to it at all over the last three years? Let me know in the comments section.

 

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