Sunday, April 6, 2014

"This isn't a failed marriage" - Why I Loved the HIMYM Finale

Who would've guessed a year ago that there would be more articles written and more fan outrage over the last episode of How I Met Your Mother than over the last episode of Breaking Bad?  I could be wrong about that.  But it certainly seems like HIMYM's last episode--the ironically-yet-poignantly titled "Last Forever"--set off a disproportionate internet firestorm for what I'd always considered a mediocre situation comedy at best. (Albeit, one with a very clever gimmick at its center).  In fact, I may be one of the few people who not only liked the final episode but thought it was the best part of the show.

Follow me below the fold to hear more (and then post a comment to tell me how wrong I am) ...

As you've probably guessed already, I'm not a huge fan of the show, which may mean that you've already discounted my opinion on the final episode.  I've only dipped in and out and I never felt personally invested in learning who the mother was.  Nor did I ever find the show to be all that well constructed beyond the occasional clever episode and the use of an unreliable narrator.

My appreciation for the show was always going to be limited in part by the fact that it used a laugh track--the crutch that says the producers don't trust their jokes to land on their own without a blinking arrow pointing the way.  Am I being unfair?   "A lot of sitcoms still rely on laugh tracks," you say.   "Yeah," I say back, "and most of those sitcoms would be un-watchable train wrecks without the the laugh track."

Exhibit A:

So that's strike one, against HIMYM.  And lord knows that the laugh track is no more detrimental than when the story turns on a dime from the Mother's tragic death to the now motherless kids cracking jokes at their widowed Dad's expense (yuck, yuck, yuck).  So yeah, I agree 100% with those who say that the last episode was a nightmare of poor editing and pacing.

Even the emotional crescendos that are executed effectively--such as Barney's heart melting in real time as he holds his newborn daughter for the first time--are hugely suspect from a storytelling point of view.  So what's the message here?  That Barney is finally redeemed upon realizing that women serve a purpose besides getting his rocks off, i.e. giving him babies?  We never even learn the mother's name despite the fact that the whole gang is at the hospital waiting for her to pump out Barney's property love child. (Because who cares what her name is, right?  How about Uterus McBirthgood.  There, happy?)  In truth, Barney's misogyny was rarely ever criticized by the show, and that's before we talk about HIMYM's suspect racial politics.

And yet, despite these massive shortcomings, I loved this finale for one simple reason: as important as meeting the Mother was for Ted (and, obviously, for his kids), it neither defined him nor ended his personal emotional journey.  It's a brilliant subversion not only of the title of the show but also the conventional wisdom of nearly all romantic comedies made in America, which generally abide by the following rules:

  1. You will only experience true love with one person in your life, and
  2. You're romantic success in life is decided by whether you end up with "The One" and manage to stay with her or him forever.

Speaking as a divorcĂ© who walked away from his first marriage with no regrets, I find this recurring message both shallow and insulting.  I'm also a romantic, however, so I can sympathize with Ted's longing to find "The One" for him no matter the setbacks.  Yet, I wanted to stand up and cheer when Barney and Robin explained to their friends that their marriage wasn't a failure.  Rather, they had "a very successful marriage that happened to only last three years."  Tell me, when have you heard that sentiment from a romantic comedy?

The truth is that most relationships don't end up in marriage, and a lot of marriages don't last.  The overriding message of our culture is that all such relationships are not just failures, but the definitive proof that the relationship was fundamentally flawed.  HIMYM could've ended with Ted living happily ever after with Tracy, or--worse yet--living the sad lonely life of a widow who's future years can only be defined by the loss of his wife.  Either of these endings would have reinforced our cultural myth that the relationships that "fail" serve no purpose but to waste our time in our pursuit of "The One."

The enduring power of this unfortunate myth is evident in the many, many responses to the HIMYM finale summed up by the following tweet--

In other words, if Tracy wasn't "The One", then there must have been some other "The One" waiting out there for Ted.  Because that is how love and relationships work every time.  Ergo, his marriage to Tracy was a waste of time and he must not have really loved her.

The ending of HIMYM said something much, much different than this.  Ted's relationship with Tracy was a complete and fulfilling experience.  It obviously brought great joy to his life and resulted in the creation of a tight-knit family that cared a great deal about each other.  It was a success on all counts that matter, and ... and life goes on afterward. And Ted's life continued afterward.  And his emotional development continues.  And Ted can love again and find companionship in another person, all without discounting in the slightest what he had with the mother of his children.  This was the story of how Ted met the Mother and how Ted's life isn't defined by their meeting.

I love that the show didn't shit on his relationship with Tracy or with Robin's relationship with Barney.  I love that the show gave us a character who passionately believed that there was a "right" person for him, and also brought him around to realize that life is big enough to love more than one person.  I love that Robin isn't a tragic stand-in for "The One" (which she would've been if we had seen too much of Ted mourning her death).  I love that the show didn't cast his romantic life after the death of his wife in a long shadow, as if dating again could only be a sad, maudlin echo of his life with "The One."  In this respect, HIMYM stands far apart from typical romantic comedy and veers closer to the poignancy of Six Feet Under.  Love may "Last Forever" indeed, even as it transcends the lives of the lovers.

The ending wasn't perfect by any means.  As I mentioned already, the execution was piss poor on multiple counts.  But any show stretched to nine seasons on network television is going to suffer from studio meddling and unfortunate compromises that are more-or-less unavoidable.  A sitcom is not a novel, nor is it a movie or even an HBO miniseries, where the writers can chart a beginning, a middle and a definitive end.  But all excuses aside, the creators of the show deserve a great deal of credit for contributing a positive message that bucks the conventional wisdom and adds to our understanding of how relationships work in real life.  The message has clearly gone over a lot of heads, but that doesn't make it any less powerful or important.

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