Remember how, towards the end of the Wayne’s World movies, Wayne and Garth would do ridiculous endings in the style of various other films, just before they’d get to the real final scene? The Thelma and Louise ending, the Scooby Doo ending, etc.? Well that’s exactly the trick that How I Met Your Mother pulled Monday night in its (alleged) series finale. They opted for the Friends ending.
Think about it. Several children later, the married couple of the group moves out of the show’s signature apartment and into a bigger space, heralding the end of an era. Having failed to end up with the cool girl, the womanizer goes back to womanizing, a sadder but wiser man. And after years of failed attempts to woo her, the nerdy guy finally gets the cool girl, who he’s been pining after since the pilot. This is déjà vu all over again.
So why are viewers so upset? After all, the Friends finale was a huge success when it aired. What’s wrong with replicating it a generation later for its successor New York young-adult sitcom?
What’s wrong is that, despite their surface similarities, How I Met Your Mother is not Friends. Yes, the shows started off on the same foot: the nerdy boy getting all googly-eyed about the cool new girl in a too-good-to-be-true NYC two-bedroom. But the programs went in completely different directions in the decade that intervened between pilot and finale, making the Friends-style finish dramatically inadequate for How I Met Your Mother.
Rather than serving as a natural conclusion to the series, this ending created a violent break with everything that came before. Going the Friends route required How I Met Your Mother to demolish every plotline it had oh-so-carefully crafted, and to undo every bit of character development. It’s as if the moral of the story was, “Just kidding, people never really change or mature! Gotcha!” Whereas “She got off the plane” resolved ten years’ worth of Friends’ narrative progression, “This is the story about how you’re totally in love with Aunt Robin” scrapped everything and started over in the last three minutes of the series.
Most authors who employ the deus ex machina device do it to save a plot—albeit usually unsatisfyingly—but here the writers used it instead to destroy a perfectly good plot for no apparent reason. In this quick 40-minute series finale, they introduced an out-of-nowhere divorce to unravel the best relationship in the show’s history, the one whose wedding served as the centerpiece of the whole last season. They threw in an unplanned pregnancy with an anonymous girl we never meet, just to give the romantically left-out character (one of the new divorcees) some random post-marital direction. Worst of all, they suddenly killed off the woman we’d all been waiting nine seasons for Ted to meet, the very mother who gave the show its name, without so much as a goodbye scene.
And all for what? So that Ted and Robin, who never made any sense as a couple, could reclaim the blue French horn and bring everything full circle, reviving the dysfunctional relationship that served as the characters’ main obstacle to happiness from the get-go? Ross and Rachel had been each other’s destinies; Ted and Robin were just each other’s distractions.
The few fans cheering for this ending seem to be basing their defenses on some misguided sense of realism: “Life isn’t a fairytale. Divorce and death and disaster get in the way, and we have to deal with that,” and so on. But my point isn’t that every show deserves a happy ending. Tragedies can be beautiful. My point is that this wasn’t a tragic ending at all. It was a happily-ever-after for a totally different story. Everyone got exactly what they wanted. The problem is that it was exactly what they wanted when the show first began, not now. This finale came nine years and a thousand plot-twists too late to be compelling.
A part of me really believes that this was just a bad April Fools joke. That seems like something the creative and meticulous writers of How I Met Your Mother would do. Case in point: the previous season ended with Barney’s surprise romantic Playbook play to win Robin’s hand in marriage, resolving months’ worth of dramatic irony about what he was doing with her coworker, and serving up the narrative fulfillment we’d all been waiting for.
My hope is that Monday night’s “finale” was a similar move: the writers doing to us viewers precisely what Barney did to Robin a year ago. I think this episode was a Playbook play played on the audience—“The Friends Finale,” let’s call it—and that the real ending is still being held for a big surprise reveal. If I’m right, and Monday’s letdown was just a red herring, then I’ve every confidence that the true conclusion to How I Met Your Mother will be legen—wait for it—dary! And this time it might even include the mother.