Last night's How I Met Your Mother ended up doing exactly what its angry fans thought it would do. It also served as a reminder of everything that worked about the show back when it was at its pinnacle many years ago.
"Last Forever" finally introduced us to the mother (and named her Tracy McConnell), showing us her fateful meeting with Ted under the yellow umbrella in the last ten minutes of the series finale, and then quickly informed us that she died of some unknown illness and Ted-as-narrator has indeed been telling his kids about a woman who's been dead for six years now. In a scene filmed some seven years ago because the actors playing the kids were growing up, Ted's children tell him that he's really just been narrating the story of his relationship with Robin, and that he should go be with her. Which he does.
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I sat down to watch the episode prepared for the worst. "Vesuvius," an episode from a couple months ago, had hinted that The Mother (Cristin Milioti, who did lovely work this season despite being infuriatingly unnamed) would die before she got to see her kids married. I expected a treacly hour that wallowed in the tragic irony that Ted and Tracy didn't get to spend enough time together. And at first, the episode seemed like it'd be a huge bummer—Marshall is miserable as a lawyer after turning down a judgeship for Lily, and Barney and Robin divorce after three years when her jet-setter lifestyle clashes with his emotional reliance on her. Barney goes back to wallowing in gross singledom and Robin vanishes from the group.
Eventually, Marshall becomes a judge and he and Lily are happy and boring, which is about right. Robin is a successful news lady, so that's cool for her. And Barney knocks up an anonymous lady and has a kid that re-centers his priorities, which definitely could have used a little more fleshing out. And Ted and the Mother happily live in sin with their two kids before tying the knot later in life, a cute undercutting of Ted's tendency to move too fast in relationships. Then she dies, and with the kids' blessing, we flash-forward to years later and Ted taking the blue French horn from the pilot and rekindling things with Robin.
As Alan Sepinwall points out in his excellent (very negative) review, show creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas wrote themselves into this corner way back at the start of season two when they filmed that final scene with the kids. As How I Met Your Mother became a bigger and bigger hit for CBS, they had to run out the story thread with whatever they could think of, because the idea was always to get a widowed Ted together with Robin.
I long ago got frustrated with How I Met Your Mother and stopped watching regularly, somewhere near the start of season seven. I long argued that the show would sustain itself better if it would just add the Mother to the cast and integrate her, turning into a regular buddy sitcom. Now it's clear why Bays and Thomas decided not to take that route—the ending would be so much harsher if we'd loved the mother character for years, and getting Robin and Ted together would seem far too callous.
Milioti was so appealing in her brief work this season that most fans feel that way anyway—how could we build up to the Mother for so long, and then just kick her to the curb like that? But as someone who loved the show in its early seasons and thought its pinnacle was the second, when Ted and Robin were together, I got it, and was weirdly satisfied at the notion of them finding each other again. Ted and Robin were always infuriating to watch—an exploded take on the will-they-won't-they, an are-we-or-aren't-we-in-love. It doesn't forgive a lot of the show's later missteps and general slow decline, but it hearkened back to an era I truly enjoyed.
It's hard to be mad about the show being one long trick. This is the game Bays and Thomas have played from the beginning. The pilot spends all its time setting you up to think Robin is the mother, then pulls the rug out. Eventually, the comical lengths the show would go to tease the mother in some way (there's a flash of her leg! She was in that economics class Ted accidentally taught one time!) without giving us much detail rendered the whole mystery a little irrelevant.
It's why the show got so frustrating, and it's why almost any finale would have felt a little ridiculous. If Ted and Tracy had just ended up happily ever after, that would have been fine, but quite boring, and everyone would have just rolled their eyes and bemoaned the show's slow fall from grace. Instead, Bays and Thomas pulled one final twist, the latest and last of a thousand dumb twists that so often made the show infuriatingly compelling.
I will not miss How I Met Your Mother. Ideally, it should have ended after its third or fourth season, canceled by CBS and remembered fondly as a sitcom that was always a little smarter than the Monday night stable it aired with. The Robin twist would have made more sense, with her and Ted's relationship fresher in our minds (wasting years on her relationship with Barney, and a whole season on their wedding weekend, seems like a colossal misstep). Bays and Thomas made the mistake of making a grand plan and not really adjusting to their changed circumstances. The stilted scene with the kids, filmed back in 2006, was not totally essential. Things could have changed. For one thing, there's no reason Lyndsy Fonseca and David Henrie — for whom there was no real audience attachment — couldn't have been re-cast in the roles of Ted's kids.
But Bays and Thomas decided they had made their bed, and even claim that this ending had been set in stone all the way back from the pilot (it's hard to believe, because Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders' chemistry really became apparent later on in the first season). I've seen a lot of critics mention that re-watching the show will now seem infuriatingly pointless. I disagree. Go back and watch season one's "The Slutty Pumpkin" or "Milk" with the knowledge that Ted and Robin will make it work one day, or season two's "Something Blue." Finally, the show will make some sense again.