It’s been about thirty-six hours since I saw the How I Met Your Mother finale now, and in that time I’ve worked through the various stages of grief to acceptance. Much as Rich Tackenburg said on the podcast it was entirely logical for them to wrap up the series as Ted’s subconscious request for permission to date Robin. Alan Sepinwall’s fantastic HitFix article absolutely nails why that would have been the perfect ending during the second season… and how the show’s ongoing but rarely assured success meant that it outgrew that ending. Regardless, having already filmed the kids’ reaction, the show was committed to it. (I’d kind of like to see a fan-edit four-season version of the show, just to feel how the ending comes across then…)
Clearly there is no perfect solution, because you can’t please everybody. But let’s imagine a world where the producers shot a few alternate endings with the kids, getting a variety of reactions so that they would have some choice further down the road—yes, it’s all very well for me to devise solutions with the benefit of knowing the storylines of the nine year run, but on the other hand, I have given myself a thirty-six hour handicap. (Give the fanbase until 2030 to cogitate on it, and we could probably write the closest-to-perfect finale, but I doubt anybody will care at that point.)
What does the finale need to do beyond fulfilling the inner romantic of its fanbase? It’s got to stay true to the show’s tone, which has always loved bait and switch tactics (“How I met your Aunt Robin,” Barney’s The Robin play), as well as incorporating sadness with the joy (Ted wins Robin, and Marshall and Lily break up; Marshall and Lily aren’t infertile, but Marshall’s Dad has died). It’s got to explain why this has been the story of the gang rather than Tracy. It’s got to account for Ted’s ongoing love for Robin—or the idea of Robin. It needs to understand that all the little twists of fate where Ted almost met the mother make their pairing destiny.
Let’s not beat around the bush here: the Robin Ending did all of that and brought it beautifully full circle to the first episode. The problem with the Robin Ending was that we had been told so many times why Ted and Robin didn’t work, and we’d had the chance to fall in love with Barney and Robin. Furthermore, that wonderful conceit of the first episode was what differentiated this from every other Friends-alike sitcom out there. Yes, we have two characters in an eternal on and off again love affair, but the twist is we know they’re not going to end up together. This story will have a different resolution.
So let’s try two alternative scenarios…
The Happy Ending
Let’s give the fans what they want and have Ted live happily ever after with the mother. I think in this scenario, you would have to eliminate all the hints of her death. Yes, you could do “She got sick… then guess what? She got better!” but that’s a very cheap turnaround.
The Robin storyline could be wrapped up with Ted’s final acceptance that she was never right for him. If you’re a Ted/Robin shipper, this might not ring true for you, but I always felt Robin was a better fit for Barney anyway. When Robin has her crisis of confidence right before the wedding, she falls for the romantic ideals that Ted’s always talked about. If she’s converted enough to get married, shouldn’t she be marrying the guy who will worship her and move heaven and earth for her, rather than her best bro?
That moment, when Robin in a wedding dress is throwing herself at him, trying to make herself the happy ending of his dreams is when Ted realizes once and for all that that’s not who she really is. Robin will never need a happily ever after, and she certainly won’t enjoy the classic one. Rather than step aside for Barney, Ted turns Robin away knowing that he’s just been superimposing Robin’s face and friendship onto his ideal dream woman, the one who can not only give him some grounding and maturity, but who can also embrace a traditional, schmaltzy romance. (And one who turns out to have been as much a recurring part of his life as Robin, even though he never knew it.)
As much as I adore Barney and Robin, I kind of agree with their divorce, though I feel their endings should have stayed intertwined. Both of them flirted with conventional romance, and Barney’s comment about having a very successful marriage for three years was perfect for them. They break up amicably and maturely, but those two should always be in each other’s lives, growing old as serial monogamists, wingmen and best friends. (Don’t worry, Barney can still have a child with number thirty-one.)
I could also go with them staying married and just being unconventional about it—the cited reasons for their break-up didn’t ring true to me. But I think, in keeping with the show’s nods to reality, you need an element of the finale to show that true love is not the only acceptable life-path. A life of happy singledom is also possible.
And the very last wrap up, the moment when Ted finally finishes his long story? There’s no real bait and switch here, so as a soft twist we have the kids be utterly unimpressed. “Finally. Can we go now?”
Cut to the mother, in another terrible grey wig, coming in with a cup of coffee / glass of scotch and consoling Ted as he laments that his ingrate children have spoiled the moment of fatherhood he’d always dreamed of. She assures him that one day they’ll come around. Or at least learn to humor him. (Insert gag about how Marvin has finally agreed to accompany Marshall on a sasquatch hunt.) Ted asks her if she likes the story, and we fade to black with saccharine banter about how it’s his/her favorite and how the real end of it is for just the two of them to discover…
Of course, this ending is dependent on knowing that it was possible to cast somebody who feels as perfect for Ted as Cristin Milioti’s Tracy. That must have seemed one hell of a long shot for the writers. (Though considering the support characters like Victoria and Stella had for Motherdom, perhaps they shouldn’t have underestimated their own abilities.)
What’s the backup for the woman where you think: “Oh, that’s the mother? Eh.” How can you give Ted a satisfactory ending when the fans have no interest in the woman he marries? (Without setting him back up with Robin.)
The Gang Ending
As hinted, the mother dies… and maybe you give a little more assurance to the fans that that’s coming, have it accepted that the mother’s going to get sick, let there be an open question of whether she’s going to live or die. In this scenario (and maybe they should have done this with the actual finale as well), Robin’s last minute cold feet happens in the finale. The writers effectively create an expectation that neither Robin and Barney nor Ted and the Mother will get their happily ever after, and let the fans wonder if Ted and Robin really will end up together in the end.
Of course, this take is anti-Ted/Robin, so as with the Happy Ending, Ted realizes that Robin’s never been the woman of his dreams. He meets the mother and they have this wonderful, perfect romance and life together… but only for ten years.
This is set against the backdrop of the gang slowly being driven apart by the realities of life. (Though not, in this instance, by Robin’s ongoing love for Ted.) If we’re putting the wedding in the finale, we’re not going to have time to tell all those stories, but it was an ongoing theme of the season that the gang as we know it was about to end. A few more judicious flash-forwards in previous episodes could have told the stories of the gang going their separate ways, and dealing with their struggles.
In this scenario, for simplicity’s sake, Barney and Robin will probably stay together. If we really want Barney as a Dad, it’s going to be via an earlier flash-forward that keeps his marital status ambiguous: his unknown daughter from a previous relationship contacts him and Barney realizes that he doesn’t want his kid to have the father issues he had. Unfortunately, I think his moment with baby Ellie has to be a casualty in order to streamline the finale.
The finale itself won’t concentrate so much on the gang’s individual fates, but Lily’s insistence that they still come together for the big moments… and how, a decade and more later, they are still there for each other in times of need.
Ted recounts the mother’s death but then returns to their actual meeting for the finale. He assures his kids that though their time together was short, he still married the woman of his dreams which is something he’ll never stop being grateful for. He then goes on to say that the whole time he was dreaming of meeting the mother, he feared that he never would, that he would grow old alone. I’ve already said that I think the show needed at least one of its characters to embark upon a fulfilled and happy single life: this time, it’s Ted.
Through all the years that Ted searched for the Mother, the gang was there for him, and that’s never changed. He doesn’t know whether he’ll ever fall in love again, (there’s some kind of gag reaction here from the kids: “We know we’ve been saying you should get back into dating, but after this story, we think perhaps you’re better off leaving it to fate.”) but if he’s learned one thing, it’s that he’s never really going to be alone. Finally, we have Ted return to the bar for one of the elderly gang’s occasional reunions. Pick the catchphrase of your choice to end on.
Though the Gang Ending is probably an ideal one for me, it would likely have been just as divisive as the Robin Ending. As for the Happy Ending, while it would probably have contented the fans, there’s nothing there that really elevates it above standard sitcom fare. But in the history of TV shows, there’s never been a perfectly satisfactory finale… it’s always going to be a case of picking your poison. Perhaps the most important factor is which one will let you rewatch the show without feeling that its appeal has been taken away.
If my suggested endings make you like the Robin Ending better, that’s not a bad outcome for this blog. But what would have been your Ideal Ending? One of Taylor Cotter’s top five? Feel free to post your own stories in the comments or heckle mine.