I watched the entire run of How I Met Your Mother one lonely summer between junior and senior year of undergrad at the University of Michigan. I was living in Ann Arbor, working two jobs with irregular hours- often my roommates and friends were coming home from work when I was just leaving for my bussing job at a high-end Italian restaurant where people weren’t that nice to me. With Ted, Barney, Robin, Marshall and Lily, I ate breakfast, wasted too-hot, empty afternoons, and stayed up late, eating microwave quesadillas after work in my bed. They were always cheerful, comforting, and made me cry uncontrollably- like when Barney, in the wake of an accident, realizes for the first time that he loves Robin. During a summer that found me a in two difficult service-industry jobs, fighting with my parents, and longing for an ex-boyfriend who reminded me of Barney, HIMYM was a welcome distraction.
The show is hilarious, but it is also aching, painful, and honest. The first season ends with Lily leaving Marshall to go to San Francisco to pursue her dreams; an end to the fairy tale Marshall envisioned for their relationship. This truth is further emphasized when Lily comes back, revealing that her great adventure was neither as successful nor fulfilling as she imagined. Stories like this are what HIMYM does best- reminding the characters as well as the audience that you can lay your plans out as carefully as you want but you have to expect disappointment and defeat. Critics praised The Office for being an edgy, new kind of sitcom in comparison to and it had similar themes of existential disappointment but it ultimately failed to learn its own lesson when in the last season it began to give fairy tales to its characters. Even Michael Scott, the show’s central symbol of disappointment and loss, was handed the family he always wanted.
The HIMYM finale was brave enough to continue to suggest that things don’t always work out. Despite the final moments in which Ted and Robin apparently come together at the end of a nearly thirty-year journey, the episode was consistent with the central themes of the show. Characters, especially Barney with his new baby, Marshall’s return to corporate law, and heartbreakingly, the Ted’s loss of Tracy, the titular and legend-waitforit-dary Mother end up in difficult places they never counted on when they looked at the linear story they had planned for themselves. Even their steadfast group of friends, who so often felt like our friends as well, drifted apart even as they tried to count on each other.
The loss of the Mother does this same thing for the audience. Many loyal members of that audience feel betrayed and even angry at the show, as a survey of the several Twitter hashtags about the finale reveals. They had planned for nine years for a meeting that was supposed to signal a happy ending in a world full of gritty reboots and anti-heroes who end up dead more often than not. But it just wasn’t to be. Tracy got sick and died, leaving Ted a single father who was likely so broken that he could not contemplate dating until six years after her death. Nothing is certain, not careers, not friendships, and not even romances, which pop culture has repeatedly told us ends with happily ever after. Reading the fan reactions, I cannot help but think of Marshall sitting on the front steps of their apartment, lost because his true love of so many years was getting on a plane, leaving the future uncertain.
Watching the finale tonight, I felt the way I did on the ancient couch in my first apartment, that long, lonely summer, as though life could unexpectedly change at any moment no matter how carefully it seems that we have planned our futures. That summer ended, and I had a lovely senior year. I quit the summer jobs, started a campus activism position I loved, wrote a short story, and briefly reconnected with the ex-boyfriend (Though I am forever a Ro-ney ‘shipper, the show got it right- it’s hard to love a Barney). Then my life changed again. And it will change again, and again, in ways I’ll never be able to predict, or analyze like an episode of HIMYM.