Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Last Theorem (HIMYM finale, part 2)

Well, that was kind of crazy, the overwhelmingly negative reaction to last week’s saga-concluding episode of How I Met Your Mother. As I mentioned in my post last week, I’ve become a little gunshy about reacting to others’ reactions too much, out of fear of being trolled, and compounding that general wariness was the fact that last Tuesday was April Fools’ Day, which meant it was at least theoretically possible that people were composing screeds about how the series finale retroactively ruined the entire nine-season run as something of a performance-art-level prank. And I did find at least one online post which was ostensibly about HIMYM and yet was also self-evidently a April Fools’ joke, but apparently most of the rest of the clamor and furor was legit. And now that I’ve had a week to digest it, I just have a couple of my own observations to add before attempting to move on for good.

There was one comment in the discussion forum accompanying an article which struck me, and I should have copied it down for later, but I didn’t, so now I’ll have to paraphrase and ask you to indulge and trust me that I’ve captured the nuances. The poster was one of the legion who hated the finale, and the poster’s specific complaint was that the writer’s established that Ted does NOT end up with Robin at the end of the pilot, and then the finale reversed that assertion, which was an egregious betrayal. The poster was obviously pretty het up about it, all kinds of disgusted and righteously indignant. And there’s two takeaways for me, reading a comment like that. One, just poor comprehension skills on numerous levels. The zinger at the end of the pilot is that Robin is “Aunt” Robin and therefore not the mother, and that very much held true throughout the series. The identity of Ted’s kids’ biological mother is the question the series teased out, and that is parallel to yet distinct from the whole Ted-Robin storyline. Plus given the way the finale unfolds, with Ted concluding the story for his kids and then running to Robin after the epiphany his daughter has guided him to, it’s all more or less fair play because when Ted started telling the story his romance with Robin was ancient history and he had no conscious intention to resume it, Robin was only “Aunt” Robin and nothing more. To claim that the finale somehow contradicts the pilot is to seriously misread one or the other of those alpha/omega episodes.

But takeaway number two has to do specifically with the poster’s word choice in objecting to the fact that Ted “ends up” with Robin. I saw a ton of people using that particular construction, that Ted and Robin “end up together”. And I saw almost as many people make some variation on the joke that the title of the series all along should have been “How I Met Your Step-Mother”. And I swear, I’m not just trying to be obtusely contrary for the sake of generating a blog post, I really was taken aback by this widespread interpretation which was at odds with my own. Everybody thinks that Ted and Robin get married to each other? In the name of all 200+ episodes preceding the final images, why???

I mentioned in my post last week that I am a HIMYM defender, and to a certain extent that’s bound up with being a Ted defender. Of course he has certain very douchey qualities that make him a good figure of comedy, easy to mock, but he’s an idealist and a romantic and loves to tell incredibly long digression-filled stories. Clearly he’s a bit of a kindred spirit to me. And for that matter, given the way that 99% of the series plays out, his romantic experiences are very analogous to my own. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to get married, have kids, and all that. However, when I was young I tended to believe that opposites attract, and that the sparks generated by conflicting personalities were the energy source that kept romances burning bright. And then I got over that foolishness, and realized I would be much happier being romantically involved with someone who was more similar to me than fundamentally different. My wife and I like to joke that we are basically the same person, and we’ve been making that joke since long before HIMYM revealed that Ted and Tracy both collect weapons from Renaissance Faires and read Pablo Neruda and enjoy numismatism and puns &c. &c. So I was rooting for Ted as he was going for all the wrong girls, that he would eventually find the dream girl who was just like him.

There is no ex-girlfriend of Ted’s who got as much screentime and as long an in-story span examining the ups and downs of the relationship as Robin. And it was made very clear, early and often, that Ted and Robin get along great, are fantastic friends, and are deeply attracted to each other, and yet fundamentally don’t work as a romantic couple because they have deep differences in temperament and values and life goals and so on. Ted getting over Robin took forever because it was tantamount to Ted getting over the idea that long-term romance should be a triumph over and in spite of huge dissimilarities, and realizing he’d be better off building a life with someone he didn’t have to fight or compromise with in order to do so. The show convinced me that Ted and Robin love each other, and make each other happy. The show also convinced me that Ted and Tracy were soulmates, meant to be together, and it was a personal tragedy when Tracy died young. Robin was a love of Ted’s, but Tracy was the love of his life. I don’t buy the conclusion that Tracy came along wanting the same things as Ted at the right time for them to have two kids together, which Ted always wanted, only to conveniently shuffle off and get out of the way so that Ted could have it all, kids, a house in the burbs, and the real love of his life, Robin.

So if I’m rejecting that then what did the end of the finale mean? I will offer my own take on it, but I’ll come at it from a few different angles. For starters, it’s amazing that the show ends with a wordless gesture, and people assume they know exactly what happens next. Yes, the blue french horn is one of the most potent and meaning-fraught symbols the show ever came up with, and a final callback to it is exactly the kind of move a series finale should incorporate. But I disagree that it’s a straight line from “remember this?” to “and they lived happily ever after.” As a culture, we are all very trained to make that leap. Stories end with a marriage, either a literal wedding ceremony or a symbolic kiss that legitimizes a romantic pairing, but either way the continued existence of the characters is implied to be one of wedded bliss. Couples that are together by the happy ending stay together, and the one true acceptable form of togetherness is state-sanctioned matrimony. If Ted’s kids say they love Robin and are OK with their dad going after her, and Ted shows up on Robin’s doorstep with the ultimate symbol of their early romance, the logic follows that wedding bells will ring for Ted and Robin soon enough.

This despite the fact that Robin and Ted have been together and broken up before, not due to wacky misunderstandings or other sitcom contrivance, but because of real, honest reckonings of their shortcomings as a couple. Not that Robin ever particularly wanted marriage or kids, and when she convinced herself that she maybe did and gave the former a try with Barney, of course it flamed out spectacularly. And Robin is still presumably working and traveling a ton. Doesn’t matter, right? Somehow Mr. and the Second Mrs. Mosby will work it all out, won’t they?

HIMYM was a primetime sitcom on a major American network, but it was a surprisingly subversive show, too. It dedicated nine seasons to subverting our expectations of how romantic comedies work. It dedicated the final season, specifically, to subverting how a season of tv is supposed to work, confining almost everything in twenty-two episodes to one weekend, and then in the finale it managed to cover fifteen or so years (or at least the parts that hadn’t already been flash-forwarded to) in the lives of its cast. Why, after all of that, would anyone expect the beyond-the-last-scene implication to be the cliche “and they lived happily ever after” for Ted and Robin?

Hold that thought. In addition to cramming in a lot (arguably way too much) of the future-history that would elapse between the final episode and the timeframe of Ted telling his kids the story, another subversive thing that the series finale did was to undermine the idea of celebrating a series finale, or of celebrating endings. Again and again, the series finale returned to one central idea: “Let me tell you about endings; THEY SUCK.” It seems like a throwaway bit in the middle of the last episode, but I found the image of Lily in tears (and a Moby Dick costume) in the middle of the emptied out apartment to be both striking and meaningful. The series is ending, they are breaking down the sets, and that’s not an occasion for happiness. It’s quietly devastating. So is Robin and Barney’s divorce. So is Tracy’s death. Endings, definitely not to be filed under “happy”. And yet, at the same time, not endings. With the exception of poor Tracy, life goes on, post-divorce, post-widowerhood. Another we-as-a-culture generalization: we are obsessed with closure. We want our stories to comfort us with notions that life can reach satisfying points of resolution, after which everything is very tidy and manageable. We want the ends of stories to give us everything we need to know that all these characters we care about are taken care of in the least controversial possible ways.

I don’t think the writers of HIMYM are anti-happiness, but they might be anti-oversimplified-ideas-of-happiness. And I think they’re also anti-traditional-conservative-limited-definitions-of-acceptable-happiness. Think of all the non-traditional couples and lifestyles on display throughout HIMYM’s run. Marshall and Lily are the most heteronormative pair for the duration, and yet they still go through breaking up and getting back together, the man putting his career on hold or possibly in jeopardy for the sake of his wife’s, and Marshall’s widowed mom and Lily’s divorced dad getting involved with each other. Barney tries marriage, gets divorced, has a child out of wedlock and apparently becomes a loving, involved father. Barney’s gay brother gets married and adopts a couple of kids. Barney’s mom gets together again with Barney’s brother’s dad, long after raising her two sons as a never-married single mom. Cindy (Tracy’s former roommate) comes out as lesbian, gets married and also adopts. Ted’s parents get divorced when he’s in his 20’s; his mom gets remarried and his dad enjoys bachelorhood. And on and on and on, with no lifestyles coming in for particularly harsh judgment. There’s even a gag in one episode about how Robin is well aware of the fact that her co-host Sandy Rivers has a weird fetishized possibly polyamorous relationship that’s only sort of on the down low, and it’s not as potentially embarrassing as the fact that he wears a toupee. You could argue that this is all liberal Hollywood posturing, hewing to the industry agenda of constantly promoting that it’s cool to smoke pot, it’s cool to be gay, we’re all so cool here, blah blah blah. But I think it’s more sincere than that, and that the whole long HIMYM story is about a guy who is comically hung up the idea of getting married to the perfect girl and having kids with her as if that’s the one true Platonic ideal of adulthood, when it fact, it’s not so.

The finale underlined that with Ted and Tracy’s story, though again the finale tried to do so much it’s understandable if the point got lost. But Ted and Tracy manage to be very happy together for years without actually getting married. They get busy with having those much-desired, much-loved kids, and they only formalize their legal bond after seven years or so of shacking up. And nobody judges them for this. And by the same token, Robin enjoys her single life, her apartment in the city, her career, her five dogs, and nobody judges her for that, either. There’s no implication that marriage and a family is something missing from Robin’s life, or that Ted needs to rush in and save her from loneliness and despair.

So for close to a decade, HIMYM demonstrated that there are many, many more ways than one to be happy, and as it drew to a close it deliberately rejected pat endings. Most people assumed the series would end with Marshall and Lily stable and reveling in happily-ever-after, Barney and Robin married and continuing on to happily-ever-after, and Ted and Tracy finally having met and about to embark on happily-ever-after. But only one of those elements survived. You could say that they swapped in Barney as a single dad happily-ever-after loving his daughter, and Ted and Robin finally getting married to live happily-ever-after, but that’s not really of a piece with everything that came before about the unexpected complications of life and the vagaries of fate.

In essence what I’m arguing is that the ending of HIMYM doesn’t mean anything definitive. It’s safe to say that Ted and Robin both still have feelings for each other, and that Ted stumbled into securing permission from his kids to move on from grieving the love of his life and act on those feelings. But how exactly he’s going to act on those feelings, and how long it will all last, is not something that could be summed up as simply as “Ted ends up with Robin”. It’s not fair, because if they’re going to stop making new episodes of the show and stop chronicling the lives of these characters, it seems that they owe us simple summaries that put all matters of speculation to rest. A lot of stories follow that principle of agreement with their audience. But not HIMYM, where the guiding philosophy has always been that it’s a false wisdom to try to reach an endpoint after which everything will take care of itself. Life has to be lived in the moment every day, taking what comes.

(And ultimately, that’s how the writers and showrunners trolled half their audience, by holding out from the start of the pilot the idea that this whole story Ted was telling his kids had a point and an ending that would all make sense, and then slowly but surely demonstrating how that couldn’t possibly be so.)

Personally, I like to think that when Ted shows Robin the blue french horn to convey “remember this?” he’s not saying “remember when we were young and in love?” and he’s not saying “remember when we used to think we’d get married?” He’s saying “remember when we used to have like crazy hot sex all the time?” Ted and Robin as a long-term domestic/romantic pairing has been ruled out. They’re still friends, she’s already a part of his life and his kids’ life. The only thing missing is the sex. Which kind of makes the whole series make even more sense, if you think about it. Why did Ted’s story, told to his children, focus so much on sex? He wasn’t trying to slowly test the waters of Penny and Luke accepting that he could be in love with someone other than their mother; he was testing how much they could tolerate thinking of him as a man with certain physical needs. He and Robin are still attracted to each other, but out of decorum when she comes over for dinner she ultimately leaves after dessert to head back to her Manhattan apartment. Now Ted’s kids have basically said it’s OK if Aunt Robin spends the night at their house, or if their dad wants to go sleep over at her place. They get it, it’s cool. Hey, it’s the year 2030, teenagers don’t have to be all judgy about their parents getting involved in friends-with-benefits scenarios.

But I don’t know that for certain any more than other longtime fans of the show know that Ted and Robin end up an item again til death do them part. But I will dig in my heels that none of us can know absolutely what happens after the finale, and that that’s the show’s point, as well. Endings suck, even though endings aren’t really endings, and things constantly change and don’t always work out according to some age-old teleological model, and happiness comes in surprising forms, and that’s all OK.

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