Wednesday, April 2, 2014

How I Met Your Mother or Why I am Banging Your Aunt Robin

I know I planned to regale you all with more tales from AWP, but then work got crazy busy. So, somewhat inevitably, the ending of HIMYM got spoiled for me before I could watch it. Even without watching the show, the summaries provoked a strong reaction, and a strong reaction to the all the reactions I've read so far. Want the TL;DR? I think it was a strong resolution to a series that had lost its way.

One of the signs of a good ending is that it looks inevitable when you re-examine the very beginning of the story. A circle, or perhaps a series of circles, is the natural shape of narrative. Consequently, the beginning ought to heavily influence what the ending looks like. We don’t begin the story with the mother. Or with Ted meeting Marshall, or Lily, or Barney. We get all those stories eventually, but we begin with Ted meeting Robin. That gives her character gravitas that really couldn’t be overcome or denied. It was always about Robin and Ted. Even more than Ted and Tracy.

Do not confuse my approval of the conclusion as an endorsement for the characters or the course of the show.

Somewhere along the lines, Ted Moesby stopped being a lovable dweeb and became a legitimate shitbag. Can’t put my finger on when exactly. Might be when he broke up Victoria’s (admittedly doomed-from-the-start) wedding to Klaus, knowing firsthand how awful being left at the altar was. It might have been when he catalyzed the end of Zoey’s (obviously awful) marriage. It might have been when he rushed into proposing to Stella, despite the fact that their relationship only ever half-worked. No matter what way you slice it, the dude was kryptonite to matrimony for a couple seasons. Also, the parade of plowed bimbos was innocent and charming enough for the first couple seasons, but by the end, it had become genuinely sort of sick.

Barney and Robin’s characters get wrecked too, and that one is far easier to chart: it happens as soon as they start dating each other. Barney’s strength as a character was representing a person, amidst all these other lovebirds, who did not need monogamy. I think marriage is the right play for the majority of humans, but there are some people who will always get bored in a relationship. Who Barney became with Robin was not who the series told us he was at the start, and no, his decision to marry her did not constitute maturation: it was rank self-deception. Robin was similar to Barney in that she was self-assured, opinionated, and not wholly sold on settling down; but we learn fairly early on that she did want to have that life eventually. For her, monogamy would constitute character growth. I imagine that the writers set Barney and Robin up because the fans clamored for their pairing. They clamored because Barney and Robin had comparable (but also obviously incompatible) personalities. When their romance went to hell the first time, I thought it was the writers telling the audience “See this? The ‘obvious’ match-up? It’s a fucking stupid idea and this is the end of it.” I cheered.

And then they put them back together. The narrative backpedal alone would have been bad enough, but to make matters worse, Robin and Barney were already dating two other beautiful, brilliant characters who frankly deserved better. That didn’t just make them worse characters, it made them awful people. Flawed characters are interesting, yes, and people make bad choices all the time in real life, but in fiction, the flaws and fuck-ups should serve the central story.

How I Met Your Mother’s story was always about Ted and Robin. That’s not what the title implies, but it’s what the plot was designed to do; hence the showrunners shooting the final scenes with the kids in season two. They knew Ted would seek out Robin after his soul-mate died. So few shows—so few long-running stories in any format—stick to a single planned plot anymore. So it is incredibly satisfying to see a series pay off a plan instead of just making shit up or pandering to fans, especially when the intended ending is kind of tragic and challenging.

What happened to HIMYM is what happened to Friends, which was also always going to end with a hook up: Ross and Rachel. This was even more obvious, but the network had a huge hit on their hands, the actors were being paid stupid amounts of money (to prevent them from pursuing lucrative careers elsewhere), and the also well-paid writers were high on their fans’ adoration, so they milked that tit for all it was worth. What was originally tight and coherent got bloated and convoluted. The characters were becoming less interesting, so to maintain the appearance of growth, the writers had them make decisions that broke their established personalities.
That huge flaw acknowledged, the finale manages to pay off Robin and Ted’s story, and Barney also finally gets some genuine character growth in the form of having a daughter. Even if he remains a cocky, chauvinistic man-slut, he gets to address the single solemn aspect of his character by trying to become the father he never had. And while Barney didn’t want to get married, we learn fairly early on that he did want kids.

I don’t actually know how Marshall and Lilly ended up, and to be honest, it doesn’t matter in the slightest. I went to Wikipedia to complete this post, there were sentences on them in the episode summary, and I skipped them. It's not that I hate them... at least, I didn’t initially.

They represented Ted’s dream, and gave the writers an opportunity to explore a criminally under-utilized period in a romantic relationship: the space after monogamy preceding parenthood. Their character arc had enough material for five very solid seasons; seven if you had to stretch it. But Marshall always kind of bored me (thank god for Segel finally forcing the writers to pull the plug though), and by Season 6, Lily, who started out interesting and canny (if prone to selfishness and meddling), had become insufferable.

The gravest sin of the final season, is that after spending twenty-two episodes on a single goddamn weekend (buoyed only by a generous helping of flash forwards and the refreshing episode detailing Tracy’s life), the viewer is hit with a parade of bombshells in the finale. The audience is given no time to process Barney and Robin’s divorce, Tracy’s death, and Ted pursuing Robin again. Having two of your best friends divorce is incredibly ugly and traumatizing. “Nothing will ever change,” my ass. That’s the most haunting line of the entire show, by the way, because it implies this toxic non-three-way between Barney, Ted and Robin will never be completely resolved. Milioti, who was undeniably the best thing about the last season, deserved a heartbreaking goodbye followed by a few minutes for fans to sob uncontrollably. Even the fact that Ted is telling his kids this story six years after her passing begs further explanation. His behavior to date does not suggest he would have the restraint, even grief-stricken and burdened with parental responsibilities, to refrain from screwing around a bit in the interim.

I know that many fans and critics predicted the ending, but it still managed to be surprising, provoke discussion, and make narrative sense. Honestly, this show has always danced between comedy and tragedy, regularly spitting in the face of pure romantic sap. A happily ever after wrap up would have been boring and insulting. The ending could have been executed better, but its problems all have roots in two to four unnecessary seasons’ worth of material. Given what had happened to the show, I am actually quite happy with how it resolved. Like the yellow umbrella, it got lost for a couple years in the middle, but found itself in the end. 


Jonathan Lee said...

I like your analysis, but I still feel that their series is inherently flawed, and the execution of their main point (to be fair since you haven't seen the finale) is poor. I think running with a plot that you wanted is great and all, but not allowing room to grow is problematic.

In writing a series that becomes padded by additional seasons, you run the risk of losing sight. Throughout S1 - S4, the Ted and Robin relationship is central, but it's the story of how a person develops, matures, and changes into someone completely different that is able to move on (or at least, that's what they tell us).

He chases her S1, dates her and breaks up in S2, and they move on in S3 even though it's difficult. All this time, he's telling the story of how he has become someone else.

By the time S5 rolls around, they start throwing Ted and Robin back together, which to me, is both realistic and frustrating. Art mimics life and stuff, but it's not much growth. It's very repetitive (which is still life), but just because it mimics life does not necessarily make it enjoyable (to me).

That being said, I understand their point. I get that Ted finds the love of his life in the first episode. I get that they begin to show that there are multiple "loves-of-your-life" as you continue to find true love. Tracy (sp?) is one of them, and her story shows that. She is able to find new love and new life through Ted, and she even expresses to him that it's okay for him to do so. They're purposefully drawing parallels.

Unfortunately, the execution is flawed as she becomes second fiddle. Unlike her story, Ted's first love-of-his-life didn't die or pass away. Ted gets dumped and "moves on" to meet Tracy who is perfect for him. We meet her, we see the fit, and then, she's written off so quickly that the period for grieving is abruptly cut short by the immediate push back to their original concept. It's all cut too short. We spend so much time on a concept (growth and development for Ted, Robin, and Barney), and all if it doesn't pay off. There is no growth.

Full circle stories have growth. They would be better described as a oil (so it also moved on the Z axis) or a moving wheel (so is moves distance even though it revolved around). As the audience of a full circle story, we are satisfied in seeing growth even though the concept returns to the beginning, usually with an expectation for the better. The lesson at the end of HIMYM is that Ted justifies himself dating Robin because he loved the mother. He did not have multiple loves-of-his-life. He had one, and he moved too fast. The show conflicts with this concept so many times, and that's really what makes the show flawed. It constantly conflicts with itself. It tells two stories at the same time while telling you that only one of them is the true story.

Sarcasmancer said...

I mean, that's my other point. The story stuck to it's guns in the end, but every major problem with the series can be traced tot he fact that it had too many seasons.

Let's continue your assessment.
Season 1: Boy Meets Girl
Season 2: Boy Gets Girl / Boy Loses Girl
Season 3: Boy and Girl move on-ish?
Season 4: Boy dates that chick from Scrubs?
Season 5: Girl dates Boy's best friend who has no business in a relationship?
Season 6: Wait, now Boy is dating that chick from House? WTF is with the med drama chicks?
Season 7: Also, what the hell is even happening here anymore?
Season 8: Now Girl is back together with Boy's friend even though that shit clearly didn't work out the first time around?
Season 9: Eps 1-22: Big boring wedding. Eps 23-24: Boy meets Girl 2 (mother), they fall in love. Girl 1 breaks up with Boy's friend, Girl 2 dies, Boy 1 and Girl 1 hook back up, presumably happily ever after.

I'd like to propose an alternate progression:

Season 1: Boy Meets Girl
Season 2: Boy Gets Girl
Season 3: Boy Loses Girl
Season 4: Girl meets somebody else. It almost works, but Boy and Girl are still hung up on each other, until...
Season 5: Boy meets Girl 2 AKA: The Mother.

Now, the way I see it, you have two satisfying ending choices: Unpack the enormous span of time teased in the final two episodes (excluding Robin's relationship to Barney) over the course of one to three seasons.

...Of course, both those ending choices would rely on a more generous interpretation of "meeting" the mother, which you always vehemently opposed, Jon. But romance is not about how you say hello for the first time, it's about how you come to discover who somebody is.

The problem with the nine arc structure is that for the last five seasons, nobody does any meaningful growing until the last two hours. We don't learn anything real about who any of these peopl are that we didn't learn in the first four seasons.

There IS growth in the last two episodes--as far as plot is concerned at least, which may be why I am satisfied with just hearing the plot summary. You don't get to experience the events in detail, the steps on the path (Story), but you do learn about the important pivotal events (Plot). In the last episodes, they tell instead of show contrary to the entire rest of the series, especially compared to the final seasons which skewed tediously in the opposite direction (so much showing and nothing is actually said).

That's how I'd "fix" the show. If you didn't want the mother to be second fiddle to Robin though, the only way they could have avoided that is to introduce Robin along with the rest of Ted's friends. She and Ted could still have dated later on, for a season, but that would have to be it. She would have to fall in love with somebody else, for real.

As for the two stories thing... It was one story. Just a different one than Ted thought he was telling. And they've played with him being an unreliable narrator from the start. Yes, the story's title and stated premise are false. Doesn't mean it's a bad story.