How Not To Write A Love Story
How I Met Your Mother was always a love story. On the surface, it professed to be the story of how Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) met the mother of his children (portrayed in the ninth and final season of the show by Cristin Milioti). However, it became clear as early on as the show’s pilot that the true love story being told was one between Ted and Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders).
With that in mind, the way the show chose to end its run was unsurprising and had, in fact, been planned from the very beginning, with the reactions of the children in the final episode filmed during the show’s first season. (As an aside, the creator and writers absolutely deserve accolades for the tricky and unique format they chose to tell this story in; by locking in the ending before they even began they not only trusted that the network would allow them to tell their whole story, but had to stay within the framework they’d already established for themselves.) But after watching the show’s finale nearly four years after it actually aired, I finally understand where the fans’ rage and dissatisfaction at how the show chose to end comes from.
This was a love story written by people who had apparently never written a love story before. There were beats missed that are essential for the audience to form an emotional connection with a show’s pairing (whether that’s Barney and Robin, Ted and the mother, or Ted and Robin). After spending 22 episodes of the final season mired in a wedding that I, at least, had zero interest in, the show races to the finish line in the final two episodes at such a breakneck pace that the viewer is left with whiplash, and when we arrive at the scene that had been planned since the very beginning (Ted shows up outside Robin’s apartment in the year 2030, holding up a blue french horn in a scene that echoes the pilot from 2005), it’s lacking that deep satisfaction that should be felt when a good story comes to an end.
Which is too bad, because this could have been a really good story. This was the story of how when Robin and Ted first fell in love, it wasn’t the right time because they both wanted vastly different things in life; it’s the story of how they tried to move on but kept come back to each other, until they both finally, actually moved on; it’s the story of how Ted met and fell in love with another woman who was the love of his life, married her and started a family with her before she tragically died; and it’s the story of how, six years later, Ted and Robin finally found their way back to each other and are both, hopefully, in a place where they can continue their lives together.
And, largely, that’s the story they told, so where did they go wrong?
For one, the mother (whose name is only revealed to the audience in the last episode) feels like a footnote in a story that is ostensibly about her. She appears in person for the first time in the Season 8 finale, and although we see hints of her relationship with Ted through flashbacks (or perhaps flashforwards, in the context of the telling), the two don’t actually meet in the story until the penultimate episode of the series.
To be fair, the lack of the mother’s presence in the story is pointed out by Ted’s daughter (“you said this story was about Mom, but she was hardly in it!”), but I think it was a mistake on the part of the writers to limit the audience’s exposure to the mother, despite the fact that their original intentions were to no doubt keep the reveal to the very end. If they had devoted the entirety of Season 9 to the telling of Ted’s story with Tracy, some of the emotional beats of it would have landed much better—such as her illness and subsequent death. It wasn't surprising that the mother ended up dying, but the way the show handled it was; we went directly from a flashback of Ted’s first conversation with Tracy, to her lying ill in a hospital bed, to the year 2030 and Ted’s kids telling him he’s still in love with Robin.
That Ted loved the mother or that Ted loved Robin was never really in question—both things were told to the audience many times over the course of nine seasons—but here at the end, at the crux of the entire story, the writers owed it to the audience to show it. We deserved to see Ted grieve after the death of his wife, and we deserved to see his present-day relationship with Robin (last we’d seen, Robin had mostly drifted away from the group) before he showed up outside her apartment with a blue french horn.
The second large mistake they made was putting Barney and Robin together in the eighth season. This was a relationship I never felt anything for (and I’m not sure if we were ever supposed to feel anything for it, since even at its best it was grossly unhealthy—highlighted by both Barney and Robin’s behaviour in the ninth season) and the focus they put on it over the last season and a half was, in my opinion, misplaced.
The first time Barney and Robin dated, it was a disaster. And yet, in Season 8, Barney proposes to Robin (after an extremely elaborate plan in which he lied to her for two months and manipulated all of his friends) without them ever actually trying to date each other again. For some reason, Robin accepts (even after acknowledging how inappropriate Barney’s behaviour was) and then the show tries to force the impression that these two are made for each other, even though that was never really hinted at in any of their previous interactions.
Barney and Robin’s wedding takes up the entirety of the show’s final season (a friendly word of advice: TV weddings should never, ever be longer than two episodes) which causes stagnation, because how much can characters change or grow in a period of 55 hours? It’s so drawn out that there are multiple episodes in which absolutely nothing of value takes place (like the one where Marshall tells his son stories to get him to fall asleep). And when Robin and Barney finally do get married (regardless of one’s personal opinions towards their relationship) the entire thing is undone in the next scene we see them both in, when they admit they got divorced after three years of marriage.
As Barney and Robin were never intended to be an endgame couple, the decision to spend 22 episodes on their wedding (for comparison, Marshall and Lily got a single episode dedicated to their wedding, while Ted—the main character—got about 30 seconds) is a strange and unjustifiable one, especially given the material they could have spent that time on instead. Like actually developing Ted’s relationship with Tracy, or spending more time in the intervening 17 years than the rapid jumps that take place over the last 40 minutes of the series.
This show did a large number of things right: their continuity was some of the best I’ve ever seen; the format of the entire show being told through flashbacks allowed them to carry some humorous storylines across multiple seasons, such as the story of the goat; and Marshall and Lily’s relationship is handled quite magnificently from the beginning. They also did a number of things wrong: their overall treatment of women was terrible; in no world should Barney have any friends, never mind female ones; and there are a number of uncomfortable jokes made at the expense of LGBTQ—especially trans—people, which maybe went over better ten years ago.
But in the end, when it really mattered, they didn’t stick the landing. After spending nine years building up to their ending, they missed the mark; and, unfortunately, that’s how this show will always be remembered.
TBT is a weekly feature on Truth Bee Told that looks back on some of our favourite TV shows that are no longer on air.