As anyone who is remotely interested in the series the eighth season finale of How I Met Your Mother aired last night, and as anyone who is remotely interested in the series has already seen or heard, there was a surprise ending—which we will touch on—but this post is more general in its scope.
Last week, after the penultimate episode, we knew in advance that the finale would not be the Barney-Robin wedding (where it has already been revealed Ted first sees the woman who becomes the eponymous mother). In the eighth-season opener they teased us with a "flash-forward" scene where it's after the wedding and Ted is waiting at the train station and the woman with the yellow umbrella (whom we know from much earlier in the series is the mother) stands nearby, her face obscured by that item (below).
At that point (back in September) this eighth was to be the final season, so the groundwork laid there clearly suggested in the finale it would close with the continuation of that scene, presumably with Ted and the woman under the umbrella glancing over at each other. We'd get a shot of the mother's face under the umbrella, they'd share a smile as some uplifting song plays underneath, then cut to the kids in the future on the couch wiping a tear away as narrator Ted caps it with the obvious but appropriate, "That's how I met your mother." Roll credits.
(In an interview about the finale, creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays even admitted that they had originally intended something like that to be the end.)
But then part way through this season they got picked up for a ninth, and much as we vaguely hoped the finale would hold to what had been suggested in the premiere, the pace of the season as it rolled closer to the finale was clearly too slow to get to that moment by episode 24, and as noted, a week ago we got confirmation of that. Although I grasp TV is a business first and entertainment second, it seemed no matter what they did in the season finale (no longer the series finale) it would not be what I felt we had been promised in the opener. It seemed likely they'd drag out the revelation of the identity of the mother well into next season—perhaps not all the way to the end, but farther than it should be.
Then to close last night's episode they shoehorned in a scene where the face of the mother was shown, buying a ticket for the train ride out to the wedding, in the big surprise moment (which anyone on the west coast who looked on Twitter knew about three hours ahead). In that aforementioned interview the creators talked about how they did that as a reward for the fans.
While it's certainly more than I had cause to expect and it does suggest the ninth season will give us a glimpse into the actual courtship with the eventual mother (which is better than what I feared it would be), my response is still more along the lines of, to quote Marshall from the episode "Definitions": "Not good enough!" [Insert whip crack.]
This gets us closer to where we should have been, and it allows the writers new avenues that could be far superior to what we got from much of this season, but it's still not what we should have gotten.
Even if we didn't have the sort of coverage of the business side that allowed us to know that the contracts were extended and another season tacked on we can identify the rudiments of balanced storytelling, and this season simply didn't provide that.
When it all boils down, HIMYM is not the typical sitcom. Even in this era of recap saturation, most sitcoms do not garner (nor do they deserve) weekly reviews. This series got that status because at it had that something extra, the mystery at the heart of the title. That's not exactly why those of us who enjoyed it did so—it was the writing and the characters—but it did provide a bit of the mythology that gave us something to unravel slowly, to discuss the plot points in relation to larger arc. Our continued fidelity to the series relied on what had been established some time ago, not because the writing was as strong in making us keep caring about the characters*. It had stretched the tale with that mystery as far as it could (and farther than it should have**), so without the appearance of the mother at the end I think the producers would have snapped the thin faith we loyal viewers retained. It literally was their last hope, but I will give them credit for doing that; they could have stuck to their guns and simply postponed the reveal for an entire extra season (and driven us into unmitigated hate-watching).
Perhaps with this figurative monkey off their backs the writers can explore a direction other than the one they've been stuck in. That may or may not prove to be a good thing when we see what they choose to do with that freedom, but clearly it was imperative they start to shake off the shackles of the mystery of the mother's identity. I do not dismiss the possibility they could screw it and prolong getting to the wedding and the actual meeting (or even screw up when they get there), but I do hope all this signals a return to form, where episodes elicit a number of laughs and the occasional tear (perhaps by finishing the series at the wedding of Ted and the yet-unnamed mother—in the end credits last night she was merely "Girl With the Yellow Umbrella").
So the reveal of the mother may have been a reward in the minds of the creators, but it was the necessary step to potentially save the show.
Sad as it is to admit, the show already blew any chance of going down in TV history as one of the great sitcoms, but the ninth season will be where we see if it can salvage the status of being overall a good one, one that started out well, hit some rough years, but then finished strong rather than being one that started out well but slowly lost its way and never found it again.
They made me care enough to hope for that, and not a lot of shows do.
But as I noted a year and a half ago, prior to the start of the seventh season, in this post where I explicitly stated they should call it quits at the proposed end time (the one we have now reached) I did say then: "But if they reveal the mother (or at least resolve the mystery in some satisfactory way) and can think of a good direction to take the show after that, I'd stick with that, too." So I will.
If nothing else, I need to see how they resolve the REAL mystery of the series: How in 17 years Josh Radnor ends up sounding like Bob Saget.
* Like a lot of fans of the show we have not been as pleased with recent episodes as we were with earlier seasons. (Alas, I already know I'm apt to give this season a generous "C-" when I do my second annual TV grades soon.) And it's sad that we've been mostly holding on to see how it ends, not because we have been getting that much enjoyment out of the episodes week to week.
The frustration stemmed entirely from the internal conflict between thinking the show had probably not been worth sticking with going against the sense of wanting to see how it plays out for the characters we came to care about. It is only because emotion was involved that we'd been dismayed—not that the show was actively bad but that it clearly didn't seem to be the progression of what it was back in its heyday. It's worth clarifying that we wouldn't want the show to keep being the same as what it was—we want the characters to grow—but to continue to capture the charm that made us fall for it.
We couldn't quit you, HIMYM. And that's why we had to lament you.
** I certainly think part of the problem is the show had gone on too long. It seems at times like this series had maybe five or six seasons worth of story—at least of the eponymous framework leading to the foretold meeting of Ted with the mother—that has gotten dragged out into what will be nine seasons. It got watered down in part because they had to employ stunt-casting to stave off cancellation back when they were on the bubble, in part because Thomas and Bays lost focus while trying to develop another series, but mostly because they were committed to telling a tale with an endpoint that was established from the beginning but extending the time it takes to get to that endpoint thins out what is worthy of being told.