We gave nine years of our lives to How I Met Your Mother, trusting in creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas to lead us through a twisty, heartbreaking, heartwarming tale of finding The One. Even when the show nosedived in quality around season 5, loyal fans clung to the belief that the creators were working toward a logical, fulfilling endgame.
Last night’s series finale “Last Forever” was not that. You can read Kelly’s piece taking it apart piece-by-piece by storytelling tropes, but I’m here to talk about how problematic this ending was.
Owing to the way that Twitter and Tumblr blew up late last night, several non-HIMYM fans snarked, “Did the Red Wedding happen?” One Twitter user put it perfectly:
— Meg Flannery (@FlanneryMeg) April 1, 2014
When Game of Thrones‘ major character massacre has better characterization than a series finale, you know you’re in trouble. What most rankles, however, is that Bays and Thomas had their ending planned out from the beginning. There was something simultaneously charming and awe-inspiring about the idea that they had what we believed was such a firm framework that they could take the typical deviations that a long-winded story includes, and yet still get to a satisfying conclusion that makes it worth sitting through.
In fact, several seasons in, fans experienced a mini-epiphany: This show was about The Mother, sure, but it was really about Ted becoming the man he needs to be so that he’s ready to meet her.
Except that the ending upends that, because apparently the true moral is that Ted needed to become the type of man whose wants sync up perfectly with The Mother’s… and then, when he gets the marriage and kids he always wanted, and loses one and frankly doesn’t really care about the other, he can get back with Robin. We might as well be back in season 1, rather than almost a decade later (or, going by the 2030 finale, a quarter-century later).
The fact that the creators had allegedly been planning out the ending from the very beginning only reinforced our trust that they had all the points mapped out. Ironically, this was the kind of character development we witnessed in 9×16 “How Your Mother Met Me”: In 22 minutes, we meet the woman we now know as Tracy McConnell and zip through eight years of her life to Barney and Robin’s wedding, where after death, disappointment, and The Naked Man, she’s ready to meet Ted. That took only one episode, which was the same amount of time it took to erase all of Ted’s (much-needed) growth.
Yo Bays and Thomas, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish, but Definitely, Maybe already did this ending in 2008. I bet you guys saw that movie since it had roughly the same premise: Will Hayes tells his daughter Maya how he met her mom, who (twist!) he’s divorced from, because he truly loves one of his former girlfriends. The movie’s best moment has nothing to do with who he ends up with:
Maya: Thanks for telling me the story.
Will: You’re welcome. I didn’t tell you the happy ending.
Maya (getting teary): What is it?
Once Bays and Thomas realized that Definitely, Maybe had yoinked their concept and spun a winning version of one ending—which they knew, but we didn’t, reflected theirs—they should have at least entertained an alternate ending.
The focal point of Will’s story is all of the coincidences and love that created Maya, his daughter. Whereas in HIMYM, Ted’s kids seem to act only as vessels sitting through the most self-serving story ever. The most important symbol on HIMYM, we learn from “Last Forever,” is that fucking blue French horn. Yes, it was a wonderful motif in the pilot; it resurfaces for (seemingly) the last time in 9×09 “Platonish,” when Ted ponders that if he were to try and win back Robin, he’d have to grab it. But then he rationally decides that that ‘ship sailed long, long ago. Stick to your guns, Teddy West Side!
You know who else had her ending plotted out from the start? J.K. Rowling. I’ll never forget reading an interview around the time that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out (and the series’ popularity kicked into high gear), where Rowling declared that the last word of the last page was “scar.” However, all devoted Potterheads know that the last sentence of Deathly Hallows was “All was well.” In a 2005 interview, when prodded if she was still going with the “scar” game plan, Rowling had no problem admitting that she was tinkering with the ending: “I always knew I would have to rewrite it,” she said.
In fact, after Deathly Hallows came out in 2007, Rowling explained one big change she made. Despite having sketched out all of the characters’ deaths years ago (so that no one could change her mind), Rowling reneged on killing off Arthur Weasley. “I think part of the reason for that is there were very few good fathers in the book,” she explained to fans. “In fact, you could make a very good case for Arthur Weasley being the only good father in the whole series.” (What’s this about good fathers? Sounds like Future Ted could take some notes.) Instead, she killed Lupin and Tonks in the series’ conclusion, still tapping into the feelings of horror and loss but in a different way.
See, guys? It’s OK to admit that you needed to rework things! In fact, that’s the sign of a stronger writer, the ability to roll with the punches.
Speaking of, you’ve got George R.R. Martin, who still has two Game of Thrones books left to write but has had his ending planned out for ages. We don’t know any specifics (and don’t want to know!), but a smart thing he did was clue in the showrunners of the HBO series. His reasoning was, should Game of Thrones the show outpace the books—and, more morbidly, should he die without finishing the series—fans would still get to see his original, broad-strokes story plan. Assuming he stays in robust health, of course, Martin reserves the right to change details within his general framework. Again, flexibility is key!
I’ve read several great pieces recently about how TV viewers will never again be satisfied by a series finale because the Internet allows us to spend so much time theorizing that we either guess the ending (as we did with The Mother’s death) and/or dream up a much more satisfying conclusion. Readers have dealt with the same issue for at least the same amount of time: I’m sure that Harry Potter fans would have preferred to see certain details changed in Deathly Hallows (or done away with that cheesy epilogue altogether).
But what authors have realized, sooner than TV writers, is the necessary two-way street: If your fans have devoted nine years of their lives to watching your show—or, for those who jumped on the Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire series at the beginning, about 17 years—then you owe them an ending that satisfies them as much as (if not more than) it satisfies you, the writers.