Set aside the last few minutes of the finale for a moment. That last little reveal changes the shape of the episode, and the series, in significant and meaningful ways that make it easy to let it overshadow the rest of the episode. But stop and think about everything that happens here before the scene where he finally meets The Mother.
Because it is, at best, a mixed bag, long before we see the blue french horn again.
I understand the urge to give the audience some idea of what happens to the gang between 2014 and 2030. The problem is that covering a decade and a half in one big episode makes every story feel rushed and underdeveloped. One of the great things about HIMYM is how it used the past and the future to inform the present. Jumping back and forth between a prior conversation and a current one could be the crux of a joke, as could Future Ted's knowing commentary on some boneheaded mistake or unexpected development that was coming down the pipe. But those time jumps weren't just fodder for comedy, as the show did a great job of creating dramatic irony and emotional stakes by showing what lie ahead or the path that led us here. But by compressing fifteen years worth of life developments into an hour, nothing has time to really breathe or feel like it has the temporal scope the show is shooting for.
After all, there's a great story to be told about the gang drifting apart over the years. Another one of the series's best features is the way it combines the exaggerated goofiness of its comedic sensibilities with real, relatable aspects of being in your twenties and thirties. Well, one of the things that hits you once you start to move past that stage of your life is the way that friends, even good friends, can slowly drift apart, not through neglect or anger or hurt feelings, but just because you're suddenly at different places in your life. That's an idea worth exploring.
The problem is that the rush of years in "Last Forever" makes this process feel like something sudden instead of gradual. Sure, we see the chyron at the bottom of the screen showing that we've jumped ahead a year or two, and there's a boatload of semi-clunky expositional dialogue in the episode to let the viewer know where everyone is in their lives and what they're up to, but when all those developments take place over the course of just a few minutes and just a few scenes, it can't help but seem very fast.
One of the best choices HIMYM's creators made in the final season was to parcel out little scenes of the gang's future throughout, giving us a glimpse of what the future held without trying to pack it all into one big episode like this. Sprinkling those flashforwards in did a nice job at making the group's future feel as well-populated as its present and its past. Obviously there were limitations on how much they could do this in prior episodes given the reveals in store for Barney and Robin and Ted, but the method the show chose to relay the gang's future almost inevitably leaves it feeling too quick, too underdeveloped, and too unsatisfying, even apart from the directions the individual stories go.
Those plot developments, however, are another albatross around the finale's neck. The first and most obvious problem comes from Barney and Robin's divorce. Again, there's a legitimate story to be told of two people who care deeply for one another, but don't work as a couple, but it's a difficult story to tell in five minutes, especially when you've spent huge chunks the past season and a half trying to convince the audience that they make sense together. As someone who's been a Barney and Robin skeptic from the beginning, it's entirely plausible to me that the two of them could mean well and have real feelings for one another, but still end up divorced due to some basic incompatibilities. But the reason for their split feels thin here.
There's nothing we know about Barney that suggests globetrotting would be something he's so against. And while there's hints of bigger issues between the two of them, like not getting to see one another or not being on the same page about their respective plans and projects, we never really get to see these problems develop. We're just told about them, and expected to accept that as enough to break them up one episode removed their wedding. Is that result plausible enough based on what we know about Barney and Robin? Sure, but it's just presented to us, rather than developed before our eyes, and since we don't see their path from pledging to spend the rest of their lives together to getting divorced, that end point feels like it happens by fiat rather than something the show earned.
Barney's reversion afterward is just as unsatisfying. Again, there's a believable story about Barney having worked so hard to become a better person, in part to woo Robin, and reverting to his old tricks as a retreat and defense mechanism when his marriage falls apart. But because of the rapidity with which the finale goes from Point A to Point B, it doesn't feel like the natural result of a difficult event; it feels like throwing nine years of character development down the drain in less than a minute. There's a disparity between how much time the show spent building Barney up as more than just an cartoonish hound dog and how much time it spends showing him reverting to his old persona. That cannot help but feel jarring.
What kills me is that I love where they take Barney in "Last Forever." There's something beautiful about the idea that what really changes him isn't some conquest or accomplishment or even a great romance; it's becoming a father. For Barney, "The One" isn't a woman he'll meet some day; it's his daughter, and Neil Patrick Harris delivers a tremendous performance in the scene where he repeats his Ted-like plea, this time to his baby girl. It's a wonderful scene, but the path the episode takes to get there still comes off as a shortcut that has to ignore seasons of character development in order to make it work.
The finale isn't all bad though. While the story of the gang drifting apart is too quick, the scene where they all reunite for Ted's wedding is legitimately touching and full of the good will and warm feelings that the show's been able to generate during its run. Ted and Tracy (I can use her name now!) continue to be adorable together, and the twist that romantic Ted made it five years and two kids into his relationship before he actually married The Mother is a small but effective way to show how much the substance of finding The One was more important to him than the formality of it (even if he was planning on a European castle). It's one of those lived-in details that speaks to his character.
Beyond that, the actual meeting of The Mother is very well done, and it really had to be. Sure, there's a few meetcute cliches involved, but the easy rapport between Ted and Tracy soars once again and nearly saves the entire finale. After all, this was the moment the "Last Forever" had to nail, and it did. Ted and Tracy's conversation weaves in enough of the yellow umbrella mythos for everything to click, and Joshua Radnor and Cristin Miloti both sell the subtle realization that this is something special. For an episode that had to make good on the promise of its title, that meeting went about as well as any fan of the show might have hoped for.
And if the series had ended there, everyone might have gone home happy. Sure, the other problems with the rushed and shortcut-filled finale might have rankled a bit (particularly the way it undoes the wedding we'd just witnessed), but making that moment feel as big and as meaningful as it needed to after all that build up is no small feat, and that alone would have bought Bays & Thomas a hell of a lot of slack.
Frankly, the series could have still gotten away with Tracy dying shortly thereafter, another controversial choice in the finale. There's something tragic but beautiful about the audience watching Ted seek out the woman of his dreams for nine years and then realizing that he only gets to be with her for the same amount of time, while still cherishing and being thankful for the time the two of them had, for that connection and love that was wonderful and worth it no matter how all too brief it may have been. There's a touching theme about the fragility of things in that story, but also about the joy that comes from finding the person you love, that stays with you even after they're gone. It's sad, but it's sweet, in the best HIMYM way.
And then there's Robin.
The decision to pair up Ted and Robin in the last moments of the finale is as tone-deaf and tin-eared an ending as you're likely to find in a major television program, and the reasons abound. The most obvious is that the show devoted so much time to the idea of Ted getting over Robin, and had any number of episodes (the most recent being the execrable "Sunrise") where Ted seemed to have achieved that, to have moved on in his life. Folks like me may try to handwave it, and the show can call back to the premiere of Season 7 where Ted and Robin can declare that all you need for love is chemistry and timing, but at base, Ted and Robin getting together feels like it contradicts so much about the two characters' relationship with one another over the years. So much of the final third of the show involved going over the same beats between Ted and Robin over and over again, of having each move past the other, and coming back to them in the final, despite how iconic that blue french horn has become for the show, just feels like another poorly-established cheat or retcon that isn't in sync with where the show went since that finale was crafted in Season 2.
What's worse is that that ending transforms the story Ted's been telling from a heartwarming if irreverent yarn about the path that led to him meeting the love of his life, to a smokescreen to gain his kids' approval for dating an old flame after their mother's death. Look, to some degree you have to accept the conceit of the show for what it is and not take it too seriously. In real life, no two kids would sit through such a long story, and no father should tell his children about all the women he slept with before he met their mom. But taken in broad strokes, How I Met Your Mother is a story about how all the events in Ted's life, big and small, good and bad, planned or unexpected, went into making him the person who was ready to find Tracy and capable of being with her.
Future Ted himself put it best in "Right Place, Right Time." He tells his kids "There's a lot of little reasons why the big things in our lives happen." He explains that what seemed like chaos was bringing him inexorably toward the best person and the best thing to ever happen to him, that there were "all these little parts of the machine constantly working, making sure that you end up exactly where you're supposed to be, exactly when you're supposed to be there." And he tells them at the time, he didn't know "where all those little things were leading [him] and how grateful [he]'d be to get there."
That, to my mind, is the theme to take from this great, if tainted show. Sure, it's unrealistic that anyone would go on that many tangents in telling the story of their great romance, but the point is that each of these moments, each of these people, were crucial in who he was and who he became when he met Tracy, and that they were as important as that fateful meeting was. Yes, it's a long story, and it has many many detours, but it's the story of all the twists and turns and bumps in the road that brought Ted into the arms of his soulmate, and that smooths over the rougher edges of the show's premise.
Instead, the twist that it's all supposed to be about Ted having the hots for Robin turns that lovely story into a long-winded attempts by a middle-aged man to convince his kids that he should date their aunt That seems much more crass. There's still meaning to be wrung from it, meaning that finds parallels with Tracy and her dead boyfriend Max and the idea that you can have more than one meaningful relationship in your life. But it doesn't add up with what the show had really done to that point. The past nine seasons were no more about Robin than they were about Barney or Marshall or Lily. They no more feel like a way to suggest that Aunt Robin's good dating material than they do that Ted should spend more time with Uncle Barney. As great as that blue french horn was the first time, it had meaning because it represented something we knew was going to end, but which still had beauty and value despite that. This last time we see it, it's represents the opposite, that something beautiful has ended, and the value it had is cast aside in favor of a relationship the series spent years disclaiming. That is deeply, deeply unsatisfying.
Take away those final few scenes, concocted in a different era of the series, and you have a flawed but still potent finale, that delivers on the show's biggest promise and gives the gang one last "big moment" together. But add them back in, and you have an ending to the series that not only runs counter to so much of what the show developed over the course of its run, its final season in particular, but which, moreover, cheapens the story the audience had been invested in for the past nine years. It's almost impressive how a couple of truly terrible moments can do such retroactive damage to such a longrunning show , but here we are, with a sour taste in our mouth from such an ill-conceived finish.
Future Ted was right, a little moment can have a big impacts, and the one at the end of the series is a doozy in that regard. But maybe, just maybe, when we tell our own stories about How I Met Your Mother, we can do what Ted should have done many times -- just leave that part out. There's something wonderful to be gleaned from the ending to this fun, optimistic, heartfelt, and occasionally very rocky series, but it requires us to do what we always do when looking back on things: focus on the good stuff, make our peace with the bad stuff, and remember it at its best.