Future Ted introduces this week's How I Met Your Mother by reworking the "when God closes a door..." cliche, and saying that "sometimes wonderful things come out of horrible situations." Marshall of course is still dealing with the his father's death while trying to get on with his life, and Ted is exploring the complications of his new relationship with the very recently divorced Zoey.
Though just last week Marshall made an epic return to New York to spend Valentine's Day with Lily, this week we find him distant and uninterested. One late night, Marshall watches a documentary voiced by either a male version of Rachel Dratch's Barbara Walters or a posthumous Peter Cook ("Gawbage Iwand" ) and suddenly regains a passion for the environment, alienating his wife, a waitress, and a co-worker in the process. Eventually, Marshall admits that his renewed interest in saving the earth is due to a perceived obligation to his dad, and that perhaps he is not quite ready to have a child, which is an arc that both Lily and Marshall were committed to until the death. Meanwhile Ted, basking in the romantic glow of his own story about how he and Zoey began dating, is forced to remember that every story has two sides. Although he is the hero in his version, he is the mustachioed scoundrel in The Captain's.
Over the past few weeks, various critics have praised HIMYM for its return to the energy, wit, and warmness of the first two seasons. This week's episode exemplified why Season Six has hit its stride. The five-episode commitment to Marshall's grieving (and evolving) character has shown an impressive level of focus on the part of the writers, and signifies a reliance on viewer loyalty. "Garbage Island" assumes that we know about Marshall's dad's death and doesn't over-explain the significance of his second thoughts about starting a family of his own. It assumes that we've seen the progression of Ted and Zoey's relationship and understand the complications of her sudden divorce from The Captain. The exciting thing about all of this is that the writers have shown that they are comfortable giving us unconventional twists—fundamentally changing Marshall and giving him an opportunity to reassess who he is, and putting Ted in yet another significant not-the-mother relationship.
Earlier this season I wrote that a great sitcom has to have episodes that can stand on their own, that become quotable and classic in spite of nuances in plot and season-long narratives. While I still believe this is generally true, HIMYM seems to be going for that goal in a different way: instead of episode specific greatness, HIMYM is attempting a longer and (hopefully) more rewarding multi-episode character based narrative. Without getting too meta, Future Ted's framing quote for "Garbage Island" applies in some ways to the series as a whole. The horrible situation of an unexpected death has focused the season and the series, and if the writing remains as crisp as it has been for the past few episodes, perhaps just seeing these characters go about their lives is enough to sustain the series for a few more years, which would be a wonderful thing.