'How I Met Your Mother': A Sitcom Deals With Death

By Lindsey Bahr
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CBS


Two weeks ago, in the middle of a season featuring relatively undemanding plot lines, How I Met Your Mother took a serious turn with the death of Marshall's dad. HIMYM always tries to address some issue of adulthood in each episode, whether it is taking a job for the money instead of your ideals, debating whether or not to try long distance with your significant other of only two months, or experiencing the sudden death of a parent.

In what might be one of the sweeter gestures from a group of television friends, all make the trek to Minnesota for the funeral and wake and the episode becomes in part an exercise in showing us the different ways that we try to help friends cope with grief. One of the unspoken truths of funerals is that they can be painfully awkward. Everyone wants to help in a more meaningful way than just being there, but it's difficult to figure out what those in mourning actually need. Robin immediately establishes herself as the "vice girl," miraculously doling out everything anyone could need, including cigarettes, cell phone chargers ("outlet or USB?"), alcohol, pain killers, firecrackers, and dirty playing cards. Lily decides that she'll play caretaker to Marshall's mother Judy, in spite of the fact that neither Judy nor Lily particularly care for one another ("that dress makes you look like a Kansas City whore"). And Barney and Ted take on the task of trying to make Marshall laugh with a Homer Simpson-approved standby "man getting hit by object in the crotch."

But these antics, all conceived with the best of intentions and care, are ultimately backdrops to the main story: Marshall's grief. Without any time to prepare for this death, the family's focus quickly turns to last words as a potential source of comfort. Marshall is sent into a panic trying to remember exactly what his father's last words were to him. At first he thinks that they were "plane food is ass," said in response to Marshall refusing to give him an extra pork chop for the plane ride. Then he thinks it might have been one of his well-meaning racial stereotypes ("Koreans are a caring people"), but he eventually settles on the sincere recommendation to rent Crocodile Dundee 3: "I caught it on cable last night. It totally holds up."

Marshall's friends try to reassure him that last words don't need to be as meaningful as we like to make them, because inevitably, those last words are the ordinary banalities that we all say to one another all the time. We create an unattainable standard for poignancy when it comes to last words, but the truth is, daily conversations with those we love aren't always going to live up to our expectations. Although as an outsider it might be easy to know that the normal that can be just as, if not more, meaningful, that is not what Marshall needs in his moment of grief. And then, in the middle of a breakdown, Marshall gets the closing line that he was hoping for when his father's five-minute cell phone pocket-dialed voicemail suddenly resolves into an, "I had a great time, and I love you" (and a little aside about foot cream and fungus).

I was skeptical about how HIMYM would address the aftermath of this death, but I was glad to see that for such a serious topic "Last Words" was a great episode—emotional without being sappy, absurd without going over the top, and endearingly funny.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/01/how-i-met-your-mother-a-sitcom-deals-with-death/69687/