If you're looking for a reason to hate last night's finale of How I Met Your Mother, here is one: "The point of the story is that you totally have the hots for Aunt Robin," Penny, Ted's teenage daughter, informs him at its conclusion. "The story" in this case is nine seasons' worth of sitcom, and Ted's son agrees with the assessment. Dad loves Aunt Robin! The kids love Aunt Robin! There is nothing left, obviously, but for Ted to go get Aunt Robin!
Everyone is downright perky about this turn of events. The kids are jazzed; so is their father. Yes, The Mother has died, but Ted and the kids have had six years to come to terms with this. We, the audience, may have had only two minutes … but there is no time for dwelling on the sad subplot that is How I Lost Your Mother, because it's 8:55 and that new James Van Der Beek show is about to start and, as Penny further informs her father, "It's time."
So Ted grabs the blue French horn, just like he did in the first episode of the show, and he runs to Robin, yelling up to her apartment from the sidewalk, just like he did in the first episode. She comes to the window, surrounded by her dogs, just like she did in that first episode. She smiles. Indeed: It's time.
And so, with that horn and those dogs and that first and last gesture of romance, HIMYM came full-circle. The characters' winding paths converged, finally, and Ted, we learned, will get the thing he wanted from the start: Robin.
Put another way, though: Ted, the dad, will get … Robin, the aunt. The finale might as well have been called "How I Met Your Mother (but Then Ended Up With Your Aunt)." And, to be clear, we are not meant to find this outcome strange. We are meant, instead, to find it reassuring—the joyful, and in some sense inevitable, product of years' worth of friendship and struggle and laughter and legen-wait-for-it-dariness. The two friends had, finally, settled into each other; the show's ongoing will-they-or-won't-they resolved itself with a resounding WILL. The Ted/Robin reunion—dad and aunt, transformed into something else—was HIMYM's ultimate answer to the question at the heart of most every sitcom: What, in the end, is family?
Most shows define their social universes geographically: They are populated by people whom circumstance has thrown together, physically. The throwing could take place in a bar (Cheers), in a coffee shop (Friends), in an apartment (New Girl), in an office (The Office), at a taxi dispatch service (Taxi), at a TV studio (30 Rock), or, of course, in a house (pretty much every other sitcom ever). Regardless, in the social—and, you could say, moral—cosmology of the typical sitcom, it is spatial connection that leads to social connection.
In part, these physical spaces are plot devices that explain to audiences why this small group of people seems to be always together, and always so insulated in their togetherness. In HIMYM, the friends' go-to bar, MacLaren's—conveniently located in the basement of the building where three of the five characters live—functions in the same way that Monica's apartment (and Mindy Lahiri's ob-gyn practice, and Greendale Community College) do: They allow the audience to suspend disbelief. They sacrifice the inevitable frictions of real-world social relationships—the vagaries of distance, the misalignments of schedules—at the altar of sitcomic convenience.
There are obvious production-side reasons for that social narrowness, too, of course: Actors are expensive. Contracts are a pain. TV programs, even in the age of the DVR and the stream and the binge-watch, need to offer their audiences some sense of stability, episode after episode. But what those constraints amount to, ultimately, are shows that embrace an eponymous approach to family itself: According to the most basic logic of the sitcom, one's family is "the group of people that situation has thrown together, comedically." So we get The Office's ironized treatment of the workplace family. And The Big Bang Theory's haphazard fusion of work life and home. And Modern Family's casual confidence that an entire TV show can be premised on demographics alone.
How I Met Your Mother had its own perspective on The Way We Family Now—and it presented it explicitly, episode after episode, with a conviction that bordered on insistence. Your friends are your family, the show argued. The blood relatives of all five characters were notably flawed: Robin and Barney had absentee parents; Lily's father was a constant disappointment; Ted's parents divorced without bothering to tell him. Families, in the show's conception, were distant, physically and otherwise; it was your friends, instead, who were closest to you—physically and otherwise.
To make this point extra-clear, HIMYM blurred the friend/family lines, aggressively and also charmingly. Holidays traditionally associated with family (Thanksgiving) were transformed, in the show's social calendar, into friend-ified versions (Slapsgiving). From the show's first episode, when 2030-Ted first made mention of the kids' "Aunt Robin," we were conditioned to understand that these five friends were united by more than a shared physical space, and by more even than fickle circumstance; they were ongoing characters in each others' lives. They were friends who were more family than family.
This idea of the friend-family may seem a banal thing for a show to adopt as its animating idea. In its context, however, the idea was A Stance, and a meaningful one. HIMYM was most obviously a reaction to Friends, that other hugely popular show-about-a-group-of-young adults-living-in-New York-and-navigating-life. But Friends, despite its earnestness about friendship itself, tended to treat its entire premise—friendship, the core social structure—as a mere phase in the lives of its characters. I'll be there for you … until you get married and have babies and buy a house in Greenwich and get on with your actual life.
While HIMYM's circuitous approach to its own story line—the fact that all of it takes place in the future perfect—guaranteed that its friendships would endure, Friends offered no such assurance. Actually, it offered the opposite. Its own series finale found its six characters leaving their shared space—Monica's apartment—to find new spaces, separately. That last episode made multiple references to "the end of an era." Its primary emotion was sadness. Its secondary was nostalgia.
And it was that way even though Friends, in its plot, had resorted to the ultimate compromise when it comes to a sitcom's friend/family dialectic: It converted friends into family, institutionally, by marrying its characters off to each other. Monica and Chandler. Ross and Rachel. That four members of a group of six people would end up partnered up—a 66.6-percent marriage rate!—would be, in any real-world circumstance, remarkable. Actually, scratch that—it would be weird. (Didn't they know anyone else? Is this some kind of cult?) In Friends' social universe, however, the two-out-of-three ratio seemed perfectly normal—because, again, we accept social insularity as part of what it means to participate in a sitcom in the first place. Of course Ross and Rachel ended up together; we would have been angry if they hadn't.
But this is in large part what makes any sitcom, HIMYM certainly included, seem so regressive, and so dimensionally suited to the small screen. Because what it amounts to are social circumstances that alienate their outsiders. There is "the gang"—a phrase used, unironically, several times in last night's HIMYM finale—and then there is the "everyone else." HIMYM, just like Friends did throughout its own long run on the air, took advantage of its success to bring in a dizzying march of quirky guest stars. There was Britney Spears. And Kal Penn. And John Lithgow. And Rachel Bilson. And Jennifer Lopez. And Alan Thicke. These people were occasionally delightful—"I've had a nice parade of co-stars," Josh Radnor once remarked—but they were also satellites, nothing more. They were, in the moral constellation of the show itself, barely "people" at all. They served the needs of their stars—bland necessities of story arc and character development and general bildungsroman—in a way that was almost purely utilitarian. What did Victoria, Ted's almost-fiancee, think about their relationship? What did she feel about their breakup? What happened to her after she left Ted's orbit? Not only are we taught not to care; we are taught not to ask in the first place.
Because Victoria, of course, was not one of "the gang."
So HIMYM, despite and maybe because of its insistence that friend and family cannot be—and should not be—distinguished from one another, ended up embracing one of the most regressive assumptions a story can make: that anyone outside its sphere of influence is, ultimately, expendable. The show rejected the structure of friendships as most of us experience them—as rich, fluid networks populated by varied universes of people—in favor of something narrower. And just a tiny bit xenophobic.
HIMYM may have done this for the same reason that, say, Sex and the City often treated its male characters as expendable—that reason being that that's just how sitcoms are—but it amounted, in context, to a premise that was often misaligned with the realities of friendship its viewers were navigating. It's worth noting that the show, which premiered in September 2005, came of age in the age of social media. (Mark Zuckerberg launched TheFacebook in 2004.) At a time when many members of its audience were experiencing friendship as newly expansive, and newly transcendent of geography, HIMYM's five characters hunkered down at MacLaren's. They hung out in a single apartment. They dated one another. They married one another. And they used and/or ignored the people who existed beyond their tiny social circle. It was Central Perk all over again.
Which brings us back to the show's finale. The saddest revelation of the series' conclusion was not, in fact, that the mother died. We had had hints of this already, yes, but more to the point we are conditioned to understand that characters' lives, as everything else, must end. The tragedy of the series' conclusion was less about mortality and more about morality: It taught us that the mother, despite her place in the show's mythology, was ultimately just as expendable as everyone else. She was, by sad circumstance but also by the show's circular logic, a stepping stone on Ted's way, ultimately, to Robin.
You could find more hopeful takeaways in the show's final scene, to be sure—about second chances, about the validation of friendship, about love's resilience in the face of capricious contingencies. But those readings wouldn't fully explain the weird giddiness with which Ted's kids encouraged him to go win Aunt Robin. Tonally, the show's writers took a gamble: that their audience, having spent nine seasons invested in the relationship between Ted and Robin, would want him to end up with her, the woman who has been as much a part of their world these nine seasons as she has been of ours.
Robin was well known to us; the mother, despite her ghostly omnipresence in the show, was a relative stranger. And this, in the end, determined their fates. HIMYM, in its final scene, made its view of strangers clear: It wanted its hero to end up with the woman who, in nearly every way possible, was already part of the family.
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