How I Met Your Modern Sitcom: Rethinking Love & Relationships

How I Met Your Mother

Situation comedy has never been considered at the forefront of cutting edge art. In the pantheon of narrative literature, there is no special place for Two and A Half Men. Rather, when people think of sitcoms, they think of their stupidity and simplicity—stereotypical archetypes and the romanticizing of mundane problems tied to home and work. The sitcom may not be a trailblazer, but it is a barometer for the culture of its particular time and place. Sitcoms are overwhelmingly about office politics and romantic relationships, because that’s what most people deal with everyday. In this way, it is a democratic and generous form.

Despite its low aspirations, the sitcom can have a lot to say about the world and examine ideas that are quite meaningful. Now, it’s true, that doesn’t often happen, but it’s still possible. Of the few series that have managed such an enormous feat, How I Met Your Mother is an amazing example of artistic daring and humanity, while quietly filling the 8 pm time slot for CBS. Despite a four-camera aesthetic ripped off from the Cheers template, HIMYM has given an educated commentary in regards to sitcom aesthetics and societal norms. Its concerns are surprisingly broad, ranging from the formal use of character archetypes and sitcom tropes down to generalized perceptions on traditional relationships, both romantic and platonic. Through all this is an agile self-awareness of how ably the sitcom can traffic in real feeling and philosophical reflection.

The issue of awareness is inherent in the show’s underlying mechanics, a foundation that reinforces many of the show’s themes on flux, chaos and uncertainty. The establishment of the overarching storyline of how Architect Theodore Mosby, through the help of his friends, crosses paths with ‘the mother’ is a television McGuffin so mysterious and elusive that even Hitchcock himself would be jealous of the suspense. This not only places significance on every episode, but also gives us an ending for which we can work our way to. It’s in many ways a never-ending cliffhanger: the beginning of every episode provides us with an inquiry of how it will contribute to the overall story and the end more or less closes the book on that episode’s anecdote, which makes every episode self-sufficient. What happens then is that each episode is both self-contained and another clue to the deeper mystery of the mother.

It’s this ongoing suspense of the overall storyline that parallels many of the smaller, yet important pieces of the series’ puzzle. Ted’s major relationships, from Victoria and Stella to Zoe and eventually Victoria again, are met with the added pressure of ‘the mother’ elephant in the room. Until our narrator Ted fills us in, we’re always wondering if we have finally found the mother. This brings us to a fundamental structure of the series, in which plots, both episodic and recurring, take on an unraveling nature. We get to see each piece of the story bit by bit, before finally, we can come to a full conclusion. Many episodes, such as ‘The Pineapple Incident’ from Season 1, give us the enticing climax first, and then work backwards to explain how we got to that point.

What about the pineapple?

In this particular episode Ted, frustrated that his thoughtful attempts to land Robin Scherbatzky have failed, and egged on by his friends, downs five shots to prove his brain can’t be stopped. To his friends’ delight, his brain shuts off immediately after the 5th shot. He awakes with a sprained ankle, a woman asleep in his bed and, rather mysteriously, a pineapple on his nightstand. Remembering nothing of what happened, Ted spends the remainder of the episode trying to piece together the events of the preceding night. Slowly he unravels the mystery of the Pineapple incident, from Marshall Eriksen and Lily Aldrin telling him how he sprained his ankle to Barney Stinson telling Ted that it was he who set his coat on fire. This all leads up to speculation that the woman in Ted’s bed is actually Robin, based on Ted’s drunken phone calls to her, which apparently, finally, compel him to pour his heart out to her. However, what we find out is that his final call was actually to Trudy, a woman Ted met at the bar earlier in the episode.

This is a prime example of the many misdirections the show partakes in, divulging information out of context to build up one expectation before leading us to a more understandable conclusion. It can make for quite a frustrating yet enticing plot device, as we see in Season 7’s ‘Symphony of Illumination,’ in which the beginning of the episode shows us Robin talking to her kids. This set-up makes us believe that Robin has overcome her aversion to having children and, like Ted, is explaining how she met their ‘father.’ This all comes crashing down when we find out that she’s speaking to children that don’t exist and that she is infertile. An issue as serious as infertility requires a delicacy of touch and tone and the method by which we find out helps us to understand what’s going on without pulling any emotional punches.

This method of discovery parallels the overall arc of the show’s main storyline; as we uncover more and more, we’re given new things to expect. At first we wonder if Victoria, Stella or Zoe is the mother, but then we’re given evidence that draws their time with Ted to a reasonable close.

‘The Pineapple Incident’ stands out among other episodes of the same plot structure for its own self-reflection on how the show works as a whole. The Pineapple provides a blatant analogy to the show’s own pineapple, which is, of course, the mother. When we see Marshall scream “Dammit Trudy, what about the pineapple!” it’s a direct comment on an audience’s need to know the last bit of the puzzle, despite being given such wonderful experiences as Ted spraining his ankle or being set on fire. We as an audience want so badly to know who Ted ends up with that we forget that knowing is irrelevant to the overall journey Ted, and more importantly his friends, are experiencing.

This is a concept that many sitcoms have struggled with: how to maintain the central drama while advancing the narrative at the same time. Many shows center around a specific storyline in their opening seasons and resolve them well before the series is ready to say goodbye, leaving viewers with characters that feel aimless and situations that come off as tacked on. By giving these characters a specific but unknown end, HIMYM allows us to focus on their journey. They’ve solved the issue of narrative burnout by making us aware that there is a narrative and that the narrative is unique and ongoing.

To keep itself within the frame of the traditional sitcom, the show partakes in the age-old rule of threes, both in story structure and joke devices. The crossroads of Ted and Robin beginning their relationship just as Marshall ends his with Lily is summed up with a three-part observation on the commonalities of their first thirty days: they stay in bed all the time, their friends can’t stand to be around them and they never wear pants.

Similarly many of Barney’s anecdotes to the rest of the gang are met with three examples that link two unlike entities, most primarily his rules to dating. Barney’s diligence to the etiquette of courtship by establishing scientifically structured rules provides a satire on the ridiculous hoops sitcom characters jump through to be with one another; the same hoops that were created to reflect the absurd rituals our society partakes in to find a compatible mate. Rules like ‘The Lemon Law’ and ‘The Platinum Rule,’ use ‘rule of three’s’ logic to validate their authority in a given episode.

The Vicky Mendoza Diagonal

The show’s plots are often broken into three separate storylines that interweave through the same series of events. Season 2’s ‘Brunch,’ offers a storyline for each character, again enticing us with three out-of-context situations. We get Marshall and Lily fighting, Ted threatening to kill ‘him’ and Robyn telling Ted’s mom that she needs to say something. Each storyline unravels the true nature of these encounters: Marshall and Lily are experiencing the fallout of their relationship, Ted has just found out that his dad has been unfaithful to his mom and Robyn has found out that Ted’s mom and dad are divorced.

‘Brunch’ is also notable for being the true origin story for why Ted sat his kids down in the first place. His parents’ story of ‘meeting at a bar’ wasn’t good enough for him and so he made a vow that his kids would know all the details of his first encounter with their mother. This rule of threes plays a vital role in reflecting on the common tropes of sitcoms and social norms, mainly in reference to dating and romance. The concept of events happening in a set of threes builds enough dramatic tension to create a pattern. Once or twice is not enough and can be easily mistaken for a fluke. Three seems like the truth and gives the show a kind of internal inevitability and dramatic realism.

Among these mechanisms, however, is one so significant that it’s easily taken for granted and lost. The entire series is framed by Ted’s storytelling, meaning that not only are these events retroactive, they’re also subjective. Many episodes refer to a universe that is planned out and that there is some ultimate destiny. Because we know these things have already happened and that there is a set endpoint, the world of HIMYM is rational and does follow rules. This doesn’t mean that what we’re seeing is objectively true; on the contrary, the series is told from Ted’s perspective and is a reflection of Ted’s point of view. Had Marshall or Barney been telling the story, we would probably find things about Ted or other characters that might have been omitted from Ted’s rendition, either consciously or not. Many examples in the series show future Ted actively editing parts of the story from episode to episode, such as substituting smoking joints with ‘eating a sandwich,’ or baby feces with ‘confetti.’

Marij…..nara sauce

This isn’t to say that Ted is constantly manipulating the story to suit his favor, as he actually points out his many flaws and how he has corrected them, a crucial point in his desire to finally get the mother. It’s that the subjective nature of the storytelling helps us put in perspective the other narrative devices of the series, so that we see every episode, every joke and every character form a cohesive narrative logic that’s unrivaled by most other sitcoms. In a television culture that completely disregards continuity for the sake of novelty, it’s rare to see a show abide by rules of any kind and, even more, to demand that every detail serve the overall arc of the story.

Ironically, Ted’s role as the narrator makes him less important as a character. We accept that he is the focal point of the series, but it would be misleading to call him the show’s protagonist. It’s an easy mistake to make. After all we assume that someone who is telling the story of how they met their wife would be at the center of the story they’re telling. What the show offers is an audience surrogate that functions like a main character, but often recedes into the background, an adjunct to his own drama.

The series reinforces this concept on several fronts. For one, the defining feature of Ted’s character is his lack of character. He isn’t nearly as compelling as the rest of the cast, but I would argue that his everyman quality is purposeful and necessary for the success of the show. An audience stand-in should be easy to identify with and can’t be too much of a character for risk of alienating viewers. Ted has just enough details to be a real person, but not enough to be his own person. We don’t want to be Barney, the character who grows the most in the show’s run, but we sure as hell want to be Barney’s friend. This speaks volumes to how well written Ted’s character is by how much of him is not written.

It helps to keep Ted’s character and story as simple as possible. The promise of meeting his future wife, the mother, is a romantic one and there’s no need to get caught in the details of his life during that time. We’re never given any specific evidence as to how Ted managed to land a job in a hyper-competitive artistic field and find a spacious two-bedroom apartment above a popular bar, all in one of the most expensive cities on earth. At least with Friends this was explained away with rent control and a dead relative’s inheritance.

What makes setting Ted’s character apart all the more appropriate is that his roommate, law student Marshall, is constantly trying to balance the lure of future financial stability with his love for non-profit environmental law. Many episodes center on Marshall’s recurring money problems. Ted seems to have an unlimited supply of money, allowing him to loan Marshall money and even open his own independent architecture firm for a decent amount of time during season 4. This vagueness keeps Ted’s character wide open for abrupt shifts that would shatter a more conventional dramatic realism. When Ted’s work life is mentioned, it’s only in relation to a possible meeting with the mother, as in giving up on his industry aspirations in favor of a teaching position in the Architecture department at the same school the mother attends. And when the show takes abrupt plot twists, the unifying force of the mother narrative always saves it from illogic.

Where the vehicle concept is really evident, however, is in Ted’s lack of growth. He is a character built around regression. From the first episode Ted is given the challenge that will plague every single one of his decisions, romances and relationships: getting over his love for Robin. Robin ruins his relationship with Victoria in seasons one and eight. In season one, it’s Ted’s inability to properly break up with long distance girlfriend Victoria before spending an evening with vulnerable and Ted-crazy Robin. Then it’s Victoria forcing Ted to choose between marrying her and maintaining a friendship with Robin. You don’t need to be a HIMYM scholar to know that Ted can’t give up Robin.

Even when given specific challenges in which Ted seems to realize some crystallizing moment that makes him feel like he can be a better person, he simply reverts back to his normal sitcom archetype. Getting into a car wreck at the end of season 3 makes him realize how ‘important’ Stella, another major girlfriend caught in Robin’s shadow, is to Ted. In the season finale, ‘Miracles,’ we understand that Ted’s decision to propose to Stella is just another of his rash romantic gestures and not true love. In season 8 Ted steals Victoria from the altar. This is baffling considering four seasons prior, Ted was ditched at the altar and even mentions to Victoria that he understands what her fiancé must be feeling.

For a sitcom hero this is dangerously crass behavior and infuriating, but it is exactly Ted’s ability to live in the moment that keeps him in check as a character throughout the series. Season 8’s two-part episode, ‘The Final Page’ shows Ted, in the ultimate gesture, giving Robin away to Barney, only to tell Lily that Robin should be with him and not Barney in the very next episode. He is always true to form.

This isn’t to say that Ted is a horrible person; rather all of this points to how brilliant Ted is as a plot device. It’s easy to assume that our main character is our main character and to get wrapped up in what happens to him and how he grows. We want so badly for Ted to learn from his mistakes and be a better person, but that’s not what How I Met Your Mother is about. Ted isn’t the character we’re supposed to be attracted to, which could be the series’ most clever misdirection.

Rather HIMYM‘s main characters come from the periphery. Any fan that has followed the show can see that Barney is the real Ted, accomplishing what Ted can’t, as he changes what he believes and how he acts for love. Robin also sports the show’s other complex character arc, further cementing her star-crossed relationship with Barney. The third component to this, Lily and Marshall’s desire to forge a lasting marraige, provides the foundation for what Ted sees. The complexity of HIMYM is partly the result of the multiplicity of storylines that Ted is privy to and finally how he (we) understands those stories.

Look no further than the booth to find character dynamics, such as Ted in relation to the rest of the group, play out in screen space

From this vantage point, a static narrator and complex supporting characters, the series makes incredible statements on what it means to be in a relationship, either platonic or romantic. Set against the two templates that have been over-exhausted throughout the history of the sitcom, the traditional couple and the tensioned filled love story, we find Marshall & Lily and Robin & Barney, respectively, navigating themselves through these generic obstacles not as mere characters, but as real people who respond uniquely to specific situations.

Too often in sitcoms the simple plot is met with a simple solution; where HIMYM does adhere to the template of coming to a satisfying conclusion at the end of each episode, it is rarely simple in its conclusions. You aren’t likely to get social norms or desires disguised as morals here, like ‘sex should be saved for someone you love’ or ‘don’t go to bed angry.’ What you get is a more complex depiction of what it takes to even be worthy of a marriage, which is the test that Ted must pass to reach the conclusion of the series and the story.

Lily and Marshall represent HIMYM‘s most traditional relationship and yet the energy and thought the show invests in them are anything but clichéd, even when dealing with the clichés of being in a relationship. Season 1’s ‘Okay Awesome,’ deals with a common sitcom trope—identifying the moment when the relationship is grown up. The best way to establish that you’re in a grown up relationship, in the sitcom social constructs, is to throw a wine and cheese party.

Lily and Marshall believe that this is the next logical step in their relationship; after all, Lily’s co-worker is the same age as her, and she’s throwing wine and cheese parties with her significant other. What we end up with is Lily and Marshall sneaking away from their own boring grown up party to bump and grind with each other on the dance floor at a nightclub. When Lily laments to Robin that her relationship with Marshall has to keep moving forward, Robin responds “you can go wherever you want.”

This issue of progressing as a couple follows them from season to season. In season 4’s ‘Three Days of Snow,’ they decide to end their traditional way of reuniting at the airport, which is rather humorously Marshall dressed as a chauffeur and Lily bringing him a six pack of beer named with a pun relating to the place she visits. Believing that they’re too old for that—at least if they’re in a ‘matUEr’ relationship—they then realize that it’s exactly the most ridiculous traditions, or any traditions at all, that allow for true growth.

marshall and lily
Marshmallow and Lilypad

What’s important to understand is that their relationship is the polar opposite to most sitcom couples. Where other sitcom couples are shown to be super dysfunctional, and then work towards uncovering a kind of storybook perfected resolve, Lily and Marshall actually start out perfect (how most relationships begin) and then devolve into something more imperfect, but closer to reality and actual love. The first telling of their origin story is highly romanticized, in which Lily was attracted to Hewitt room 110 to find someone to help fix her stereo, and it was ‘love at first sight.’ This sentiment is sobered later on when Lily admits to Marshall that, upon seeing him at orientation, she broke her own stereo and actively searched him out.

‘Dowisetrepla,’ recounts their attempts to buy their own apartment and Marshall finding out that Lily has massive credit-card debt. Lily offers to divorce Marshall so her debt won’t skyrocket Marshall’s and he can qualify for the loan on an apartment. This moment is crucial in their relationship and demonstrates how HIMYM always plays for longer, more realistic stakes. Marshall instantly rejects the idea, stating that when he married Lily, he agreed to take on everything, including her problems, and that the relief on his credit would not be worth the pain of not being married to her, even for a moment.

Even in the show’s penultimate season, where married characters are often solidified into an unchangeable dynamic, Lily and Marshall still possess issues that threaten the foundation of their marriage. Lily admits to Ted that there are days where she can’t handle being a mom, and that she wants to take off in the middle of the night and move far away, because she feels she has given up so much of herself, most specifically her artistic self, to become a mom and a wife. The issues of never becoming a famous artist or never traveling the world are not for the sake of one episode; they are as much a part of Lily’s character as Marshall is. The perfection in their relationship is that they’ve weathered so many intense problems that could kill any other relationship, and still have those problems, just like every other real relationship that has ever existed.

It’s both hopeful and surprising to see a relationship still evolve after eight years and almost unheard of in a sitcom where relationships almost always grow into marriage, but turn flat after that. HIMYM understands how to use the aesthetics of the sitcom to, of all things, capture the passing of time. It’s an amazing accomplishment and highlights, by way of contrast, the emotional dysfunction that characterizes Barney and Robin’s relationship, as well as their immense growth over the series. It’s definitely familiar territory in long-run episodic television; the love story based in tension. What’s particular about this instance though is the way in which both of these characters relate to our stand-in, Ted. While it’s clear how perfect Barney and Robin are for each other, it’s even more obvious by how they relate to our pseudo main character and narrator.

Robin’s role is apparent from the start of the series: she is the romantic barrier to Ted in his quest to find ‘the mother.’ What the show does so well is emphasize how incompatible these two really are. Robin’s a scotch drinking, gun wielding Canadian badass, while Ted is an intellectual sissy with a love of fine literature and a bad habit of correcting everyone with trivial facts. Robin is a commitaphobe, while Ted rushes way too quickly into relationships: he’s fond of saying, ‘I love you’ on the first date. But what dooms them is their polarizing stances on kids. As Ted’s recently divorced parents explain to him in the ‘Brunch,’ disagreeing on something as fundamental as children will ultimately never work out. Robin doesn’t like kids and Ted does.

In their season 2 breakup they bargain about moving to Argentina to save their relationship, as Robin wants to travel instead of settling down as Ted wants. What results is a subtle yet clever distinction between conflicting philosophies. Robin says, “I don’t want to have kids in Argentina,” while Ted says “I don’t want to have kids in Argentina.” Ted’s story, it could be argued, is not so much about finding the mother, but about how he manages to accept that Robin isn’t the one and finally move on.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 7.15.47 PM
Robin’s relationship to Ted serves as one of the show’s most crucial dynamics

In ‘The Slutty Pumpkin’ we get the perfect visual metaphor for both the real central problem and the incredible beauty of the show. Ted waits for a woman he met at a party and sitting right next to him, waiting by his side, is Robin. She’s keeping him company until the perfect woman shows up in Ted’s life, for nearly nine whole seasons. Ted’s own regressions of hopeless romanticism also rub off onto Robin in ways that progress her character to finally be worthy of marriage.

In ‘The Final Page,’ Ted is the one that finally pushes her to chase after Barney, to stop him from proposing to Patrice. Robin is hesitant at first, afraid to ‘make an ass’ of herself. Ted tells her that if he hadn’t of made an ass of himself in their first encounter by saying ‘I love you’ on the first date, he wouldn’t have Robin as the best friend that she is now. Robin hadn’t been capable of making the commitment she makes to Barney before Ted.

More importantly, Robin and Ted’s relationship provides a small but significant commentary on how sitcoms approach relationships between men and women. A relationship doesn’t have to be romantic or lead to marriage for it to be significant and lasting. This is what makes Robin and Ted’s friendship such a wonder amidst all the garbage in television, movies and novels. When Robin tells Ted she doesn’t love him in season 7, he cuts off ties with her to figure out what she really means to him. This surmounts in Ted hallucinating her everywhere he goes. She then tells him that even though she may not love him the way he loves her, she still does love him. She then asks “isn’t that worth hanging onto?” This is obvious, as we’ve seen him hang onto her season after season. It is a relationship of great complexity that skews between the romantic and platonic, ending imperfectly, but resolving in an appropriate manner that is both bitter and joyful.

Neil Patrick Harris has garnered much acclaim for his role as Barney Stinson and with good reason. Despite his comic relief antics, Barney has the most complex character arc of the group, including Ted. He is, in fact, what Ted must become, another one of the shows more subtle misdirections. At the beginning of the series Barney is nothing more than a sexist womanizer with a keen sense for memorable one-liners. By the time we get to season 8, Barney has become a character so rich that we feel him deserving of Robin, the person we all hope is the mother but whom we know is not.

What’s significant is how Barney learns to appreciate and desire monogamy and marriage, even when his character arc yearns for the opposite. In ‘Singles Stamina,’ we watch him attempt to understand why his brother would want to get married. Throughout the episode he criticizes his brother’s choice, and by doing so critically engages with what true commitment means. His narrow minded objections provide an excellent satire on a given character arc responding blindly to many ‘hot topics’ that are addressed in the sitcom world as heavy material. In this instance, his bashing of married couples mirrors the way many sitcom characters have approached the idea of gay marriage. It’s not that James, Barney’s brother, being gay is the issue. In Barney’s eyes, the lifestyle of being married in general is the abomination, placing homosexuality as irrelevant in comparison. But through seeing James and his love for Tom and the kid they’ve adopted, Barney is able to reason with the idea that marriage has its qualities.

Barney has even stated, hours before his wedding, that if it weren’t for James’ undying love for Tom, Barney would never believe in true love. Rarely in sitcoms do we see characters actually think and through thinking learn to feel. It is this doubly complex process that allows us to feel that he is right for and deserves Robin and that we are right for investing our time in a series that understands time and its relationship to our difficult steps to achieve some kind of maturity. This episode opens his character to the idea of settling down, and in turn finally beginning to reflect on his feelings towards Robin.

This is really where Barney is best suited for Robin, the more or less perfect ending, in all the ways that Ted isn’t. What makes Barney and Robin so consistently fresh is their ability to have the same fundamental personalities, and yet attract and polarize each other through tension. Both being afraid of commitment, one wants the other when it’s most inconvenient. When Barney’s in a relationship with Nora and Robin is with Kevin, they end up sleeping together. When Robin and Ted live together and start using sex to ‘solve’ their problems as roommates, Barney becomes very upset and unable to cope with his feelings in a healthy manner, resulting in the smashing of several televisions in a back alleyway.

Yet when they’re together, as in season 5’s ‘The Rough Patch,’ they’re so extreme in their personalities that they both cancel each other out. This results in their inability to find things they both want to do, causing them to do nothing. As Ted points out “they’re not Barney and Robin anymore.” This results in Barney’s overeating and Robin not caring about her physical appearance and being annoyed with every little thing Barney does.

It’s evident that Barney and Robin can only exist in constant tension; there needs to be a consistent stimulus to their actions in order for their relationship to work. ‘Zip Zip Zip,’ shows their first shared storyline in the series, when they decide to spend a night out together. The one activity they partake in is Laser Tag, a staple to Barney’s character throughout the series. Robin’s enthusiasm for playing the sport matches Barney’s, a sure sign that these two share a passion for high risk, high reward endeavors.

‘Natural History,’ shows the two parading through the Museum of Natural History, attempting to out duel each other in touching all of the exhibits. Robin places her hand on an Egyptian artifact, implying a challenge to Barney. He meets her stare as he places his hand on the artifact, which heightens the drama. Robin wearing a fur pelt and carrying a spear is outdone by Barney wearing the Egyptian garb they started the challenge with. Even season 8’s opening episode shows that even when we know for certain Barney and Robin will be getting married, they’re both absolutely freaked out by the idea of committing, they both attempt to ditch the other by jumping out of their respective windows at the Farhampton Inn.

Two alpha dogs in constant tension

It can be argued that the relationship between these two characters takes precedent over any other storyline in the series, reflecting their alpha dog personalities. Barney and Robin both go through the most development of their respective characters from season to season, arguably in anticipation of becoming the people they need to be in order to accept each other for who they are. With this in mind, it’s also important that they still hold on to their respective character archetypes, as this is what keeps their relationship constantly stimulated. The trick for them is to find the middle ground when it’s most needed, something they didn’t have the ability to do when they were together in season 5. Robin asks Barney why he even likes her in ‘Tick Tick Tick.’ Barney responds “because you’re almost as messed up as I am.”

Barney’s final play from the playbook, aptly called ‘The Robin,’ is an elaborate multiple episode storyline involving manipulation, deceit and misdirection that leads to his proposal to Robin. Even when Robin points out to him that he needs to stop lying to her in order for their marriage to work, a fundamental component to any relationship, he retaliates by telling her that lying is what he does best, but at the center of those lies, she knows the real truth of his love for her. Robin’s growth over the series has allowed her the capacity to have the faith that Barney will love her forever, and in turn Barney has grown to never betray Robin’s trust. In this respect their relationship is a true reflection on what it means to be in a successful relationship; compromising without compromising yourself.

But there is one more factor to their happiness, which involves none other than our vehicle, Ted. Barney, Robin and Ted are such interconnected characters that they require each other to fill in the blanks of their already finished stories. Ted’s inability to let go of Robin has held her back from fully trusting Barney, and in turn hinders Barney’s abilities to be the emotionally tentative fiancée he has developed the capacity to be. On many occasions, it has been Ted who has stepped up to help Robin in times of crisis when Barney has been unavailable. We see this perfectly demonstrated in Season 8’s ‘Something Old,’ in which Ted comes to Robin’s aid to help her find the locket she buried for the purposes of her wedding. Even when she wanted Barney first, Ted was first to respond, and keeps Robin always in thought of what it could be like to have Ted.

This relation between the 3 characters to resolve one another’s narrative reinforces the show’s constant messages of the universe having a bigger plan, that every single episode and adventure, no matter how or when it’s told, is the next step in telling the larger story. It’s only appropriate that at Robin and Barney’s wedding, as Ted is finally coming to terms that Robin really isn’t the one after 9 whole seasons, he is introduced to none other than ‘the mother.’

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Laurine Farrell

    Honestly, it’s become so boring that I’ve been forcing myself to watch the new episodes.

    I don’t even care if the mother is dead, if the real mother is Robin, if Ted is gay, if everything is a creation from his mind, etc., I just want it to end, so I can be free again!

    • Shearer

      You are not alone. Great work producers, make a show that just is work watching just to close that chapter, then create a spinoff using the same format.

    • You made me spit out my drink laughing!

  2. First, lovely article.

    Second, I couldn’t bring myself to the level of hate, since it’s just a TV show… But I think it would be disappointing and shoddy writing if the mother is dead at the end, given the setup. It would be shock for shocks shake rather than artistic reasons. There’s no cohesion. Just like the original ending of Clerks didn’t work with Dante being killed, this wouldn’t either.

    • I look at it this way.

      We all do in fact have to die. The mother in this fictional world will inevitably die one day. That’s obvious.

      But the other way I look at it is we don’t have to see it. There’s no reason to. After 9 years of television about a man on a journey to meet “the love of his life” and a “love story in reverse” as they tagged this show…I’d find it pointless to kill the mother in the final episode.

      So what that it’s something that could happen in real life? Obviously. But why do we have to see that? It doesn’t make sense to me as to why they would do it.

      Sadly, and something I absolutely despise, is if they kill the mother, they’re probably going to kill Barney too. I mean what are they going to have Ted who has struggled with loneliness and his desire to have a partner now live the majority of his life alone? After 9 years? Really? Doubt it. So you know what’s coming. They kill the mother, they kill Barney. Ted and Robin wind up together. Mirrors the plot of the book the writers love “Love in The time of Cholera.”

    • Yeah see this is exactly how I feel about it too. To me up to this point the show has been all about so many wrong things leading up to the right thing, just to have it taken away in the blink of an eye would just make me despise the show. I’d start out completely hating this entire season and eventually the rest of the show. There are times I’ve reflected back on all my wrong ones as I watch Ted navigate through his, so I sometimes feel like I’m making the journey with him, only he gets to the prize before I do and I still have to wait. To take it away from him would just be against everything the show was building to…..

      This is how I met your mother kids….then she died.

    • Janis Osborne

      I absolutely would. Up to this point, it’s kind of been a show about hope. Ted has hope that he will find the one. (It’s also given me hope about the same.) I don’t see how it’s possible that they could spin it into a bittersweet ending if she dies. It would just be tragic, if you ask me. Yes, the show has gone melodramatic before with Marshall’s father dying and stories like that, but his father was not the central plot or a major character. Not only that, the kids’ reactions would be awfully cruel if their mother was dead or was dying. And if Ted’s even about to tell him that she’s dying, that’s quite a build up to such terrible news and would only make her impending death even harder for the kids to take once they knew. I would just feel betrayed by the whole thing, no matter how well done it is…

    • It would just ruin it for me to the point where I wouldn’t even want to watch the reruns in syndication. Having seen Ted go through so much to find “the one” only to have her die young is just cruel to the viewers. If I wanted to watch a sad drama, I would, but I watch HIMYM for the laughs, and the message of hope.

    • I would hate it, not just for the fact that it wouldnt match the comedy of the show but also because there has been zero build too it. Never buy the dvds and wouldnt watch a minute of himyd

  3. Nathanial Davison

    People can think whatever they want about the show, but the writers have done well. To keep all theories possible until the very last episode. They want their fans to think and guess and predict what is going on, only to throw a big curve ball. They’e done it so many other times. They’ve had us patiently (well… some of us lol) wait for the answers to the questions that we have been asking. They want us to read into the words.

    • I agree to a point.

      Here’s the problem. Prior to “Vesuvius” there were literally FIVE of us here who even slightly thought the Time Travelers speech was off. I can’t tell you how many not even well thought out insults were hurled at me over it.

      Had they never aired this extremely telling/open-ended but entirely UNNECCESSARY 2024 episode, we would have been “Crazy people” until the last shot of the finale proving that we were either “right all along” or “crazy people buying into something that wasn’t there.”

      Now…the internet has exploded with discussion, my favorite being how “we knew this for a FACT since Time Travelers!”

      if they don’t actually go there, what the hell was the point of “going there” at all?

      the speech again doesn’t make sense, and if she’s sick at all, the kids are still “monsters for not wanting to hear the story”

      it also makes the story itself make even less sense.

      My rationale at this point.

      She is dying. They showed you early so you can come to terms with it over the next few weeks/hold out hope she won’t.

      Ted’s living in his stories and the longer he puts off “meeting her” in the context of the story, the easier it is for him to keep her memory alive/not have to deal with the horrific depression that is his life in 2030.

    • I was one of the people who didn’t really consider The Mother dying as a possibility. Now it’s a big one. I am kind of wishing she dies, to be honest… If that doesn’t happen, the writers are jerks. When we thought Robin and Barney had adopted a child it was a surprise that lasted for a few seconds, and when it all came together it was funny. I don’t think they would imply such a serious situation – The Mother’s death – and not go through with it. And I think it’d kinda make sense, you know?

      Though I don’t understand why Ted would spend most of the time talking about his life in New York without The Mother if the intention was sharing the memories he had of The Mother with his children.

      That being said, I have no idea what’s gonna happen.

    • Great article and very good comment. Yes, the writers have laid groundwork and created a finale that people want to see, want to discuss and want to argue about.

  4. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    I’m still waiting for New Girl to turn into a science fiction show : /

  5. This is a wonderfully well-written article! I’m not as invested in HIMYM as you, but even with watching other sitcoms, HIMYM is something really special and unique.

    (Sorry commenters who took over your board are talking about the ending theories. It must be so frustrating! You did a great job with this article and you should be proud!)

    • Bennett Rust

      Thank you so much for your kind words! Actually, everyone talking about the ending theories surrounding the mother plays into one of my points perfectly. The mother is more of a plot device than a real character. She’s the reason Ted is telling the story in the first place, which is why we all want to know her fate so badly. But when it comes down to it, we have 5 really well written and developed characters that we are so invested in, who have so many things happening for themselves, it begs the question, why aren’t we talking about their situations? Why aren’t we talking about Robin’s mother showing up for the first time in the series? Or Lily’s inexplicable town car ride that made her change her mind on Rome? Barney’s Ring Bear? Our focus as a fanbase is on the end result (mother), and not the journey.

  6. WOW fantastic post!!

  7. When this show first came out, I didn’t watch it. But then I did. And I fell madly in love and obviously watched the first four seasons in one week. Sad that after a certain point, some shows really lose their zest, humor, and creativity. I’ll watch this show until the very end, but mostly because of my loyalty. Also, I’m a romantic, so I’m already pissed off that poor Ted can’t get a happily ever after (that is, if his wife really does die).

  8. I have yet to watch an episode of HIMYM but the concept seems infuriating! To wait up to ten years just to find out one basic fact haha.

  9. Excellent article, insightful and full of examples that illustrate well your points; I really like the way you analyse the structure of the episodes, and that idea of triangle as the basis for the sitcom’s relationships. Well done, you seemed to have put a lot of time and effort in this. HIMYM used to be so cleverly structured, full of wit and humour, but it has now lost its charm for me…

  10. Excellent article!! Really made me rethink romantic comedies.

  11. Liz Kellam

    I agree with most that the last season is dragging on. But your article made me want to go back and re-watch the previous seasons to remember all the tie-ins that come up along the way. I love that this show is not always told in a lineal pattern.

  12. Such a great analysis! I love that HIMYM has such a devoted fanbase, even if it seems I’m the only one left who actually still likes (loves!) the show. I absolutely agree that Barney has the most complex character arc and his progression has been such a wonderful thing throughout the series. HIMYM has taught me more than I ever deemed possible, about friends and Barney’s lesson in Sunset– that no matter what you do or achieve, it’s only worth something if you’ve got good friends to share it with. HIMYM is much more thoughtful than people who don’t see it give credit to, and considering this, I think it has earned a non-typical ending for a sitcom, because HIMYM isn’t a typical sitcom.

    Again, FANTASTIC article, cheers!!

  13. My main concern with “How I Met Your Mother”: How long have those kids been sitting there listening to this story?

  14. Jane Harkness

    As someone who was once a huge fan of HIMYM, I really enjoyed this article. Although the show went downhill in the later seasons (as so many sitcoms do, unfortunately), earlier seasons definitely had their strong points, especially in terms of character development. I love that you mentioned the episode from Season 7 in which we see Robin talking to her “future children”-I personally felt this was one of the best and most emotionally touching episodes of the series.

  15. Roxanne

    Interesting to consider the show’s approach at the universe having a bigger plan now that despite the mother Robin is Ted’s end game. After 9 seasons leading to Ted accepting that Robin isn’t the one somehow she actually turns out to be. Must admit there were some very disappointing aspects to this last season. With such a drawn out story line over the last few episodes it would have been nice to have more time watching Ted interact with the mother before being shifted back to Robin.

  16. Jemarc Axinto

    HIMYM influenced a great majority of my final year of undergrad. At any given moment if time you could relate to the characters in each of there archtypes and its ability to explore alternatives to the “perfect” relationship is what made it so approachable for me. The way the series ended was rather unfortunate and did seem like a cop-out, but (if you ignore the final two minutes) the way everything ended was realistic in the sense of being able to stay completely true to ones self in hopes of maybe finding a type of love that can make it all worth while.

  17. mccartyj

    I would be curious to hear your thoughts about the final season/episodes! I was particularly upset that all the character development – especially Barney’s – was essentially cast aside, as characters returned to their old habits: Ted to Robin, Robin to career, and Barney to chasing young women.

    • Bennett Rust

      The finale has certainly taken me a while to process. I think, for the most part, on paper it stays in alignment with the show’s philosophies and mechanics. Certainly in a show built consistently on misdirections and playing up viewer expectations, only to take a wild left turn, it really shouldn’t come as any surprise that Ted and Robin would end up together in the VERY end. The mother is still used as more of a plot device than a real character, and we reach a resolve that should have happened the entire time; Ted gets Robin. It’s supposed to completely restructure our perspective on why he’s telling the story to his kids in the first place; it’s not just about them understanding who he had to become to be with the mother, it’s about him coming to terms with how much he really loves Robin. So in theory, the ending is totally on par with how the show is in its misdirecting nature, giving us a new way to look at how the show works.

      I think a lot of the backlash against it is due in part to the show introducing the mother as a character in the final season. We grow to like this “character”, when really she shouldn’t be a character, as awful as that sounds. We hate that Ted basically just reverts back to his old habits, we spend nine years wanting him to finally get over the Robin hill, and be happy with the mother forever. But he just goes back to being Ted. Which, really is true to form. Ted’s just as much a plot device as the mother because he never progresses, and he serves as the vehicle that we experience this story.

      Also a lot of things feel glazed over. The brief and vague way the mother goes, along with the kids’ instant understanding and support of him chasing after Robin feels inhuman and surreal. Which is the double edged sword of the series’ ability to jump back and forth in time so quickly; we never see the grieving stages of Ted or his kids.

      I honestly love how Barney’s arc is handled. He stays true to his character, but develops into something more and understands love in a whole new context. An understanding that couldn’t happen with infertile Robin. His speech to Lily and Marshall on being okay with not finding the one and just being a single womanizer was one of the few parts about the finale that I actually felt they nailed 100 percent.

      All in all, the show took a huge chance with the finale, and left a lot of people divided. Sitcoms like to wrap things up with a definite resolve that audiences want; we wanted Ross and Rachel to be together in the end of Friends. But I feel that this finale leaves us with something that mirrors the complexities of real life a little bit more; sometimes we don’t get everything we want, but that’s how life works. Plus people are still talking about it, which means it’s made an impact on our culture, and keeps the spirit of the show alive.

  18. I loved your article. I wasn’t a fan of the show when it first started, but my friend recently got me into watching it. I completely agree with you on all your points about the dynamics of relationships in the show. I’m commenting on this article after viewing the series finale, and I don’t know if you agree with me or not, but for some odd reason, I found the finale so anti-climatic. It built up all this to where Ted finally meets The Mother, but at the end of it all, Ted ended up with Robin. It came full circle as I continue to re-watch the series from beginning to end. I just expected more in my opinion.

  19. Donna Margara

    I am STILL on the fence about many facets in the final season/episode. However, I love that you pointed out that Barney has the most character growth over the course of the series. Regardless of the series outcome, I thought Barney’s personal ending was perfect. It wasn’t until he held his daughter, that he could say things like, “I love you” and “everything I have is yours” and TRULY mean it. In that moment, he finally understood love and commitment, and thought it was much more meaningful and powerful for Barney to have that with his little girl than with Robin.

  20. When I began watching the show it did-hard and at times when watching repeats still does- feel like a standard sitcom, with a bit of a quirk. Reading your article showed the different sides of the shows ‘quirk’ and was very interesting. I enjoy the subjective narrative of the show as the relationships feel more personal (the style of the finale did seem a bit rushed though).

  21. Megan Kelly
    Megan Kelly

    When I began watching the show, I expected a typical sitcom laced with romance and various hi jinx. Instead, what I got, was a truly amazing show that spoke to the psyche of modern 20-30 year olds. The wild antics, good intentions, and hesitation of love are themes that can be applied to any young persons life. Some of the most profound thoughts on life, love, and friendship were narrated by Bob Saget – and I can’t say I’m too embarrassed by that. Great read!

  22. hetta

    I think this is a fantastic analysis of what is a truly groundbreaking sitcom. The writers play with time/narrative/expectations in a completely unique way and I think you explored that beautifully! They don’t always get it right, but that’s inevitable when you’re trying to push the boundaries and break new ground. Thanks for such a thoughtful analysis.

  23. How I Met Your Mother has been my all-time favorite sitcom since I hit “play” on Netflix about a year ago. The chemistry between the actors themselves is electric, making an already solid attempt at comedy hilarious. This show has acted as a template for what I imagine the perfect friend group to be, and the show itself is an effective commentary of how relationships work within a network of close-nit people- for example, Ted never gets over Robin because he is constantly partially responsible for keeping her happy within the friend group, which is contagious and leads to Barney falling for her in his attempt to make her happy as well. Ted’s narration throughout the 9 season saga is also helpful to making this show a huge success because he provokes thought from the audience- his little observations about life lead to more existential questions that leave the viewer thinking, even if they don’t realize it at first.

  24. The show is brilliant. The last season was a drag. They stretched about 3 days into 10+ episodes and then spent the final episode uprooting what they had created. It was frustrating to watch, but it doesn’t change the fact that the show was smart and relatable at its core.

  25. Great article and very informative…

  26. I loved HIMYM from the get-go, and this article just made me realize how truly different and genius this show really is. You can obviously tell that a lot of thought was put into even just one episode and how it all ties together as a full story. To be honest, I learned a lot about love and life in general from watching it because of how real and relatable it felt.

  27. Bennett Rust

    Thanks for the response! That’s mostly what I love about the show is that each and every episode was thought about with the bigger idea and themes in mind, rather than just making the same template episodes sitcoms use to fill season gaps. I’m glad you enjoyed the article 🙂

  28. Fantastic article! I love this show because they manage to create so many recurring jokes and stories that tie together. This show definitely has some creative writers!

  29. Nice article but kind of tellingly leaves some darker parts of HIMYM‘s story out. The show resides in a universe that responds to Ted’s desires. “Come On” demonstrates Ted’s power by having him actually make it rain. Yes the other characters have nice story arcs but they exist to serve Ted: Marshall and Lily to show him real love, Robin to keep him company and prevent compromise while awaiting the mother and Barney to provide job opportunities for all the characters as well as remove Robin from play in a nick of time. And finally the mother to embody Ted’s list of mate’s traits, birth and raise children and then die just as Ted runs out of stories and needs to return to Robin to create new ones.

    Ted is not just an architect of buildings but also of the universe in which these characters reside. The power of the narrator to shape the story is a theme running through countless episodes. This story is exactly what Ted needs it to be to impress his children with the importance and difficulty of waiting for the right spouse, express his desire to return to Robin and show himself as adored by women, friends and the architecture world.

  30. Sitcoms, especially HIMYM, are definitely underrated. They might become irrelevant a decade later, even seem a little silly, but the point is that they become microcosms of a time and place, of a culture consciousness, instead of trying too hard to “stand the test of time”.
    Under these considerations, its humor becomes its Achilles’ heel because the jokes, sayings, and clichés are the building blocks of that microcosm, but they lose their crisp relevance outside its time and place.

  31. Sorry if this comment is a little late,

    I loved your analysis of Marshall and Lily. I agree that married couples just kind of fade away in other sitcoms and it pains me to think that this is because marriage is the end to a romantic plot line. My favourite episode for them is actually “Natural History” where college-Marshall is just an exhibit that Lily comes across. I always found that, when it wants to, HIMYM can present realistic relationship hurdles in an engaging and tactful way. To me, it is this adherence to realism and emotional honesty that sets this show apart.

  32. I thought the show was great (minus the ending, but we all know how that went haha, if you enjoyed the ending that that wonderful, why?) so reading this was like taking a step back into some of the intricate and well versed writing that made HIMYM a good show.

  33. cbharris

    I had a grad school friend that loved HIMYM, definitely going to share it with them. The idea of a narrator (and focal point) of the overarching plot not being the protagonist is incredibly fascinating to me.

  34. Really excellent and detailed analysis. The show was really interesting in the fact that it borrowed so heavily from Seinfeld and Friends and other sitcoms and yet was so, so trailblazing. Your analysis makes me miss the genius of the show and reminds me how much they totally killed it with that horrid, horrid finale. Barney and Robin forever!

  35. I’m afraid that there is a good deal in your article that I disagree with. To me, Ted has always been the protagonist, despite being the narrator as well. He is not the first protagonist who has also served as the narrator. I get the feeling that you never wanted him to be the main protagonist. Ted is not a flat character. He is simply not as obvious as the others.

    Barney and Robin were not meant for each other. They were simply too similar. I thought they should have stayed together during Season Five, eventually marry . . . divorce by the beginning of the last season. Actually, I’ve always felt that Ted and Tracy were also too similar. This is why I found their relationship rather artificial.

    I also noticed something else during my re-watch of early Season One. The series devoted two episodes to Ted and Robin’s first meeting. I cannot recall the series devoting more than one episode to Ted meeting his other friends. And the pilot episode ended with Ted telling his kids on how he first met Robin. Again, this has never happened with his other friends or even with Tracy. Carter and Bays practically gave the game away in that first episode. Yet, many fans spent the next nine years being distracted by their misdirections.

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