Time Jumps in How I Met Your Mother: Why We’re Not Buying It Now
In its ninth and final season, How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) is slowly inching its way towards the punchline of the whole show – the meeting between Ted (Josh Radnor) and The Mother (Cristin Milioti). While the whole show is basically one giant cobweb of timelines and stories, there is a big difference between how these timelines operate in terms of driving or slowing down the narrative. The differences between how the narrative utilizes the timelines regarding the past, present, and future of Ted’s life contribute to the great moments of the show and to the worst moments (ahem the last few seasons).
For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve split the show’s narrative into these different timelines: Past, Present, Near Future, and Far Future.
The Present in HIMYM is the main storyline. To put it into the context of time, anything that happens in the storyline between 2005 and 2014 is part of the Present. The Past in HIMYM consists of any happenings that occur before 2005, i.e. Ted, Marshall, and Lily’s college years. The Far Future happens in 2030 and only has 3 voices so far – Older Ted (voiced by Bob Saget) and Ted’s kids. The majority of the show takes place within these three timelines.
Because HIMYM is ultimately a bedtime story for Ted’s kids, the play between the Present/Past timeline and the Far Future timeline provides some of the greatest moments of the show using the following devices:
1. Fantastic elements/surrealism
Since Far Future Ted is telling a story to his kids, he is able to stretch the limits of reality in order to exaggerate a certain part of a story or to visually depict a euphemism in order to censor something offensive. We as an audience are able to see these fantastically fake elements play out onscreen.
A recurring example of this would be Ted censoring an old habit of smoking weed by instead saying that he was “eating a sandwich.” In another sitcom, a euphemism like this would ordinarily be accompanied by a look or gesture to represent the actual offense, but in HIMYM, we are able to visually see the euphemism in the form of college Ted and Marshall get high off of eating sandwiches. This fresh take on euphemism in television works not only because it’s not only hilarious for viewers, but because we see the euphemism under the premise that the story is being told to kids. It makes the ridiculous image of getting high off of eating sandwiches an acceptable alternative for actually smoking weed.
Another example of a fantastic element in the series is the ability of some characters to defy the laws of physics. In Season 1, Episode 5 called “Okay Awesome,” Marshall and Lily escape from a boring wine and cheese party by jumping out of their third floor apartment to the ground floor. Although Ted “is a little foggy on the details” the show depicts Marshall and Lily exiting from the bathroom window and jumping down on the ground in an alley, implying that they jumped three stories. However, we as an audience accept the impossible jump because it happens under the premise that Ted is telling the story with some hindsight (or lack of it).
So because of the play between the Past/Present timelines and the Far Future timeline, the audience is more accepting of fantastic and story-like images, providing a fresh take on comedic tropes.
2. Symbolism/Literal Imagery
I’m not just talking about the yellow umbrella, a recurring symbol in the series usually depicting a turning point in Ted’s life that leads him to The Mother. HIMYM also put itself in a unique position of being able to depict symbols and image on television literally without having viewers question if the presence of a symbol is realistic or not.
One of the most powerful uses of literal images is the use of different-sized luggages to represent a person’s emotional baggage. In Season 5, Episode 23, “The Wedding Bride,” Ted decides to start dating again after being left at the altar. After seeing a new hit movie called “The Wedding Bride” on a date that depicts him as the annoying Jed Mosley in the very wedding where he was left at the alter, he starts to fear rejection from those who despise the character in the movie. Because of this fear, it appears that Ted has the huge weight of being left at the altar on his shoulders, represented by a big black trunk marked “LEFT AT THE ALTAR.”
After admitting that he was left at the altar and seeing that his date is willing to listen to his problems, he remembers that everyone has emotional baggage and that being in a meaningful relationship means that your partner is willing to help you out with your baggage. His date helps him carry “LEFT AT THE ALTAR” trunk.
Again, the use of literal symbols works in the series because of the play between the Present timeline and the Far Future. As Ted tells his kids about a time that he was having emotional baggage, said baggage visually manifests itself into something tangible that a kid might actually be able to understand. The weight and size of a luggage physically depicts the weight and size of said emotional baggage on one’s mind and heart, impacting viewers who are watching and presumably leading to Ted’s kid’s understanding of the situation.
Another example of the use of literal images is the representation of Robin’s dogs as her ex-boyfriends and Ted’s things as his ex-girlfriends in Season 2, Episode 16, titled “Stuff.” Robin and Ted are at odds when things that reveal to each other that different things in their apartments were given to them by exes. Ted sees Robin’s ex-boyfriends when he looks at her dogs and Robin sees Ted’s ex-girlfriends when she looks as his stuff – and the audience sees them too.
Due to the storytelling nature of HIMYM, we are able to see visual representation of these images onscreen which not only provide comedic relief, but also add a metaphysical weight to every symbol or literal image.
3. Life lessons and/or theories on life
“Nothing good happens after 2AM.”
“The Front Porch Test.”
“The Crazy/Hot Scale.”
“The Mermaid Theory.”
There are hundreds of lessons and theories that we’ve learned from HIMYM, including an official HIMYM published text of rules on how to seduce women, a.k.a. The Playbook. These lessons and rules and theories are told under the premise that Far Future Ted is trying to impart wisdom on his children and work not only because they inform important actions that each character takes, but also because the audience can relate to these rules.
For example, “The Mermaid Theory” is a Stinson-certified theory that a manatee, or an unattractive woman, in a man’s life has a certain amount of time before they turn into a mermaid, or an attractive woman. The only way for a manatee to turn back into a mermaid is for the man to sleep with said mermaid. However, Ted attributes the debunking of this theory to the reason why Marshall and Robin became such close friends.
While this life rule/theory doesn’t seem like a significant one, it adds a lot of weight to the story of Marshall and Robin and informs the way that they acted before and after “The Mermaid Theory” was debunked. And, if you were in the audience watching this, you might have been able to think of that manatee-turned-mermaid in your own life.
While these elements added to the charm of HIMYM through play between the Past/Present and the Far Future, more recently, a new timeline, which I’m calling the Near Future, presented itself more prominently into the HIMYM canon. This timeline happens sometime between 2014 (when the show is scheduled to end and Ted is supposed to meet The Mother) and 2030 and depicts Ted’s life after he meets the Mother.
So far, Season 9 is made up of interactions between the Present timeline and the Past/Near Future timelines. We have seen Ted propose to the Mother, we have seen a kind of racist backstory on the second-to-last slap, and we’ve witnessed the night of Luke’s (the son) birth, all before we’ve seen the meeting between Ted and the Mother.
The clear objective of this season is to slow down Barney and Robin’s wedding weekend as much as possible using flashbacks and flash-forwards so that Ted and the Mother meet at the end of the season. However this is possibly why the show has taken a turn for the worst and here are some reasons why:
1. No background on The Mother
We’ve seen Ted do crazy things for love. He stole a blue french horn for Robin, he was willing to move to New Jersey (Ted hates NJ) for Stella, and he put his career on the line for Zoe. After all this, his Season 9 proposal to The Mother didn’t really tug any heartstrings. It was simple and cute, but there was something missing.
It wasn’t the fact that Ted didn’t go all out for this proposal – it was the fact that we as viewers don’t know anything about the Mother or her relationship with Ted, except for the facts about certain milestones in their life together shown only in Season 9.
If we compare Ted’s proposal to The Mother to his proposal to Stella (played by Sarah Chalke), we see two very different proposals. The Mother got romantic, planned proposal on a lighthouse on a beach at sunset. Ted’s proposal to Stella at the arcade was last-minute. He didn’t have a ring, had just gotten dumped by Stella a few hours before, and had just gotten out of the hospital. But she said, “Yes.” And that was an exponentially more satisfying proposal than The Mother’s because we know more about Stella-and-Ted than The-Mother-and-Ted.
While this was slightly remedied with the Season 9, Episode 16 titled “How Your Mother Met Me,” there is still not enough background for an audience to be emotionally invested in the relationship or for an audience to root for Ted and The Mother. Thus, the flash-forwards into Ted and The Mother’s life, while cute, seem like a significant waste of air time.
2. Nothing is actually happening in Season 9
If you ask someone what HIMYM is really about, they wouldn’t say that it’s about a man who is looking for the love of his life. They’d say that the show is about the day-to-day life of a group of friends living in New York… and one of them is on the way to meet the love of his life.
While meeting The Mother is ultimately what the show is driving the audience towards, HIMYM has kept fans because they are invested in the lives of not only Ted, but also Marshall, Lily, Robin, and Barney. We’ve seen the milestones of Marshall and Lily’s whole relationship, we’ve seen Robin become a famous news anchor, and we’ve seen Barney’s progression from womanizing single-for-life guy to someone who wants to settle down with one lady. There has always been movement within each season’s Present timeline and in the lives of each character.
The problem with this season is that there is no movement. So far, there are exactly 4 major plot points in Season 9: (1) The Meeting between Ted and the Mother, (2) Marshall and Lily’s argument about moving to Rome or staying in New York, (3) Barney and Robin’s wedding, and (4) Ted letting go of Robin. The only one that has been resolved (hopefully) is Ted letting go of Robin.
Things are happening. We find out that Barney’s brother, James, has gotten a divorce. We find out that Robin has no girlfriends except for Lily. Some jerk that is in The Mother’s band tries to ruin the friendships between the gang. And there are flashbacks that accompany these stories in the Present timeline. However, these flashbacks and Present timeline happenings don’t really add anything significant to the movement of the aforementioned plot points.
This makes for a stagnant Present timeline, which usually inform significant flashbacks.
3. Realism and storytelling with no substance
Let’s talk about Episode 14 of this season, ‘Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmara.’ The whole episode takes place within the span of a 5-second slap, taking us through a flashback of Marshall telling the story of how he learned the ancient art of slapping. The flashbacks mainly consist of Marshall going to several ridiculous slap masters who teach him three major components of an epic slap.
In a way, it was a nice break from the endless wedding antics back to the familiar dynamic of using flashbacks to add to the Present timeline. However, the fact that this particularly long flashback adds 5 seconds to the Present timeline of the wedding, makes the whole episode seem like a big waste of time.
The same could be said of other flashback episodes this season, including Episode 7, “No Questions Asked.” In this episode, after Lily gets a text from Marshall that could ruin their relationship, Ted rushes to tell Lily that she has to delete the text before reading it, with no questions asked. The episode consists of flashbacks showing different times that members of the gang asked for help, no questions asked. While this episode does add weight to the reason why Lily would listen to Ted’s no-questions-asked request, the only function that the episode serves is to again, slow the disagreement between Marshall and Lily.
These are two examples of flashbacks in Season 9 that have no emotional weight in the story and have the function of adding backstory to insignificant plot points in this season (being the second-to-last slap and deleting a text). Because these flashbacks don’t really add significant backstory to the actual story, there is definitely less to be interested in as the season progresses.
The combination of a lack of background story, a slow main narrative, and lack of meaning behind flashbacks makes for a disappointing last season.
I had my own predictions for how the last season would go. I would have been more interested in seeing Ted meet the Mother by mid-season and seeing him court her, rather than this.
However, I am holding on to hope that the final few episodes will give the series an ending that it truly deserves – one that is full of meaning and that good old HIMYM charm.
Are you liking the way that this last season is going? Or do you agree with me? What do you think are the best and worst parts of HIMYM?
What do you think? Leave a comment.