'How I Met Your Mother': The Optimism Of Inevitability
The fact that How I Met Your Mother hasn't introduced the mother of Ted Mosby's kids after six and a half seasons is a good indication that the show is not, in fact, about the way Ted met their mother. As seasons have built upon seasons, the prevailing wisdom about HIMYM has come to be that the mother isn't really the point, and that she should be introduced already so that we can get on with the story, because now, it's just a tease.
It's an appealing position, and one I've sometimes taken myself, but I'm coming to believe that it's wrong. Because while the mother herself isn't important, the structure of the show as the telling of that story is very important. It lends meaning and sometimes joy to what have been, at times, some surprisingly dark stories. And while we could meet the mother, it would have to be done carefully and correctly to underscore the idea that Ted is still explaining to his kids how he got from one place to another; that it's a story about getting from point A to point B.
In truth, the story didn't have to be called How I Met Your Mother. It could have been called How We Bought This House, or How I Bought That Couch, or How I Learned To Make Bread. What matters is that the show is structured around a philosophy that is fundamentally this: However your life goes, that's the story of how you ended up where you are, and therefore, every turn your story took, whether sad or happy at the time, is part of how you achieved whatever joy you have. It's not really How I Met Your Mother that Ted is explaining to his kids. It's How I Got Here, and How You Were Born, and How Everything Turned Out Okay.
Everyone watching every sitcom knows intellectually that everything will turn out okay. But that's external to the narrative; it comes from your somewhat jaded knowledge of how sitcoms work. That's how you knew all the Friends would stay Friends, and how you knew Sam Malone wouldn't relapse and die, and how you knew Everybody would still Love Raymond.
But in this story, everything turning out okay is part of the story; it's the underlying philosophy of the narrator. The story is a story of how things work out, and it's always had a lovely philosophical fascination with the fitting together of small pieces to make big things happen. There aren't a lot of TV shows that so emphatically make the point that bad moves often lead to good moves; that you can use a sequence of left turns to get to the same place a right turn would take you.
At times, the show has done this explicitly, as in the episode "Right Place, Right Time," when Ted traced all the pieces of a day that led him to wind up standing on the right corner to bump into his old girlfriend, which led him to her husband, which led him to a job. In a heart-thumpingly joyful sequence, Ted told his kids that if he'd known how important that day was, he'd have run around and hugged all the people — friends and strangers — he'd seen all day. And indeed, in one of the fantasy sequences the show so loves, we saw Ted run around throwing his arms blissfully around everyone he'd seen as Guided By Voices' "Glad Girls" played.
Last night's episode (which I'm about to talk about, be warned) was another example of experimentation with story that worked surprisingly well.
In a rare departure from form, "Symphony Of Illumination" didn't start with Ted narrating to his kids. It started with Robin — who has always maintained that she did not want kids — narrating to kids she told us right off the bat were her kids with Barney. Now, the likelihood of the show dropping that kind of information in the first thirty seconds of an episode all at once was so tiny that experienced fans of HIMYM, which has been using fake-outs since it clearly implied in its very first episode that Robin was the mother but then clarified that she wasn't with a last-minute switcheroo, might well have realized there was probably more to this than met the eye.
In the episode, Robin — whom we left at the end of the last episode believing she was pregnant — found out she wasn't pregnant, but then found out from her doctor that she isn't likely to be able to get pregnant at all. Despite her conviction that she doesn't want kids, she found the reality of not having the option anymore profoundly disconcerting and sad. And in the final moments, she told the kids she was okay with the fact that they weren't real, and they disappeared.
Alan Sepinwall, a sharp-eyed critic who has long been unhappy with the direction of the show and the meandering stories (a position with which I've often agreed), hated the episode, finding it "yet another stupid, completely unnecessary narrative bait-and-switch." There's a lot to be said for that argument. But in this case, I didn't agree.
It's absolutely true that Robin having kids and then losing them was a bait and switch. It felt like Robin lost kids she didn't actually have. But honestly, that's not a terribly unfair representation of how the character would likely feel. Infertility for people who don't yet have kids is a tricky thing; you're not actually losing any children who exist, but you lose the idea of them. You lose the vision and the dream of them, just as Robin lost her vision of them when they blinked out in front of her eyes. And as cruel as it may have seemed, that structure was the best — and, yes, the fairest — way to underscore how this could be devastating even to a woman who didn't really want kids.
This is a show that embraces sadness precisely because everything fits together to take the characters somewhere. Marshall and Lily's breakup at the end of Season 1 — which began with a wrenching scene of Jason Segel sitting on the steps of his apartment building in the rain, holding up Lily's returned engagement ring with a broken look that still makes me cry — wasn't sad just to be sad.
It was part of their story. It fit into a larger picture of their lives and Ted's life; that's the intriguing happy-sad mix that this show has always been able to pull off. When Ted sat down next to Marshall on the steps realizing that Lily and Marshall were breaking up just as he and Robin were getting together, his face wasn't just sad and wasn't just shocked; he was thinking about the fact that his incredibly happy moment was Marshall's incredibly sad moment. He was feeling that push-pull, and the show goes back to it over and over.
How I Met Your Mother engages in a certain amount of magical thinking. It believes in signs, in the power of coincidence and the broader meaning of things that seem unimportant. It's not afraid of fairy dust and the idea that if the sad, difficult things hadn't happened, the good things wouldn't have happened either, because everything is part of a whole.
That's what allowed them to explore how really sad Robin felt last night without it seeming to me like pointless wallowing. It's not that Robin's infertility literally enables Ted to meet his future wife. It's that sad things go with happy things, not because it's literally cause and effect, but because when you gut it out through divorce or death or loss, you do so in the belief that you will also get to run through the streets hugging everyone. It operates on a kind of faith in the fundamental goodness of life: that your love will be returned; that your perseverance will pay off; that the family you choose — your friends — can be just as loving and loyal as the family you were given.
It doesn't always work. They've done plenty of things wrong, and they've meandered through dumb stories that haven't persuasively fit into that larger picture. But when they get it right, it's a very elegant and thoughtful larger story about how crushingly sad things have to be placed into a context beyond themselves. It doesn't really have to show you the mother; it's not a show about her, even though its storytelling structure is critical. It's a show that has a specific vision of how life works, and that vision is basically a happy one. It might be one of the happiest shows on television, and I continue to be grateful for that.