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How I Met Your (Step)Mother

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I stopped watching How I Met Your Mother several months ago. The show had devolved from a fun, witty and emotionally compelling sitcom to something that managed to be offensive on almost a weekly basis. Worse, it had committed the cardinal sin of long-running TV shows — it had become boring. I stopped watching and never looked back.

Until this week, when the series finale finally aired. I stuck with the show for so long because I wanted to see how it ended (with Barney and Robin together, I hoped), and that impulse hadn’t gone away. Yet I’m glad that I quit when I did. It ever-so-slightly softened the blow (although I still shouted “WHAT?!?!” when I first read about the conclusion).

Because, unsurprisingly, the show’s finale stayed true to what the series had become: nonsensical, stuck-in-the-past and frankly sexist and offensive, despite its “true love” exterior.

The creators had clung to their “shock twist” of Robin not being the mother, but of still being Ted’s true love, since the inception of the show (the final moment with the kids was recorded around season two). I won’t go into how this no longer made any sense for the characters, or how it erased seasons worth of apparent growth and emotional development. Plenty of other people have talked about that elsewhere. I am, however, surprised that the writers opted for an ending that, while unexpected, ruined the entire emotional concept of the show. The very first episode threw in the twist that Ted thought he had met his true love, but that they would not end up together, as she was the kids’ “Aunt Robin.” A sitcom where we know the initial main ship won’t get together from the very beginning? One which defies the on-again off-again history of couples like Ross and Rachel and accepts that sometimes people break up for good reasons and find love and happiness elsewhere? Sign me up! The entire emotional basis of How I Met Your Mother was that happiness WOULD come, that stories have happy endings. It’s a statement of “things may suck now, but one day you’ll be able to look back and have it all make sense. It’s all leading somewhere good.” But turns out, it’s all leading to a twenty-year breakup with Aunt Robin, before those two finally get together again.

But the show’s conclusion also had some really problematic undertones regarding its female characters. Particularly, regarding its female characters and babies.

Lily gets off the lightest. We don’t learn what happens to her career in the art world, but we do learn that she has two more kids with Marshall. Alone, it’s a case of “the show was pushed for time.” But in the context of the other characters, it begins to seem like it was presented that way because how many children she has is the only thing that mattered. Marshall, we learn, hated corporate law but eventually became a judge. But Lily’s career? Not mentioned.

Then there’s the weird mess of Robin, Barney, Ted and the Mother. Or, more specifically, the implications behind that mess.

Robin can’t have kids. She was adamant, for most of the show, that she didn’t WANT kids, and Barney, it seemed, was the same. They could have adopted if they changed their minds, but having children of their own would be impossible.

So. Barney and Robin get married, then get divorced a couple of years later, with Barney realizing that he could simply never love any woman (which… contradictory to years of character development, but OK). They get divorced, in part, because Robin’s career is too successful and all that travel is destroying their relationship. OK. Then a nameless woman becomes pregnant with his child, and when he sees that baby girl’s face, he finally finds a woman he can love forever. Yup, the key to Barney’s heart was babies… babies that Aunt Robin, overly successful career woman that she was, could not have.

Then we turn to the Robin-Ted-The Mother issue. Calling Tracy “the Mother” seems natural, after years of it, and before it seemed OK, because “the Mother” was shorthand for “Ted’s eventual wife, his true love, the person he belongs with that we can’t wait to see.” But in the end, “The Mother” became quite literal — we were meeting the mother of Ted’s kids, but not the love of his life. Ted pines over Robin for nine years on the show. Then he meets the Mother and has great, adorable chemistry with her. They have two kids. And then, six years before the telling of the story, she dies. But her death is skimmed over. It doesn’t really matter, even to Ted’s own kids, who respond to the end of the story by telling their father that he clearly loved Aunt Robin all along. Robin and Ted broke up because Robin didn’t want the life in the suburbs and marriage and kids and all that stuff, and although Robin does get married, it’s not the sort of marriage that Ted wants. So Ted finds the Mother to have kids with, before she conveniently dies without much fanfare, freeing him up to return to his true love without having to sacrifice his desire to have children too.

Yup. In the end, everyone has babies, and your relationship can’t work if you don’t have children… or at least, if someone else hasn’t already been there to add kids into the equation. I seriously doubt that the writers intended those implications, or even that they were aware of their existence in the story, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they’re there, tied up in the main conceit of the narrative and in every side plot in the finale too.

And so I guess How I Met Your Mother is an apt title, all things considered. It might have been more about how Ted met Aunt Robin than how he met the Mother, but, in the end, motherhood was the thing that mattered.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

11 thoughts on “How I Met Your (Step)Mother

  1. I could not agree more to anything than I agree to this. The final episode of this show was horrifying to watch when considering what great potential it all started out with.

  2. It sounds as if you’re pissed that Robin did not end up with Barney, therefore, you’re slapping accusations of sexism against the show. This is all about your favorite relationship not surviving the end of the series, not any so-called charges of sexism. I haven’t come across such blatant hypocrisy in my life.

    Spare me your so-called outrage.

    1. I don’t see how a shipper calling a show sexist when they don’t like its ending is hypocritical, even if that were the case. You’re right that I did once like Barney and Robin together, but as I said, I hadn’t even watched the show for most of the season (a season all about Barney and Robin’s wedding) because of the show’s many developing issues. It’s not about who female characters end up with. It’s about how they’re treated by the narrative on the way.

  3. Because I loved so much about HIMYM before the past year or two, and absolutely hated the finale, I can’t resist adding that what I really hated from a feminist standpoint was the implication that after prioritizing her career for decades, Robin should only be so lucky to end up being able to settle for the guy who, frankly, the show had suggested from the beginning was always more into her than she was into him. Now, people can change, and I absolutely believe from experience that you can ultimately truly fall in love with a person you weren’t really into before. But the show never took that route of character/emotional development with Robin after she and Ted broke up at the end of Season 2. Sometimes they (more Ted than Robin) seemed to experience brief moments of romantic or sexual tension later on, but it always seemed fleeting, and usually just part of a reaction to a breakup with someone else, which is totally human but not exactly a compelling reason to get back together — and because the show *used* to be smart it tended to acknowledge that. In general after Season 2 Ted and Robin just seemed to move on, anti-Ross-Rachel-style, and date other partners whose goals were (mostly) more aligned with their own. But at the end the show seemed to make some troubling value judgments about whose goals were “better” and rewarded Ted and Robin’s love lives accordingly: In the Mother Ted ultimately gets the partner who shares his dreams of family and the house with the white picket fence, whereas Robin loses Barney because he’s apparently so unhappy with the demands of her career, then loses her group of friends for years afterwards, and apparently can’t find love with any other man who supports her goals and makes her happy (or, just decide she is happiest on her own!). So, thank God that the conveniently widowed Ted comes back around decades later to remind her he’s available, after all those years she’s been out having a career but ultimately unfulfilled without him!

    And, while I’m thinking of it, great point in that we never really got to find out what happened with Lily’s career! I always identified with her more than anyone else on the show (despite being happily without kids myself), and that a fuller story about what ultimately happened with her life got sidelined in favor of this Ted-Robin debacle is yet another reason for me to hate the finale.

  4. The ending made me feel uncanny. It even reminded me of Freud’s definition of regressing into an outdate state. Especially about Ted and Robin. I related to Robin the most, and if I could choose a love interest from the male characters, it would be Ted, but his senseless obsession with her is simply boring and ridiculous by now.

  5. When I watched this finale, I couldn’t help rembering the episode when Marshall talks about his fantasies about women other than Lily. Every time he feels a little bit attracted to another woman – like the pizza girl for instance – he creates a fantasy in which Lily gets sick and conveniently dies. Oh, and she gives him her blessing before dying too, of course. In his fantasy, after a decent number of years of mourning, he bumps into this woman again (pizza girl or whatever) and then they can get together.
    I remember Lily roars with indignation when she hears this ‘You kill me off ??!’. The show explicitly portrays Marshall as exceedingly cheesy and also kind of hypocritical: he wants to fantasize about the pizza girl, but since he’s the cute perfect Marshmallow husband, he couldn’t cheat on Lily even in his dreams.
    And the writers use that exact same scheme with Ted and the Mother: it was impossible for them to divorce or break up so that Ted could at last realize his lifelong fantasy of being with Robin, so the writers conveniently kill the mother and give him her blessing through the children – after a decent number of years. I don’t know if they even realized how ridiculous this is.
    An by the way, I love Amelia’s comment, I totally agree about the Robin stuff too. I loved Robin at first and hated how they made her the sad middle-age single woman with nothing but work and pets in her life. (As if no man would fall for a gorgeous smart interesting woman – I just don’t buy it!)

  6. On the point of Lily, her worth was not measured by the number of kids she had. Her having more kids simply contributed to the fairy-tale ending of her and Marshall. She loves Marshall and wanted to have a good family with him. That was simply the realization of that. It can be reasonably assumed that her career went well enough. She went to Italy with The Captain and fulfilled her dram of traveling abroad and dealing with art. There is no reason that career would end after the year in Italy. Marshall’s career did change, thus it was mentioned.

    Robin’s story was a classic one. She invested herself for the majority of her life into her career. Thus, she would push away some love interests. Of course she would end up later in life alone. Plus, I personally did not see her as settling for Ted. Robin and Ted need each other. They balance out each others cynical and romantic sides. They simply were not ready for each other earlier in the season. Once Ted had realized his dream of having two kids of his own genetic bearing (because aren’t his wants important to?), and the mother had tragically passed away, Robin made sense for him.

  7. Frankly, I think it shows its sexism already from the beginning of the show. Remember the episode Ted calling Lily *Grinch* and how the show treated their interactions? I stopped at around season 5 or something. So I don’t know how it goes later on. But I’m still surprised at the ending. It’s horrible. They abandon an emotionally-rich plot for a plain stereotypical character developments. That’s just so bad.

  8. I’ve recently been rematching the show, having watched the majority of it years ago on Netflix, and I’m happy I’m not the only person that has issues with this show and its view on female characters. The moment that stands out to me is in Season 4, when Robin sleeps with that guy Mitch, and Marshall calls slut on her. Then, not five minutes later, when they are naming ’50 Reasons for Sex’, and Barney mentions ‘paratrooping’, or having a one night stand when you go out of town, in order to get a place to stay. Marshall says nothing until Robin says she has heard of it, when he once again calls her a slut. The fact that nobody says anything to Barney, other then a few joking comments, about his sleeping around, but as soon as Robin sleeps with someone for no reason other than to have sex, she is a slut?! And nothing is said to Ted and Barney later in the episode, when they try the damned technique.

    1. I think it was one of those shows that had lots of little issues since the beginning that kind of hinted at where it was going eventually, but it was only after it started to fall into cliched sitcom land after a few seasons that it really became obvious. And then I, at least, was far too invested to quit. The finale pretty much crushed all my desire to rewatch it, though.

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