What HIMYM (and *that* finale) taught me about writing and audiences

To anybody who’s not watched the How I Met Your Mother finale, or any of the other episodes, and wants to without spoilers: you’ve been warned. (The finale hasn’t actually aired in Australia yet – we’re like, four episodes behind – but, uh, Google’s a thing, so yeah). 

Anybody with internet access or a social media account will know that a show nobody thought would last nine years has very recently come to a conclusion, and pretty much precisely what went down. Looking back on it all now, the show taught me kind of a lot about writing, and now the finale’s taught me even more about the audience I’m writing for. Now that we’ve all had time to process, let me start at the beginning and continue as concisely as you can when a TV show runs for nine years.

I so vividly remember watching the How I Met Your Mother pilot all the way back in 2005. I wasn’t prepared to like it as much as I did, but being a sucker for a half-decent ensemble cast and the multiple personalities they can foster, I stayed along for the ride. Each character was their own person, had their own schtick, and the way they interacted with one another was the show’s focal point (this is something that, credit where credit’s due, didn’t change throughout all nine seasons).

This was not a show about an international espionage agency cracking down on bio-terrorists, or a team of mutants looking for a cure, or The End Of The World As We Know It. It was just a show about… people. Which brings me already to Thing Number 1 HIMYM taught me about writing – or perhaps more specifically, about the kind of writing I’m most interested in.

If there are numerous characters with at least an inkling of three dimensions and distinct personalities, I’m on board until the wheels fall off.

For those not in the know, Wikipedia exists. But the short version is, architect Ted sits his teenage kids down to tell the story of >insert title here<. Flashback to 27-year-old Ted. He’s looking for love, meets wannabe news anchor Robin, falls immediately in love with Robin, gets sort-of-dumped by the commitment-phobic Robin when he tells her as much, and finishes it all up by saying “And that, kids, is the true story of how I met your Aunt Robin”. So ends Season One, Episode One.

Within that, though, were more than a few promising things. For starters we had Robin, who represented an intriguing counterpoint to your usual doe-eyed, blonde-haired love interest (those would come later on in the series). She had a career track, a few dozen dogs and lived independently in a small apartment. She was smart and driven, but easily spooked by the earnest Ted’s immensely premature declaration of love. She – wait for it – had DEPTH. Or you know, as much depth as a character in a pilot episode with about ten minutes of screen time can possibly have.

Then there were Marshall and Lily. Ted’s best friend and his best friend’s lifelong girlfriend-come-fiancee/wife/babymama are pretty much the whole reason I watched HIMYM for as long as I ended up doing so. I wanted to be both of them, and be both of their friends, simultaneously. Marshall (a then more-or-less unknown Jason Segel) was a lawyer-in-the-making with bleeding heart morals and Lily (Buffy’s Alison Hannigan in a role she’ll never be able to shake now) was a spunky artist and kindergarten teacher.

Lastly, Barney. Barney’s a morally repugnant womaniser who has somehow made friends with three (four, once Robin joins The Group) perfectly well-adjusted and generally incorruptible adults. That’s… that’s really all I ever got from Barney. Zero redemptive qualities. None whatsoever. Oh, except he’s played by Neil Patrick Harris, of course.

Man-children, in fiction as in life, can only be tolerated in small doses. Unless some serious personal growth is had, they are and will forever be a gigantic douchebag. 

Now, discovering Robin wasn’t the ‘mother’ of the title in the pilot was the first of many, many misdirections and red-herrings the HIMYM writers would throw at us, the audience. It’s kind of what you expect from a show entirely founded on discovering the identity of one person – there’s plenty of “Is it her? Is it her?” Or else why would you tune in each week?

Let’s be honest here: as big a fan as I am about the whole “this is a story about real-ish people doing real-ish things and isn’t that refreshing?”, the thing about this kind of plotting is, the stakes couldn’t be lower. The bio-terrorists won’t win, the mutants won’t find their cure, The World As We Know It won’t end, and the audience knows that going in. And you know what that means.

People need to care, like or relate to at least one of the characters. 

Put broadly: people need a reason to give a crap. I’m gonna argue that this is a rule in any medium, no matter what kind of story you’re trying to tell, since it seems to me all stories are ultimately of the character-driven kind: things don’t just happen, they have to happen to someoneBut this applies to some stories more than others.

Characters I got on board with aside, I did not stick with HIMYM until the wheels fell off – or maybe I did, depending on when you think said wheels stopped turning, and the show’s sizeable and loyal fanbase has many opinions on this topic. For me, I think it was somewhere around when Robin stopped being in the picture after a whole two seasons, and when we already knew she wasn’t the mother, and she didn’t even point Ted towards the mother. At least Rachel Bilson’s character was her roommate while Ted dated her. Robin is somehow quite probably my favourite HIMYM character, but I feel like those first two seasons are almost a waste of space as far as the general plot is concerned. The general plot as it was pitched to the audience in that pilot, I mean. Which we now know turned out to be something of a lie. (I’m still getting to that).

You don’t have to rush things, but you don’t have to drag them out, either. 

Nine seasons? Nine? What kind of world do we live in where this show, with this limited a narrative, goes for NINE SEASONS? Props to the writers, honestly, because as I’ve established, and as has been written elsewhere, the HIMYM pilot really was something special, but could they have taken any longer to get to the conclusion they got to? That takes skill and imagination, but were you all too busy watching John Hughes movies on the day enrolments for the Don’t Shoot A Dog When It’s Already Dead lessons were open?

Like I said, I probably dropped out around season three, ducked back in for a while in season four/five (because Sarah Chalke), and really re-invested in season six. That has a lot to do with the character of Zoey, the protester trying to stop Ted’s first big architecture project from demolishing a historical building. She’s unhappily married to a rich jerk and spends a fair few episodes genuinely loathing Ted, which for once put a pretty convincing obstacle between the will-they/won’t they shtick (I know the “oh they can’t stand each other, obviously they’re destined to have four babies” is a common thing, but man, did those two hate each other). They have a brief and surprisingly touching relationship (once she works up the courage to ditch the husband) and I spent about a month in denial when it turned out that no, no, she wasn’t the mother, either.

The show had jerked me around yet again, so I stopped. And this time, I stopped for good.

If the audience sticks with you, they deserve to be rewarded for it. 

There are exceptions to this, like anything, but I’ve always thought – and now I think more than ever – that if an audience sticks with you for an entire book series, or dedicates nine years of their life to watching your television show, that kind of loyalty needs to be repaid. Hell, if somebody picks up my future novel and sticks with it for even a week, I want to reward them. I want them to enjoy the journey and its conclusion. What’s a good story without a great ending? SPOILER ALERT, Romeo and Juliet die, Ned Stark gets his head cut off and Harry Potter marries his best friend’s little sister and it’s not weird at all.

Because this is how it all really ended:

[Did I mention “SPOILER ALERT?”]

A woman in Barney and Robin’s wedding band, named Tracy, is the mother. She and Ted meet on the train platform in the rain, and as hinted a loooooong time ago, a yellow umbrella is involved – he claims. They’re engaged for a long time and have two kids before getting married, and then the mother falls and dies not long after. Oh, and Barney and Robin’s marriage lasts three years, after which they get a divorce, Robin goes back to being Season One Robin and Barney, aside from the fact that he fathers a daughter with a one-night stand who’s name he doesn’t bother remembering, goes back to being Season One Barney.

Future Ted’s kids take all of what they’ve just been told (no doubt a 100-hour long stay around the coffee table, let’s get real) and interpret it to be Ted’s way of telling his kids he’s actually completely in love with their Aunt Robin. “It’s ok”, the far-too-casual daughter tells him, “Mum’s been gone six years now. It’s time.” Cue Ted running to her apartment. She appears at the window and smiles down at him. And they smile at each other.

Fade to black.

Roll credits.

End series.

When I distilled it all into a nutshell for my housemate, she was palpably pissed off, and she’s never even sat down to watch an episode. To say long-term viewers felt betrayed is the understatement of the year. How I Met Your Mother? More Like How I Met Your Step-Mother.

Now, I’m not saying this is a terrible ending. I’m saying it’s the exact plot of the underrated 2008 film Definitely, Maybe. Duration: 112 minutes.

There are many, many gripes the finale’s haters have with it, but my main one is this, and I do think this is the cardinal sin of all the sins Bays and Thomas committed here:

The show’s writers spent a lot of time, energy and episodes promising the audience two things they deemed to be important and crucial, both of which ended up being completely untrue. 

Promise One: Ted and Robin will not, under any circumstances, end up together. Robin is not the ‘mother’ and Robin is not Ted’s soul mate.

Promise Two: Barney and Robin, in spite of their many differences, will end up together. They balance one another perfectly.

Since it aired, Bays and Thomas have revealed the ending was plotted (and the young actors playing Future Ted’s kids were filmed so they couldn’t age during the show’s lifespan) all the way back in 2005. This whole time, they’ve been adhering to a template, dedicating themselves to fulfilling an ending that might have worked nine seasons ago, but really doesn’t work now.

Creativity is what dies when you’re busy following other plans.  

A writer on a serial like HIMYM needs to have a Grand Plan or else the audience will see through the directionless nature of each episode in a heartbeat, and that’s bad. But if the writers had paid any attention at all to what they’d created by series four or five, this cannot be how it all would have ended. I want Barney to end up with Quinn and Ted to end up with Robin. Robin not being able to have kids could be yet another of the show’s many red-herrings, because they can freaking ADOPT. (Although How I Met Your Mother And Oh By The Way You’re Adopted doesn’t have quite the same ring to it). 

I don’t write to plan. I never have and I can’t say I ever will. I sketch things out if I’ve written myself into a corner, but for the most part, I find the ideas and characters I like most come to me on the fly, whether I’m in the middle of a sentence or making toast. This definitely does not work for everyone, but it sure does work for me. Maybe restricting ourselves with a template we feel we have to follow is

MAKE. SACRIFICES. 

The mother of the title dying in the series’ final minutes was not surprising. A lot of people predicted it (it was alluded to a couple of times) and a lot of people asked the actress who plays Tracy (Cristin Milioti) about it in interviews. As soon as I heard about this theory, I bought it hook, line and sinker. It seemed oh-so-likely, and voila, here we are. This is not the writers taking a risk, being brave or making the tough decisions. The tough decision would have been to let the mother live and have promises One and Two kept, because the hardened cynic within all of us had to suspect some variation of the neatly-packaged-Robin-is-his-destiny ending we got was the one we would get. I know I rolled my eyes.

Better yet, if you’re going to bother to introduce a character as critical as the mother over an entire season and endear her to the audience so much, make her death mean something. Ted’s a born storyteller and romantic, so it makes total sense that he would immortalise his beloved wife in story. Why does it have to mean anything more than that?

I watched the finale after I learned the mother would indeed die, and of course I teared up when I realised this intelligent and lovely woman, who really did seem to be Ted’s Other Half in all the best ways, wasn’t going to last the hour-long episode she’d been given to shine. I’m not made of stone, and I wish I’d had more time to get to know her, in the same way I regret missed opportunities and wasted time when a relative or friend dies. It isn’t fair, and neither is life. To this end, for making me feel these things (and motivating me to write a 2,500-word blog post, lord) I do admire the writers.

But to the ending itself?

Carter Bays and Craig Thomas made a mistake. They must know that, since the DVD boxed set soon to hit stores allegedly includes an alternative ending. But it’s okay, guys. You’re not the first, or the last.

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