SPOILER ALERT: I’m about to discuss in some detail the events of the two-part finale to the nine-year television show How I Met Your Mother. If you haven’t seen it yet (as I hadn’t, when it first aired), don’t read this until you have. Oh, and yes, it is still worth it—even if, as my title suggests, I didn’t like the ending.
Shocker, I know—someone else who didn’t like the ending to the legen—wait for it—dary! TV show How I Met Your Mother. How original. But while plenty of people are upset about the unhappy parts of the ending, and others disliked the high speed highlight reel through a couple decades after an entire season spent on a single weekend, I’m not here to complain about those. I may not have made those choices, but I get them.
Instead, I want to give you several reasons for which the finale didn’t just let us down, but in fact undermined everything the show has been teaching us about life, love, and friendship for nine years. Naturally, much of this will center around the show’s main character: Barney Stinson.
It Taught Us That People Can’t Change
I’ll admit, I like endings to be happy. I’m not as bad as my wife, who has to go back and fix the story in her head whenever it doesn’t end the way we were hoping it would. A sad ending isn’t necessarily a bad ending, and in fact many of my favorite movies ever have sad endings, but I would still rather they be the exception rather than the rule.
But Barney and Robin’s divorce went against everything the show has held dear for nearly a decade. For years, we made Barney like our own best friend not just because he was hilarious and awesome, but because we knew that somewhere in there, deep down inside, was a genuinely good person who had been lost. We saw glimpses of his better side in his devotion to his friends, his gullible innocence toward his parents, and his unfailing ability to lift his friends’ spirits when life hit them hard—and countless other moments, such as the way he kept stealing girls from Marshall to keep him from seeing anyone while he and Lily were separated, while simultaneously convincing Lily to come back from San Francisco.
We had grace for Barney because we’d seen who he had been and what he had been through. We discovered his bleeding-heart past; we learned about his first love and how he lost her, and the declaration he made never to be hurt again; we saw his heart ache to know the father he had never met. Deep down, we knew that there was a Barney in there somewhere that was still completely awesome, but without the juvenile womanizing and fear of commitment.
But most of all, we saw the true Barney in his love for Robin, the one woman in the world who could make the man who scoffed at love want to love again. If losing Shannon made Barney the player we knew (and still loved), then finding love with Robin could make him the Barney we knew he could be.
Not that Barney was alone. Robin’s own commitment-phobia, angst-ridden childhood, and feminine insecurity manifested in her self-reliance, over-aggressiveness, and romantic cynicism. Together, they were perfect, a match made in heaven for people who neither wanted a match nor thought one existed.
And that’s exactly what we get—for a season-long weekend and three years of marriage. And then they call it quits and go back to exactly who they were before. And the message there is that people can’t change, not really. They can try, for a moment, but it’s a fool’s errand in the end. The Barneys of the world will always be Barneys.
It Taught Us That Brokenness Can’t Be Fixed
Call this reason number 1A, because not only did Barney and Robin’s divorce teach us that people can’t change, but it also taught us that broken people can’t be fixed. Barney was the way he was because of the girl who left him and broke his heart, and the man who stole her away. If anything could have fixed that brokenness, finding and marrying the love of his life was it, and Robin was that girl.
This is also where the ending doesn’t fit the story. We know what propelled Barney to become a womanizing “high-functioning sociopath,” in the words of Ted. His morally dubious and legally questionable job that he refuses to talk about are also part of that persona. But in the last season, we discover that Barney has been working there as part of a very long con on the man who stole Shannon, working as an informant for the feds in what must be a massive sting that culminates a few months after the wedding. This new information does two things: first it suggests that there’s more to the Barney story, because if his inevitably shady work at the company whose corporate atmosphere mirrored his very persona was in fact a completely legitimate cooperation with the law, then it’s hard to maintain the deeper legitimacy of that persona; second, it provides closure to a hurtful part of his past.
All of this, together with Barney’s maturation in other areas and his ability to let himself love again, tells the story of a person who no longer needs the player persona. To have him revert back to that persona doesn’t fit the story. But more importantly, Barney’s reversion tells us that once broken, there was no hope that Barney could ever be fixed.
Yes, the show tries to salvage this by making Barney a father and finally (and instantly) transforming him into a mature, healthy, and whole person, but after everything that’s already transpired, it feels contrived and false. It’s clearly a salvage effort, and while you won’t find a better candidate for it than being a father to a daughter, it’s a move that was made necessary only because they had just botched his story with his needless divorce and regression.
It Taught Us That People Are Selfish
The most frustrating part of Barney and Robin’s divorce is how it came about. At least in their first breakup, back in season five, it was clear that they had been making each other miserable and seemed genuinely bad for each other. Several years and quite a bit of maturity later, that wasn’t the case this time. The truth is that they’re great together.
So why did they break up? Apparently, because of Robin’s job. Her always-traveling lifestyle meant huge career success for her, and a way of life that didn’t work for Barney. When they finally confront the issue, they immediately conclude that being married isn’t working for them. There’s no discussion of personal sacrifice for the sake of their marriage. There’s no attempt to compromise. There doesn’t seem to be any sense from either of them that their spouse is more important to them than their careers. They simply observe that the status quo hasn’t been working, and conclude that it must be time to end the marriage.
They still love each other—they’re very clear about that. And they’ve been together for three years, which is more than long enough for married life to change a person and upend their priorities. But in the end, the show would seem to want us to believe that when marriage became inconvenient, they decided it wasn’t worth it. That’s unfortunate.
It Taught Us That Friendship Is for Fair Weather
Everybody who has watched How I Met Your Mother knows that this isn’t a show about how Ted met his wife (or even about how he finally married his second wife), not really. It’s a show about friendship—that once-in-a-lifetime friendship, the kind that those of us fortunate enough to have experienced it know never to let go of. The kind of friendship that is thicker than blood.
For nine years, they told the stories of the five best, most inseparable friends in New York City. This is the kind of friendship that nothing can come between, the kind that can get through anything. The kind that’s not willing to let the things that usually come between friends push them apart.
Until the last two episodes. Then it became something that was too inconvenient and awkward to fight for.
Marshall and Lily have more children, and unlike in the past, they apparently don’t think it worthwhile to find ways to still hang out with their friends. Robin is now divorced from Barney, and realizing that she should have ended up with Ted, she can’t handle being with the group. Seeing Barney revert to his player self, chasing girls half her age, is awkward, and not being able to be with Ted is heartbreaking. Her career is taking off, and she makes that her priority; Robin sightings become rare and newsworthy.
For nine years, they could get through anything—and to be sure, this wasn’t any harder than some of the things they’d been through in the past. But suddenly, in the show’s final two episodes, awkwardness and regret are all it takes for everything to fall apart.
I know some of the other complaints with the way the show ended, and I get them. I’ve heard criticism of the fact that the last season spent so much time on a single weekend, and then raced through nearly two decades in two episodes, and I get that—but I also get why it was necessary, given the decisions they made. Clearly, they didn’t feel like they could retain the loyalty of their viewership if they broke Barney and Robin up much earlier in the season, along with the various effects of that dissolution on the group as a whole. How do you have a show about five best friends when they’re not really friends anymore?
The happy enders like my wife don’t like that Tracy dies, and it’s certainly not my favorite thing. Hollywood’s incurable fascination with unhappy endings, their obsessive need to be “unpredictable,” is all too predictable. It’s to the point that the most surprising ending, these days, just might be a happily ever after. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love a good sad ending. It’s just that Ted’s story is not the story for it.
Plenty of people have found their spouse late in life and enjoyed too little time with them. C. S. Lewis’s story comes to mind. But Ted’s story was a story of unquenchable hope in the face of discouragement and hurt, a hope that held out for the love worth waiting for. That’s the story they told, not the story about loss. To steal Tracy away after he has waited so long for her isn’t profound or powerful—it’s gimmicky. And in the process, it takes something away from the story of perpetual hope ultimately rewarded.
Oh heck, since we’re already here—Ted waiting six years to marry Tracy was extremely irritating. Plenty of people remain engaged for more than half a decade—but Ted is not that guy! He’s the guy that says, “I love you,” after one date. He’s the guy that’s been waiting to get married his whole life. The only guy who’s likely to have dreamt more of his own wedding is Marshall, that big wedding-loving goon. When it comes to the woman he intends to spend the rest of his life with, the woman he has been waiting his whole life for, Ted’s attitude is exactly anything but, “Meh.”
But these are smaller issues, preference issues. They don’t change the meaning of the story, just how it ends.
On the other hand, Barney and Robin’s divorce and the resulting disintegration of nine years of friendship completely undermines everything this show was really, actually about, flies in the face of everything it ever taught us, and makes nonsense of more than one character’s story.