PASADENA - "We feel like jerks. We get asked that question a lot"

This was "How I Met Your Mother" co-creator Craig Thomas, addressing a handful of critics and reporters (including me) at a press tour lunch with co-creator Carter Bays. The question in particular was a familiar one about whether they'll introduce Ted to the Mother at the end of the series or make her a character much sooner(*), but "HIMYM" is structured in such a way that there are many questions the duo can't answer, even as they repeatedly apologize for their inability to do so.

(*) As I've written before, I think taking the title literally and waiting until the series finale to meet her would be a mistake - not because I'm that invested in who she is at this point, but because at this point the show's best stories (the Marshall/Lily material in particular) takes place in the present and doesn't rely on narrative sleight-of-hand. If "who is the Mother?" is no longer a factor, then you tell the best stories possible, not the stories best designed to prolong that reveal. Your mileage may vary.

And because of that, any interview with the guys inevitably reaches many dead ends. At one point during the group discussion, Bays even said he was glad they were telling the story of Lily's pregnancy "because we can say 'a baby will be born'" without any equivocation.

So this particular conversation went back and forth between things Bays and Thomas could discuss - some involving past events, some involving upcoming stories unrelated to the conception of Future Ted's children (and at this point I should insert the obligatory spoiler warning, though my view is that most of the stuff was fairly mild, and/or tied into things Future Ted has already told us were coming) - and things they couldn't. The discussion ran nearly 90 minutes - and took many non-"HIMYM" digressions(**) - so I'm not going to transcribe it all, but rather offer you highlights by topic.

(**) Bays and Thomas are both big fans of "Homeland," for instance, with Thomas exclaiming, "Talk about a show that redefines itself every week. Other shows would have milked that idea for five episodes; they just did it in one little ending, and they come back, and it's still amazing!" I am now trying to imagine a version of "HIMYM" that is as breakneck with its plotting as "Homeland" was. That would be a very, very different show.

The pros and cons of late in life success

A while back, CBS renewed "HIMYM" through its eighth season, and everyone assumed that would be the end of the show. Jason Segel has said he felt eight years was the right amount of time to play Marshall, and Bays and Thomas told us yesterday that they had an eight-year plan for the series early on, whether or not they ever got to execute it.(***) But the show is getting its best ratings ever this season, and now there's a very good chance that CBS could order at least a ninth season, if not more beyond that.

(***) Though the show was on shaky ratings ground for its first couple of seasons, the only time they had a specific contingency plan for what to do in case of premature cancellation was that Victoria would have been revealed as the Mother had CBS not ordered any episodes past the original 13. 

On the plus side, during the "HIMYM" panel preceding the lunch, Segel reversed course and said he would ideally like to stick around to "see the story come to its natural end, whether it's eight years or nine years, just whatever."

But the idea of an extended life for the series complicates the plan Bays and Thomas came up with before the sixth season. They say they've had the final episode of the show in their head since they made the pilot, but now they don't know exactly when it will be. Many of the show's season premieres have been designed to point the way towards how that season will end, but Thomas and Bays may not know when they start writing next year's premiere if it will be setting up the series finale or just another season-ender.

"It might be something where we write two episodes," Bays said, acknowledging the tricky situation. "Hopefully, we'll have an answer for that soon. We've already started discussions with the studio, letting them know that we need some lead time. We do have a story we want to tell. We have to see how quickly or slowly we should be telling that story.

"We don't ever want to keep the show on longer than it needs to," he added, "just like we don't want to end it before it needs to end."

Bays said they could just stick to their original plan for the eighth season regardless of what the future might bring, and if there's a renewal, season nine could open with Future Ted telling the kids, "Oh, by the way, kids, I left some stuff out," and then they would tell 22 stories that took place over the course of the series.

("Jesus, the wig budget of that season would be prohibitively expensive!" Thomas joked.)

They had also had what Thomas called "joke conversations" about rewinding back to 2005 and doing a "How I Met Your Father" series following the actress cast as the Mother as she lived her life and occasionally camethisclose to crossing paths with Ted.

I asked whether their answer on whether to introduce the Mother at the very end of the series or sooner than that would be affected by the idea that the show might have more life in it. Does their math change at all?

"It does," Bays said. "We know what the big mileposts are, but it's something creatively we need to figure out: how much space is there between the mileposts? One life event, is it a five-episode condition or a one-episode condition? It's like an accordion, kind of."

Still, they've now offered so many details about who the Mother is, and where Ted meets her, that they can no longer play many games with that other than the when of it.

"We took a very big swing at the start of season six," Thomas said of explaining that Ted meets the Mother at a wedding (which we later found out was Barney's), "and we realized we were ruling out a lot of type of thing we'd done before. Is this girl walking down the street the mother? Now you know she's not. It has to be this wedding day. That was a big swing. I remember feeling a sense of loss. We couldn't do those fakeouts anymore. But it was reinvigorating for us to pinpoint it some more."

And whenever the end comes, Thomas knows they're going to get yelled at by some segment of the fans.

"Carter and I have made plans to be on a flight to Antarctica the night of the series finale," he joked. "Once the show's over, people will be hunting us down."

The Robin Christmas switcheroo

You know how unhappy I was with the narrative bait-and-switch in the Christmas episode where we found out Robin couldn't have kids. I wasn't alone in that (though many people liked it), and the writers acknowledged that sometimes they feel they're onto something if they think a story will upset some of their viewers.

"It gave us the chills to think about that," Bays said. "And whenever you get that, and you realize, 'This is going to piss off 10 percent of the people,' let's do that. Something about that excited us."

Thomas added that the goal was to put viewers into Robin's mindset so they would be just as devastated as she was when she found out the kids would never be real.

What's coming up this season

There will be lots of complications to Robin's love life and her feelings about Barney, Kevin and even Ted. On the latter, Victoria's prediction from the ducky tie episode that things would get messy between the ex-lovers will come true, and allow the writers to revisit something from much earlier in the series.

"One of the things we're going to explore is that when Ted and Robin broke up in season 2, Ted asked Robin the question, 'Where do you see yourself in 5 years?'" Bays said, "and Robin thought she was going to be living in Russia or Afghanistan or wherever. And it's 5 years later. We made it to that spot, and it's just interesting exploring why is it that Robin is in this apartment."

There's also the matter of Kevin. They've enjoyed having Kal Penn on the show, and playing with the idea of how hard it is for a newcomer to fit in with the gang after all these years, but Bays said that for Robin, "the waters don't run as deep with Kevin as they do with Barney or Ted, and we're going to deal with that."

Robin is with Kevin for now, and Barney will get involved with a new character played by Becki Newton from "Ugly Betty," but Thomas said that even though "they're going to move in different directions for a while,  those two actors and those two characters have a crazy chemistry together that I can't say we're done exploring."

And they promised that we will definitively find out in the season finale who Barney's supposed to be marrying, but that the wedding will still be a flash forward, and that our characters still have some time to go before catching up to it.

Lily and Marshall are going to give the suburbs a go - and the writers will, indeed, explore how much more difficult it is for them to be part of the gang when they're not in Manhattan - but you shouldn't expect them to stay there permanently.

"My family got so excited." Thomas said. "I'm from Long Island. They were calling me up going, 'Oh, great, Marshall and Lily are moving to Long Island! You're going to do a season and a half of stories about Long Island!' And I went, 'Yeah... We're maybe going to talk some smack about Long Island and they're not going to live there forever.'"

There's also the matter of various danglers set up by Future Ted that the show will have to pay off sooner or later: Ted in the green dress, Robin as a matador, Barney and Marshall at the casino, etc. Robin's crush on the character played by Michael Trucco had to morph into the relationship with Kevin when Trucco was cast in "Fairly Legal," but the writers hope to bring Trucco back at some point before the end if he's ever available so they can pay it off in some other way.

I asked whether they usually know what the payoff will be to those teases or if they just throw them out and figure it out later.

"I think Carter said it best: sometimes yes, sometimes no," Thomas explained. "Sometimes it's almost with glee: 'Let's fuck over our future selves!' And other times we know exactly what it is."

But in the case of the Mother, there is very little confusion, other than the tricky business of the show maybe being too successful for its own good.

"We have a plan," insisted Thomas, "and we know we can never answer your questions, and you hate us for it."

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com