A review of tonight's "How I Met Your Mother" season finale coming up just as soon as I recount a romantic tale by a Diaper Genie...
This hasn't been a particularly strong season of "HIMYM," but I spent the first three-quarters or so of "The Magician's Code" enjoying the show as much as I have in a long, long time. "Woman goes into labor, hijinks ensue" is among the oldest clichés in the sitcom book, yet here the birth of Marvin(*) WaitForIt Eriksen was used as a device to set up a lot of quick-hit gags as Robin and Ted tried to distract Lily from her pain by telling previously-unseen stories from the gang's history. There's not an episode, or even a subplot, in any of those tales, but I imagine there have been plenty of writers' room conversations about what's on the wall of the bar we don't usually see because of where the cameras sit, or what might happen if Marshall bought a cursed pair of pants, and finally found a device where they could give each one its proper accounting, no more, no less.
(*) Yup. Got choked up at them naming the baby after Marshall's dad. The original Marvin's death is a bottomless well of emotion the show has managed to tap without ever feeling like it's exploiting it (other than the stupid time when Marvin's ghost turned up in Lily's pajamas).
The labor day stories, and then Ted's flashbacks to Marshall and Lily at very un-parental periods of their lives(**), and even Barney's explanation of how he learned The Magician's Code, were all examples of what "HIMYM" can do so, so well with how it plays with time and space and unreliable narrators. Not the funniest episode they've done (not even this season), but one where I was smiling consistently throughout.
(**) And, in a nod to the "HIMYM" continuity nerds, the stereo in Marshall's Fiero was, of course, playing The Proclaimers.
And then we got to the last few minutes, and I was reminded of the ways in which the narrative qualities specific to this show can wind up being its own worst enemy.
Because Bays and Thomas like to mess with their audience's expectations, because they didn't know when the show was going to end (and still don't, given this season's ratings surge), and because it's clear by now that they didn't want to introduce the Mother before the series finale(***), they like to take advantage of the tricks their format gives them to pull last-second fakeouts like we got here with both Ted and Victoria and the revelation that Barney would be marrying Robin, and not Quinn. Other people don't mind them, and maybe once upon a time, I didn't, either, but I've long since lost patience for them, because it feels like the storytelling is being driven by the twists, and not the other way around. The only reason Barney got to do a big, romantic (and incredibly goofy) proposal to Quinn was so we would, in theory, be stunned to see Robin as the woman in the wedding dress in the flashforward. I get that Robin is a regular character and Quinn isn't — and that Becki Newton is starring in the Bays/Thomas-produced "Goodwin Games" for FOX next season, and may have limited availability at best — but it feels like the various beats of Barney's romantic arc this season have been designed largely with surprise in mind. It's like how "The Killing" season one kept going down blind alleys in order to provide big cliffhanger endings that could be undone within a few minutes of the next episode.
(***) The revelations at the end of "The Magician's Code" suggests we're going to need a full season's worth of stories to get from Barney being engaged to Quinn to Barney and Robin getting ready for their church wedding. And given that they planned these final two seasons as the end, that means the Mother likely wasn't mean to appear before the last episode, maybe even the last few minutes. Which makes me wonder what happens if CBS decides midway through next year that they want a ninth season: does the plan get stretched out, or do they bite the bullet and make the Mother, whomever she is, a regular character in the present day?
Ted riding off into the sunset with Victoria — who can't be the woman he ends up with, given that we've been told that Ted meets The Mother at Barney's wedding — isn't quite as problematic, in that I like Ashley Williams in this role, and in that I did like Ted in a similar dead-end relationship with Robin once upon a time. But Ted's now been down so many dead ends — which Robin reminded us of when she gave him a long-overdue lecture in the hospital waiting room — that having the two of them get back together, even temporarily, feels less like an interesting story the show needs to tell at this late date than the easiest possible stall until The Mother pops up on Robin and Barney's wedding day. The producers know that the audience likes Williams and Josh Radnor together, and that the audience has been frosty or worse to many of Ted's other long-term girlfriends, so if they need to keep him occupied until destiny comes calling, this is safer than introducing one last woman to hustle on and off stage.
As I've said over and over again, my desire to get to The Mother already has nothing to do with caring about her as a character, or even caring about Ted's romantic journey. It has to do with my belief that the show is just much, much stronger when its stories dwell on matters of the present or the past, and where the writers don't have to act like magicians trying to keep the audience from figuring out how the trick works. And the finale affirmed that belief for me. The parts that had little or nothing to do with things to come were quite good; the parts that were all about the future made me roll my eyes and ask, for the umpteenth time, "Really? This is where you're going with this?"
What did everybody else think? How do you feel the season stacked up? And given where we are right now, do you want season 8 to be the end, or would you rather the ratings surge lead to another year or two beyond that?