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Audience Expectation vs. Creative Vision: The Finale of 'How I Met Your Mother'

A look back at one of the most divisive series finales in sitcom history.

Making a finale for a TV show can be an excruciatingly difficult task. Leaving aside the fact that its obviously emotional seeing the characters that audiences have grown close to and who have impacted the lives of so many people finally bid goodbye, there's the issue of ensuring that they end up with satisfying conclusions to their individual arcs. If the finale treats them differently or introduces new facets of a characters' personality, audiences are bound to feel a disconnect, as it would feel like the person they've come to know and love has been replaced by someone else entirely. However, if the creator of the character has a certain end goal in mind, then inevitably, there is going to be a situation where that character conforms with the creative vision of his/her creator, no matter what his/her individual character arc may be. 

If an ending is done right, there's arguably no better moment in the entire story. An example of an ending of a story done right is in the anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. While I won't get into details of it here, the ending of the anime visibly demonstrates the characters' growth and changed perspectives, consistent with their personalities and their individual characteristics as well as ensuring that we, the audience, are satisfied with where they have ended up after 64 grueling episodes. In this vein, its certainly not a stretch to say that two of the most pivotal parts of ending a good story is balancing the vision that the creator of a character has for their ending in a story and what the audience would like and expect out of the character. 

For all of the accolades and hearts it won over the course of its 9 year run, How I Met Your Mother took a pretty spectacular nosedive in the eyes of a majority of its fans after its two part series finale, 'Last Forever' aired, with the final episode being regarded almost universally as one of the worst endings of all time. At first glance, this point of view seems justified, but if you stop and look a little deeper at the show, you'll realise that this was what the show was building to throughout its entire run. 

(Note: From here on out, this post will contain MAJOR SPOILERS for the ending of How I Met Your Mother; if you do not want to be spoiled, I recommend you click away now.) 

Firstly, a quick recap of the ending, in case you've forgotten some of the particulars: after telling his kids about his first encounter with their mother, Ted finally concludes his story. However, his kids are sure that   the reason that he told them this story is because he still has feelings for Robin and that he wanted to see what his kids thought before asking her out. While Ted initially dismisses the idea, he slowly starts to waver as his children express how much they love Robin and how there is an obvious connection between their father and her, apparent every time she comes over to their house. Ted finally asks if they'd be ok with him dating her, to which they emphatically respond in the affirmative. Ted picks up the phone, ready to call her, but then thinks of a better idea. We then cut to Robin entering her apartment, with all her dogs, and as she's about to settle in for the night, we hear that someone's outside her apartment. She peeks outside the window, dogs in tow, and we see Ted smiling up at her, holding the blue French horn that he stole so many years ago; a callback to the first ever date that they went on. Robin breaks into tears of joy as Ted chuckles, and the screen cuts to black.

Sounds beautiful, doesn't it? A poetic ending to an love story with its own ups and downs. While we were all paying attention to the story of the yellow umbrella, creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas wanted to conclude the show by closing the story of the blue French horn. Although the ending left many people shocked, what was more shocking was the fact that this ending was reportedly planned from the very beginning, with statements from both creators confirming that they shot the final scene with Ted’s children as far back as Season two to ensure they didn’t age out of their roles. Fans were outraged by the entire finale: at the fact that Barney and Robin got divorced within 15 minutes of the final episode after spending the entirety of the 9th season plodding through the various hijinks that ensued before their wedding. Continuing with the fact that all the character growth that Ted went through in the last season (letting go of Robin after so many year of chasing her) seemingly went right out the window after Tracy's death really ticked people off because they felt that the show just took them for a gigantic loop.

So we know that the ending of the show was planned and that everything we saw went according to the plan. If that's the case, then why did so many people hate it? It's simple really: what the audience expected was not what the audience got. Simplistic as that might seem, the ending fits the show well. Confused? Allow me to explain. 

The show spent a grand total of eight seasons building to the moment when Ted finally met his future wife, and in season nine, we finally got to meet her, and as it turned out, Tracy McConnell was a lovely character who connected almost instantly with every member of the gang almost as soon as she met them. Her interaction with Ted under the iconic yellow umbrella was one of the best moments of the show; both Josh Radnor and Cristin Milloti knocked it out of the park. We (the audience) had been through so many of Ted's near misses and numerous heartbreaks that when he looked so natural talking to Tracy, the audience could breathe a sigh of relief as it looked like his quest for love was finally over. He had already gotten over Robin, the woman that he had been chasing for years, and her own love story came to a close, with her marrying Barney (a match made in heaven, I might add). 

And then we learn that Barney and Robin got divorced, Tracy died because of a disease and Ted wanted to get back together with Robin. Again. All in the space of about 40 minutes. Not to mention the last two  episodes cycle through time periods like nobody's business. We go further and further into the future as we see the evolution of Ted and Tracy's relationship and how the lives of the gang change as the years roll by. Its very abrupt and it doesn't give the audience enough time to process everything that they're seeing. By the time we see Ted holding up the horn outside Robin's apartment (for the third time), the audience has seen so much change in the characters that have remained more or less consistent over the years that the significance of the events unfolding on screen is grossly undermined. 

However, the ending was fitting for the characters themselves.

Long running sitcoms, more often than not, are embodiments of how change affects people's lives, and How I Met Your Mother is no exception to this. We see so many instances of huge events in the gang's lives that change the very foundation of who they are and how they perceive the world around them. Ted being left at the altar transforms his perspective on love, making him slightly more cynical and disbelieving of how wonderful it can be. Marshall's father dying is a punch to the gut for him and while he gets mad over the fact that his dad didn't leave him a final voice message, he quickly finds out that his dad came through, one last time. It reaffirms his faith in family and enduring, and carrying forward what he was taught by him. Lily repairs her bonds with her father, learning how to forgive him in the face of his efforts for trying to make amends for everything he's done. Robin's whirlwind of emotions surrounding the balance of work and romance through her various relationships finally make her comfortable enough to be ready to settle down with someone she truly cares about.

Perhaps the biggest exhibition of change is Barney, as he goes from a heartless womaniser to a man hopelessly in love with the girl of his dreams and doing everything in his power to win her over. While he does revert to his old ways briefly in the finale, upon meeting his daughter, he promises to cherish her for the rest of his days. This is significant in wake of the trouble he's had with his own father and how he overcame his initial hesitance about allowing him into his life. Each of the main cast has had major change that rocked their life, and this, I believe, spells out the true theme of the show: that life never works the way you want it to, and that you have to adapt and overcome every adversity that it throws your way. 

But... didn't we already know that? 

People are aware of the fact that life doesn't go the way you want it to. People know that life isn't five friends hanging out at a bar, drinking beer, and telling each other stories all the time. We watch television and movies to get away from the ever lasting drone of our life, and to live in someone else's life just for a little bit. We watch it to be reminded of the fictional aspect: the imagination, the grandeur, and the spectacle of it all. We certainly don't want to see an accurate representation of what life is really like, right? Except this is what How I Met Your Mother did for its nine year run. It showed us life as it is: flawed, unbiased, unfair. Sure, it had its fantasy moments, and sometimes the show indulged itself in a bit of over the top action and drama, but by and large, it reminded serious and in its later seasons, even somewhat sombre. Audiences didn't want to see what might actually happen if these characters were real people - they wanted to see a fantastical world where Ted finally finds his true love and lives happily ever after with her. They wanted to see an epilogue that has Ted and Tracy with their two kids, being content with their life. Sure, people change over time, that's not something any of us can deny, but was it necessary to depict that in a sitcom to the extent that the entire ending was changed? 

Personally, I didn't like the ending. I felt that the official alternate ending was so much better because it gave me that perfect ending that I wanted. The show ends with Ted and Tracy on the train platform, right after they met, with Ted saying the now iconic line "And that kids, is how I met your mother." as the screen fades to black. This version gave me that little glimmer of hope that I think all of us subconsciously look for when we watch a TV show. I think it was such a missed opportunity to end the show on a high note, but despite this, the show cannot be cast out to the extent that it has been. Despite my personal gripes with the ending, I  respect the producers and the writers for sticking with their choice throughout the nine years and writing an ending that not a lot of people would be happy about. 

How I Met Your Mother is a flawed show, no doubt about it, but its a show that is so unique and different from everything else in its genre that you can't help but marvel at how its influenced so many people and touched so many lives. It got me through a pretty hectic exam season, and if you want to know more about what I think of the show beyond its ending, you can head on over to my blog, where I've posted a few of my thoughts regarding the show and how well the writers handled so many of its aspects that made it unique. 

If you're not scared, you're not taking a chance. If you're not taking a chance, then what the hell are you doing? 

Well said, Ted Mosby... well said. 

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