[WARNING: If you haven't seen the series finale of How I Met Your Mother, don't watch it. Just kidding! Sort of. This piece, at any rate, contains plot details from that finale.]
When How I Met Your Mother premiered in the fall of 2005, it was sandwiched between The King Of Queens and Two And A Half Men, a lark cooling its heels in the company of two very sitcommy sitcoms. That made it seem even younger than it was and fresher than it was, and made its structural playfulness and experimentation even more welcome. Had it been sitting over at NBC in between My Name Is Earl and The Office, for instance, representing for the multicamera, laugh-tracked half-hour, it would have seemed far more traditional. As it was, it seemed like one big raised eyebrow.
But what made the pilot pop, what made it seem smart and nuanced and surprisingly philosophical, was the closing moment when a "cute guy meets cute girl" story concluded with the narrator, the man telling the story of How He Met Your Mother, saying that this cute girl was not the mother. This was how he met "Aunt Robin." He'd get to the mother later.
This was a move legitimately subversive of a rule that television knows all too well: The answer to "will they or won't they?" is always "they will," and that's why we're all here. Knowing that Ted did not wind up with Robin, but wound up with someone else — but still remained close enough to Robin that his kids addressed her as "Aunt Robin" — said something different. It said, "You know what? They won't. But don't leave yet." It said that there is value in stories about things that don't work out, and value in romances that end. Everyone matters, everything is important, everything fits together and makes a whole life.
The series finale revealed that to the degree this is what the show seemed to be saying, the joke was on you. It was a nine-year-long con (as James Poniewozik put it) that fooled you into thinking it wasn't running on an engine of total cliche when — psych! — it totally was. Because it turned out that of course Ted wasn't really saying everything matters, that your whole life is important, that you can still love people even if you don't end up with them, that the good pieces and the bad pieces and the ups and the downs were all part of the story of how you wound up in the right place.
No, he was telling this whole story because he was in denial, and he spoke about the sad and happy moments of his life for nine seasons so that his teenage children could tell him to get over their dead mother and go after their aunt. (As the teenage children of widowed parents always do in this blithe, go-get-'em-tiger kind of way, in Bizarro World.)
And so he did. He went and gave himself to Robin, whom he'd loved all along. She doesn't matter because they'd loved each other and that always means something; she matters because he's still in love with her and now they can kiss. She never wanted kids, but apparently she now wants to be a stepparent to Ted's kids, something something mumble mumble what was this character about again?
So it was all a trick — they will after all! The end.
That's not to even mention the other things that went wrong in the finale: The marriage of Robin and Barney, which the show spent its entire final season on, was dismissed with a sort of hand-wave of "she traveled a lot and it didn't work out" so that Robin would be free for Ted's destiny to be fulfilled later. The embrace of Barney as a selfish jerk seemed to be the part of its original DNA to which the show would remain true, but then — psych! — he had a baby with a woman he barely knew and we never saw, and it made him nice and domesticated. Neil Patrick Harris played the heck out of the scene where Barney falls in love with the baby, but it still didn't make any kind of sense, nor did it resonate with anything else that had happened in the show up to that point.
Perhaps worst of all, the fine work of Cristin Milioti as the mother across the final season was wasted as it turned out she was, within the show's structure, merely a piece of the great love story of Ted and Robin, and died of Unspecified Sad Hospital-Bed-itis so that their romantic balcony scene could happen.
"It's the journey and not the destination" is usually the right way to look at series finales, a disturbing number of which don't stick the landing. The problem with this one in particular is that the relationship between the journey and the destination was the show's animating principle. That Ted was on a journey that was not about Robin was the first interesting thing the show ever said. It was the show's declaration of purpose. Alan Sepinwall has written a piece that looks at, logistically speaking, how this all went so painfully wrong, and how bad decisions made literally years ago locked the writers into bad decisions they then stubbornly stuck with.
But what's disheartening is how interesting and optimistic How I Met Your Mother once felt, and how dull and uncreative its approach to Ted's love life ultimately proved to be. There seems to be a prevailing theory in television that the only thing that has value is gut-punches, and the only thing that brings gut-punches is ... death! There's no reason this show needed a gut-punch finale. It didn't need a reversal. It didn't need to flip the script at the last minute. You don't have to fool an audience, or trick it, or wind up your show with, "How about THAT!?"
All the show needed was the lovely, lovely little scene that Ted and Tracy — the mother, who got her name right before she was bumped off — played under the yellow umbrella. It was enough. She didn't have to die. He didn't have to go back to Aunt Robin. It was a beautiful ending, until it wasn't. It wound up feeling like an abandonment of that subversive, thoughtful idea about how everything matters, and that's why it felt so ... sad.