Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
The series finale of How I Met Your Mother is (pardon the pun) legendary in many ways—none of which are particularly good ones. Rarely has such a well-loved series whiffed the landing so completely and in a way that pretty much retroactively ruins the joy of virtually every moment that came before. Instead of a triumphant conclusion to nine years’ worth of build-up, in which Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) finally meets the titular mother and earns his happily ever after, we watch the charming Tracy McConnell (Cristin Milioti) die of an unspecified wasting sickness seemingly moments after finally meeting Ted and learn that the whole point of the show wasn’t actually about fate, it was about making safe, predictable choices in the name of fulfilling a decades-old vision whose moment had long passed. (Justice for Tracy, is what I’m saying.)
It would be bad enough if How I Met Your Mother’s decision to put Ted back together with his ex Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) in the closing moments of the series’ final episode was just about choosing to ignore multiple seasons worth of the show telling us that they were terrible together and that both would be very much better off without the other. Or cheesily recreating a scene from the pilot episode involving Ted and the blue French horn. Or getting the chance to use some reaction footage of the child actors who play Ted’s kids from way back then—shot when they were still kids. Those things would (and do!) still suck on their own terms. (The idea that a good 40% of the reason this series’ ending even exists is so they had a reason to use that nearly ten-year-old footage of Ted’s children is honestly infuriating.)
But no, the worst part about the ending of How I Met Your Mother actually doesn’t have anything to do with Ted. At least not directly. It’s more that the fact of his existence—and that series creators and showrunners Carter Bays and Craig Thomas were so determined to follow through on the original ending they’d come up with a decade prior—that led the show to dismantle one of its best couples in the name of servicing his story, whether that move made sense for any of the other characters or not.
When How I Met Your Mother began, I’m sure no one predicted that an honest to goodness relationship would ever develop between Robin and Ted’s brotastic, womanizing best friend Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris), let alone that it would become one of the show’s best love stories. In the beginning, Robin seemed destined for Ted, and Barney, quite frankly, seemed like a terrible relationship prospect for any woman. Neither of them was super interested in settling down, and both were deeply afraid of commitment. They were a lot more interested in their high-powered careers and busy social lives than the traditional path of marriage and family, and were open and unapologetically selfish about their needs and desires. But maybe that’s why they were always destined to work so well together.
All credit to Smulders and Harris’ exceptional chemistry, of course, but part of the reason the pairing of Barney and Robin was so appealing is that, at its heart, it’s a story of equals, of two people who see each other for exactly who they are and accept that person anyway. So much of Ted and Robin’s relationship was about one putting the other on a pedestal and then inevitably becoming disappointed when they didn’t live up to some false ideal that never truly existed. Robin and Barney’s relationship, by contrast, was about two people finding a way to grow and change together and becoming better as a unit than they ever were apart.
To its credit, How I Met Your Mother really did put in the work to make a romance between Robin and Barney not just believable, but a natural evolution and extension of the stories the show was already telling about them both as people. The series spends literal years showing us not only how their relationship evolves from casual acquaintances to real friends, but how that friendship ultimately turned into something deeper for both parties. By the time the two finally tie the knot in Season 9, we’ve spent the better part of five seasons following the ups and downs of their relationship, through mistakes and successes, grand gestures and petty fights, betrayals and forgiveness. We see them question their relationship, try to move on with other people, get nervous, run away, give up, and inevitably come back to one another over and over again. When they’re finally ready to make a permanent commitment to one another, it feels both earned and the only place left for their story to go.
After all, I mean, the entire final season of the show is about Robin and Barney’s wedding. That is 22 episodes of American television! Which is a very long time! Who thought we wanted to watch all of that just to have them turn around and immediately get divorced? (I think roughly 12 minutes pass between events if anyone’s counting.) It’s a slap in the face to every fan who invested in this pairing and sat through every episode of the (admittedly, not great!) final season, particularly when the emotional fallout from the end of their relationship is essentially treated as a speedbump on the road back to Robin and Ted. (And, weirdly, to making Robin a lonely, pathetic loser because she loved her career, but that’s a rant for another day.)
Maybe Bays and Thomas really always believed that Robin and Ted were endgame, and that’s obviously fine, it’s their show. But that’s absolutely not the story they told onscreen. How I Met Your Motherarry Potter books and it’s… not wrong.)
At the end of the day, true love isn’t supposed to be about finding your dream girl, forcing your partner into an uncomfortable box, or asking them to sacrifice key tenets of their own dreams for yours in order to be together. It’s about finding the person who encourages and challenges you to be your best self, who makes you want to grow with them, rather than run away from the idea of change. And no matter what Ted Mosby tells his kids, that was never his and Robin’s story—-it was Robin and Barney’s.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.