Why How I Met Your Mother’s Last Episode Is Its Best
…Or at least not completely awful. Lord, please have mercy on my soul for this.
A lot’s happened since Ted stopped talking in 2014, but How I Met Your Mother remains a beloved show, at least for those who forget everything between the fifth season and history’s longest wedding. By then, everybody had their own ideas about the show and any plot twist was going to be divisive. “Last Forever,” the final episode, wasn’t exactly met with cheers. I’m not sure I’ve met another fan who doesn’t hate it. But even if it came off some weak episodes, I still think “Last Forever” was secretly the show’s finest moment. I know, hold on.
There are two main plotlines, so let’s start with Barney and Robin, who get divorced a few years after marrying. If the show had been shorter, this would have worked better. With Marshall and Lily together from the start and Ted meeting the mother in this episode, their relationship became the biggest ship in the series, and it hurt to see it undone so quickly. But in the story, it takes 3 years, and stays true to their characters. Over the show, Barney becomes someone worth marrying, but Robin’s own reluctance is mostly unaddressed. She and Ted split because she prioritizes her career, and she bonds with Barney over preferring short-term relationships, hardly foreshadowing domestic bliss. Robin says yes to Barney’s proposal, but she never demonstrates that commitment like he does. There are many stories are about the guy getting the girl, not the girl’s own feelings, but How I Met Your Mother asks both parties to meet halfway.
After the divorce Barney returns to his old ways, but if Robin hadn’t asked for one, this would never have happened. Barney really changes over the other 206 episodes, and it’s only a tribute to his love for Robin that he backslides so much now. Plus, it’s extra devastating to him because he always relies on others for self-esteem. He keeps a list of 200+ women he’s slept with because a high school bully taunted him about his sex life, (“Right Place, Right Time”) he falls to pieces when he learns the first of those women was unimpressed, (“The Yips”) and he always wears suits because his ex-girlfriend chose someone in a suit over him (“Game Night”).
His last scene gives him a child from a one-night stand, which realistically should have happened long before the finale. It’s a fitting end for a risk-taker who hates consequences, but the show gives it an upbeat spin that admittedly doesn’t quite work, with Barney immediately declaring his love for the kid. Considering absent parents exist in the real world, holding your baby in your hands doesn’t magically resolve all your issues. But it might resolve them for a moment, and the show probably didn’t want to be too depressing.
While Barney’s storyline is provocative but rushed, Ted’s is just plain fantastic. At first glance, the mother dying might seem random, but it’s secretly the heart of the whole series. Ted’s story to his children is his attempt to deal with his grief and move on. After sitting them down to talk about her, he stalls with nearly every other event in his life, before raising even indirectly what happened to her. He praises her repeatedly and shows the hole in his life before her, the same hole he faces now.
For nine seasons, Ted is an increasingly lonely creature fixated on finding his soulmate. Supposedly, he’s just a romantic, but we’re shown this by his future self, a lonely father who knows “the one” was out there because he met her — and lost her. When Ted dreams he’d gone to the mother’s door a few weeks early, (“The Time Travelers”) he wants to rewrite the start because he can’t change the ending. When he’s alone at the bar that night, worried he’ll be lonely forever, it’s his future projecting onto his past self. By the final season, Ted’s almost as impatient for meeting the mother as most viewers, and the more she appears in the story, the lonelier he becomes.
There are other nods as well, like a flash-forward (“How I Met Everyone Else”) where Ted cries out while high, “Where’s my wife?!” Another flashforward comes in an episode named after a cataclysmic disaster, (“Vesuvius”) with Ted and the mother having an emotional conversation hinting at her illness. The scene ends to Bob Dylan’s If You See Her, Say Hello, a song about a lost love. We don’t need to see Ted grieve for her in the show’s final moments, because we’ve been seeing it the whole time.
And anyway, this show’s never about the mother. She’s a symbol in a story defined by her absence. The happily ever after she represents would never work as the final ending, because she’d be a random new character who fixes everything, the ultimate deus ex machina. Like so many stories, How I Met Your Mother’s about the journey, and how the characters grow along the way. That growth’s softened by too many seasons, but it’s there for all of them, and the ending reflects those changes. Otherwise it would only be a fortunate meeting that, no matter how often a yellow umbrella shows up, would always feel like happenstance.
Ted begins the story prone to dramatic declarations of love, (“Pilot”) but too immature for such a commitment (“Nothing Good Ever Happens After 2 A.M.”). By the final two seasons, Ted helps his best friend get together with the love of his live because it’s the right thing to do (“The Final Page”). But while Ted’s maturity improves, his eight-year quest for true love also dulls the romantic side that kept him hoping. By meeting the mother, the symbol of that dream, he regains his romantic faith. She dies because this isn’t a fairy tale, but now Ted has found proof of his own beliefs, and he keeps carrying them after she’s gone. He’s less naïve, but still the romantic. Robin rejects him in the past, but when he returns to her in the show’s last scene, maybe this time, he’s mature enough to make it work.
At its heart, the show’s always about Ted and Robin. Specifically, Ted’s eternal, nonsensical, and sometimes frustrating, love for her. The tale begins with Ted meeting Robin, not the mother. When he realizes he still loves her, it’s been years since the mother’s death, and Ted’s now mature enough to move on. His kids clearly know Robin well, so they’re presumably still good friends and it’s not too stalkerish to ask her out.
And that’s all that happens here. We never learn if Ted and Robin live happily ever after, or if she even agrees to a date. The ending isn’t about her answer. It’s about Ted asking, and that he’s still trying after all these years. His heart’s older, with a few scars, but it’s still beating, nonetheless. His love for Robin begins as a crush. Now he knows her, loves her, and wants to try again.
Because that’s the story, of how he met their mother. Not meeting her. Not the specific events leading to him meeting her. How he did it. How he became the man that could meet her. And that standing on the other side, now that the fairy tale’s dead once and for all, he’s still trying.
You seem awesome! Join my newsletter, and together, we can rule the galaxy as culture-savvy geeks!