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How I Met Your Mother’s Controversial Ending, Explained

How I Met Your Mother’s ending has never sat right with fans. Why is this conclusion regarded with such infamy? Should Ted and Robin have gotten together? Did the Mother live up to your expectations? Let’s take a look at what doesn’t work about the How I Met Your Mother series finale.

TRANSCRIPT

Few series finales remain as infamous as the ending to one of the most-watched sitcoms of the 2000s: How I Met Your Mother. But why was the 2014 finale so jarring for fans? After all, the very first episode back in 2005 positioned this as a love story between protagonist Ted and “cool girl” Robin, who likes him but isn’t ready for a long-term thing.

Ted Mosby: “Because that kids, is the true story of how I met your Aunt Robin.” - How I Met Your Mother 1x1

And the series’ ending delivered on exactly that promise, concluding the long story of how Ted Moseby ended up with Robin Scherbatsky. From its beginning, How I Met Your Mother was built on avoiding the answers to its biggest questions. The series was propelled forward by the central mystery of how Ted met his kid’s mother — and who this woman would turn out to be. After nearly a decade of dodging answers, whatever ending showrunners came up with couldn’t compare to the elaborate fan theories viewers had spent years developing. Here’s our take on why the show’s answer to “How I Met Your Mother” could never deliver on the promise of the series’ original question.

Locked into An Ending

Unlike other series with rocky conclusions, How I Met Your Mother actually set its finale in stone nearly a decade before it aired. Midway through airing the second season, producers sensed that the popularity of the show might extend its run for more seasons, which meant it could be a number of years before the show’s titular question arrived at an answer. This presented a problem: the passage of time would make the actors playing Ted’s children unrecognizable to viewers. So producers made the radical decision to film the finale’s climactic scene (what turned out to be) eight years in advance.

This road-map represented a firm sense of direction often lacking in long-running television shows, who often see a revolving door of writers and actors over the years on the air. On the other hand, television is a medium that can take advantage of the luxury of time. A series can develop and expand the story and characters in ways a 120-minute film can’t and as a result of character growth, the most satisfying conclusion for a show will no doubt evolve as well.

Likewise, as How I Met Your Mother went on, the relationships between Lilly, Marshall, Barney, Ted, and Robin grew ever more complicated. Thus, what felt right at the start of the series didn’t necessarily fit for the characters, or fans, by the end. And this explains why many fans were upset over the decision to make Robin and Ted endgame. While this choice was in the works from the start and evidently intended to make fans happy — it was even an example of outright fan-service — for many viewers, it flew in the face of years of character development.

What may have seemed an obvious pairing at the start of the show became less so after 9 seasons of arguments, break-ups, resolutions, and finally her marriage to Ted’s friend Barney—nine years of proof to the viewer why the character pairing just didn’t work.

Ted Mosby: “Just tell me, do you love me?”

Robin Scherbatsky : “No.” - How I Met Your Mother, 7x17

Most saliently, fans saw this endgame pairing as very out of character for Robin. However many times she says or demonstrates that she doesn’t want to be with Ted and after spending years explaining why they couldn’t be together, why she didn’t want kids…

Robin Scherbatsky: “I don’t want to have kids in Argentina.”

Ted Mosby: “And I don’t want to have kids in Argentina.” - 2x22

… and how the most important thing in her life is her career, in the finale she seems to be waiting for Ted. So by sticking to the firm destination it had plotted out years earlier the show let down and contradicted the person Robin had shown herself to be in all that time. InTheseTimes’s Sady Doyle wrote of the harshness with which Robin was treated in the finale, quote, “Robin, sans boyfriend, is condemned to a sad life of bitter spinsterhood, distancing herself entirely from the core group of friends she once loved now that she’s no longer dating Ted and/or Barney.” And apparently, Robin — the girl who was always happy being single — needs to be saved from this spinster fate by a man with a blue French horn.

Meeting the Mother

After 208 episodes and too many close encounters to keep track of, in the series finale Ted finally meets her, the future Tracy Moseby. Tracy is intimately woven into the final season, which takes place over the three days of Barney and Robin’s wedding weekend. Over the last season, fan favorites return, and th-e slap bet is finally completed, but by the finale, there’s still one more promise left to fulfill. Ted still has to find his mystery woman with the yellow umbrella.

Ted Mosby: “Wait a second, this is my umbrella. I left this umbrella at Cindy’s. You totally stole my umbrella.”

Tracy McConnell: “What? No, I didn’t.” - How I Met Your Mother 9x24

Of course, in true How I Met Your Mother fashion, Ted is the last person to meet Cristin Miliotti’s character. She’s revealed to have crossed paths with each of Ted’s friends at one time or another, either crashing into them over the course of the wedding weekend or in flashbacks. Fans fell in love with the charming new character as she made her way into Ted’s life through his friends. She proved herself to be worthy of the gang before she had ever laid eyes on her future husband.

Ted and Tracy come together in the perfect “meet-cute” scene, but it’s infamously undercut by the simultaneous reveal that Tracy has passed away.

Ted Mosby: “Even then, in what can only be called the worst of times, all I could do was thank God…that I had the guts to stand up…” - How I Met Your Mother 9x24

This whole time, Ted has been a widower, and this story he’s been telling about his kids’ mother hasn’t been a rom-com but a romantic tragedy. And then we’re shown the scene filmed nearly a decade ago. Ted has reached the end of his tale, and his children are frustrated with their father. So it’s quickly revealed that this still is a rom-com - they’ve just done a bait-and-switch with the female lead.

Penny Mosby: “No. This is a story about how you’re totally in love with Aunt Robin.” - How I Met Your Mother 9x24

One key reason that the finale backfired is that the writers evidently didn’t give enough thought to how much screen time they offered audiences to emotionally process important developments, versus the amount of time those same events took for the characters in-story. Even though Ted only met the mother of his children in the finale, the show’s audience had just spent an entire season falling in love with her. Thus her sudden death felt unsatisfying and brutal—not the answer to “How I Met Your Mother” that audiences had waited nine seasons for. The joke in the pilot that this story is really about Ted and Robin feels sinister when these two get together mere minutes (in screentime) after the death of a beloved character.

And then there’s Barney and Robin. In a quick fix in the finale episode, Barney and Robin break up just one episode after being pronounced man and wife.

Robin Scherbatsky: “I know I’m always traveling. We both hate it when I’m gone you hate it when I drink, neither of us is happy. Is this just not working anymore?” - How I Met Your Mother 9x23

Sure, in their lives, this uncoupling happens three years after their entry into holy matrimony, but viewers had just spent twenty-two episodes literally at their wedding, only for their pairing to be ripped away like a cruel joke. The casualness with which showrunners threw away Barney and Robin’s marriage and the life of the titular mother were severe shocks to long-time viewers. This harshness felt out of step with nine seasons centered around the importance of friendship and the care we should give to those closest to us in our lives. And beyond whether viewers were happy with the narrative conclusions for each individual character, there’s the question of what ultimate message the show sent with its final choices.

You could interpret this ending as stressing the importance of friendship. By having Ted end up with Robin instead of the Mother, the writers make the case that you’re supposed to end up with the person you really know best, even though your relationship is messy and not perfect as opposed to looking for that ideal stranger-soulmate who will magically transform your life. Viewed through this lens, Ted’s ending up with Robin could be seen as a rejection of his perfectionist search for the over-the-top fairy-tale romance.

On the other hand, this show — whose creators reportedly rejected the inevitable Friends comparisons — decided to follow in that show’s footsteps by forcing an ending where two-thirds of the original gang finish coupled up. The comparisons between the two series were, of course, inevitable —both sitcoms set in New York City follow an insular group of friends who gather every day at the same location, and never seem to acquire any new pals.

The main thing that set How I Met Your Mother apart from Friends in a serious way was the titular question at the heart of the show. The mysterious mother spoke of an outside world, a stranger from the future — someone our protagonist has not yet had the chance to meet. There is something more waiting out there, we were promised.

Ted Mosby: “But I did get a little bit closer to meeting the woman of my dreams. And your mom? Well, she got her yellow umbrella back.” - How I Met Your Mother 5x12

So when the series abandoned this promise, it ended up reinforcing Friends’ implicit message of insularity — that the only people who really matter are the ones that we (and the audience) already know. As Megan Garber wrote for The Atlantic, because the mother was a “relative stranger” while Robin was well-known to us, the conclusion sent the message that Tracy was, quote, “ultimately just as expendable as everyone else. She was, by sad circumstance but also by the show’s circular logic, a stepping stone on Ted’s way, ultimately, to Robin.”

Unlike Friends, How I Met Your Mother has a central narrator. This was conceived as Ted’s story. Yet over time, The success of HIMYM wasn’t due to the strength of Ted as a protagonist, but rather the dynamism of those he surrounded himself with. The finale of How I Met Your Mother reverts to putting Ted’s happiness before all. He should be with Robin. Why? Because he wants to be.

When The End Hit the Fan

The audience plays an important role in the development of television. Gaps between seasons provide viewers with time to speculate, form fan theories, and engage with creators online and in other fan spaces. In Hillary Robson’s “Television and the Cult Audience,” she differentiates between two types of TV viewers: the casual and the ritual. The casual viewer engages with the material on a semi-regular basis, while the ritual viewer is a “die-hard” fan who dedicates time and energy to dissecting major plot points and retaining character details in order to enrich their watching. Robson’s “cultists” are often associated with more stereotypical “cult tv” like Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Game of Thrones, or Star Wars, but How I Met Your Mother’s central mystery and serialized plot lines also made this episodic sitcom ripe for fan theories and cult viewership.

In the weeks and months after the finale aired, one way that viewers processed the finale’s unpopular decisions was by creating fan edits. One of the most popular online edits was just three minutes long. Now removed from YouTube, it ends moments after Ted and Tracey meet on the train station platform, as Ted announces:

Ted Mosby: “And that kids, is how I met your mother. - How I Met Your Mother 9x24

No matter where you stand on the How I Met Your Mother finale, at the end of the day, the show was never really about who turned out to be the love of Ted’s life. How I Met Your Mother was a show about friendship. As Garber wrote in The Atlantic, “They were friends who were more family than family.” Sometimes we fail to appreciate these platonic relationships because we’re fixating on the need for a perfect romantic partner. How I Met Your Mother reminded us that even when we’re looking for our “soulmate,” we shouldn’t forget about the people who are already there. So when we look back at How I Met Your Mother, it’s not the final meeting that we’ll remember, but the “How”, and all the moments in between. Because the “How” is the real heart of any story.

Ted Mosby: “Because sometimes, even if you know how something’s going to end, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ride.” - How I Met Your Mother 2x14

Works Cited

Miller, Liz Shannon. “It’s Time To Forgive the ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Series Finale.” IndieWire, 26 Nov. 2014.

https://www.indiewire.com/2014/11/its-time-to-forgive-the-how-i-met-your-mother-series-finale-67496/

Broderick, Ryan. “A fan-edited the finale of How I Met Your Mother and made it so much better.” BuzzFeed, 2 Apr. 2014.

https://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/a-fan-edited-the-finale-of-how-i-met-your-mother-and-made-it

Robson, Hillary. “Television and the Cult Audience: A Primer.” In The Cult TV Book, I.B. Tauris, 2010.

Starner, Nina. “The ending of how I met your mother finally explained.” Looper, 18 Nov. 2019.

https://www.looper.com/175440/the-ending-of-how-i-met-your-mother-finally-explained/

“Final “How I Met Your Mother” scene filmed 8 years ago.” CBS News, 17 Jan. 2014.

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/final-how-i-met-your-mother-scene-filmed-8-years-ago/