I've watched How I Met Your Mother more or less consistently since the beginning. Not an episode has been bypassed, and I've rewatched many of the early seasons multiple times. At first I watched because I enjoy the laughter and happy endings promised by sitcoms, and How I Met Your Mother fit in somewhere narrowly below The Office and 30 Rock in my rotation. The comedy was well-worn enough to be comfortable, but not so unimaginative as to be dull, and the stellar acting frequently elevated it to something really special.
Like so many fans, I read the fan theories floating around about the ending, and I cried through the recent episode "Vesuvius," in which the mother's death is poignantly foreshadowed. But I hoped against hope that the showrunners, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, wouldn't be so cruel as to lead us through nine seasons of starry-eyed romantic optimism and dump us into a manipulative tear-jerker like that. Ted ending up with Robin after the mother's death seemed so cynical that I dismissed the possibility out of hand.
But of course, that's exactly what happened. As a viewer, as a fan, as someone to whom the events of the finale resonate on a personal level, I thought it fell far short of the standard we came to expect from the show. We clung to it through increasingly unfunny seasons waiting for the payoff we'd been promised since the pilot -- Ted meeting his children's mother and finding happiness with her. Surely the showrunners who'd created such brilliant episodes about the loss of Marshall's father and Robin's discovery that she's infertile would truly nail the emotional crescendo of the finale. Instead, they bungled it, going big on drama to get a big emotional response from their audience, but introducing unnecessary levity to the conclusion in a way that only served to cheapen the pain of Ted's and his kids' loss for all of us.
After the sensitive way in which the show handled the death of Marshall's father -- another episode during which I cried buckets -- it's hard to believe that the same showrunners allowed the titular mother's death to be treated so cavalierly. That they thought two teenagers would treat the life and death of their mother as an interlude between their father's romances with another woman he once fell in love with across a bar. That they'd let their father regale them with the tale of nearly every woman he ever dated, slept with, or even flirted with before he got married, but not be bothered by how he relegated their mom into a bit player in this epic story.
Now, I should be honest here: I'm not a totally unbiased viewer. My mother died when I was not much older than Ted's daughter Penny would have been at the time of her mother's fatal illness, so I was shocked by the lack of depth given to the two kids' feelings about their supposedly amazing mother's loss. Now, I'm aware that I'm not everyone. Surely some children who've lost mothers would eagerly encourage their father to get it on with a woman he loved before he'd even met their beloved mom. Maybe they'd even react with amusement and detachment as he gabbles for days on end about the women he banged before he met their mom, waxes poetic about how he used to adore their old family friend, and barely even tells them anything about his courtship and marriage to their mother. Maybe. We all handle grief in different ways.
Still, I'm disappointed. Though some kids surely handle grief that way, seeing this portrayal of mother loss struck me as remarkably callous. Whether or not kids are able to process the loss of their mother at such a young age and come to such a healthy, incredibly adult position on their father's desire to begin dating again, the finale shortchanges the amount of suffering and struggle that are needed to reach that point.
Before this finale aired, I told my boyfriend I didn't think the mother could die. "It wouldn't make sense for the kids to seem so ... bored," I told him. In all the reaction shots, the kids seem more fidgety and uninterested than eager to hear about the mother who died when they were so young, or even uncomfortable at probing a story that might dredge up painful emotions for all of them. If the showrunners aren't going to explore this at all, they're okay with sending the message: "These kids lost their mother, and they're totally fine, and in fact aren't even interested by her anymore."
What it comes down to is that How I Met Your Mother tricked us. Its sitcom trappings promised a lighthearted romantic romp with a happy ending, not nine years of lead-up to a tragic gut punch. But the sitcom trappings didn't just mislead viewers -- they allowed one of the most horrible calamities a family can experience to be treated as a silly plot twist smothered with some cloying emotional flourishes and a passel of insensitive jokes. A mother's death isn't a footnote to your father's other love story. It's a life-altering tragedy.
Here's the worst part: As Ted firmly tells his kids, right after describing his epic love for their mother, that he doesn't want to be with Robin, only for his serious facade to quickly crack into a goofy grin as he begins to admit that he maybe does, suddenly his good-guy earnestness seems cheap and false. How are we supposed to buy his alleged great love for their mother when the whole story of how it began was apparently a thin pretext for rehashing his old crush on Robin? Ted wasn't really that good guy the show tried to sell us on; he just really wanted to be. But he didn't want it enough to treat his kids' loss with respect by the end. Fortunately the showrunners have given him an out by making the kids not only completely chill with the loss of the mom (six whole years ago! Why are we still even talking about her, right? She's just their one and only mother), but also eager for him to hook up with the ex-girlfriend and long-time family friend they know as Aunt Robin.
Maybe Ted mourned the mother deeply for years, slowly began to discover new feelings for his old flame, and found that they had grown into new people who were finally at a place where they could be together. Maybe the kids have spent six years listening to their dad's stories about their mom and watching him struggle to move on from her death. But the show doesn't get to leave all that heavy emotional lifting to the viewers. Making such a confusing and emotionally challenging situation appear so easy for Ted and the kids is a cop out. A last scene predicated on a tragic loss, one that will resonate through the children's whole lives, should have been treated with emotional depth, but instead it was treated with flippancy. Showrunners: If you want us to be happy about Ted getting a second chance at love after the death of Tracy, who we've come to love and believe in as his soulmate, you have to earn that.
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