Speculation about the endgame of this season is running rampant, and Nora is at the center of one of the hot new theories. But the HIMYM creative team has a few more tricks up their sleeve than most of us have been giving them credit for.
I’ve been a little despondent, I admit, thinking that my much-beloved Barney-Robin pairing might not be in the long-term cards. As I’ve read the comments hypothesizing that Nora might get hitched to Barney (a green card situation, some thought), I’ve had to reassess the evidence that Robin and Barney are destined for each other. It certainly didn’t go so well the first time out, ending in hideous fat suits. And it’s been a while since the two have dropped any definitive signals that there’s still unresolved intimacy. I’ve chosen to read moments like Robin’s “Go get her” to Barney at the end of “Garbage Island” as a pang of regret, a butterflies-are-free thing, but hints like that have been far from broad.
So for much of “A Change of Heart,” I was steeling myself to give up on that hope and go with the new program. When Nora revealed herself to be bent on marriage, white picket fences, three kids, and growing old together on the second date, I thought, “The Nora theory is right.” And as the gang explores whether Barney was lying to Nora when he professed to be equally in favor of all those things, I thought we were being set up for a big change of heart.
And at the same time as I was making plans not to let my mourning for Barobiney get in the way of my enjoyment of the show, I was also getting irritated by how sappy this was all turning out to be. The cardiologist everyone goes to see after Marshall’s dad’s sudden death, the heart monitor that records Barney’s date with Norah after the cardiologist notices some irregularities, the literal skipping of a beat recorded on that monitor when Norah arrives at the restaurant and Barney catches sight of her: pretty over the top. The sweetness in Norah’s presence, the shift in Barney’s self-realization toward admitting his eventual desire to grow up and have a lasting relationship, well, that’s a place Barney has to go before we let go of this character, but this quickly? Turning on a dime, even with the father issues taking Barney Stinson’s arc in a more serious direction, doesn’t sit right.
So when Barney, after callously telling Norah he was using her by pretending to want to settle down, shows up at the restaurant where Norah is having a meal with her folks, breaking one of his many “only one rules” by meeting the parents, it seems he is confirming Lily’s diagnosis that his real lie was claiming he didn’t want the two-car garage, the ivy-covered stone walls, the pool, the waking up next to the same person every day for the rest of his life. When he walks in and declares himself a new man, shaking hands with the parents and saying he wants to be confused with Norah rather than a shallow certainty without her, it seems that this is where we’re headed. This is the change we knew had to come but might be forgiven for wishing was a little truer to Barney’s real depths, even maybe that it could be less of a smooth ride to New Barney, maybe with some surprises and switchbacks. Since when do we go from point A to point B in this show without detouring through point Z?
Then as Barney pops out a deck of cards to show Norah’s dad a magic trick, the camera pans over to reveal Barney still standing at the door. And when he walks away, he gives his head an angry shake and looks dissatisfied. Is he rejecting the change and deciding to continue to be horndog Barney? I don’t think so. Nora was perfectly nice and maybe even special, but she’s not the one he’s going to change for. Is he ready to admit that to himself? Maybe. I suspect we’ll see in the last run of shows this season.
For now, color me impressed. This is like the perfected version of the weird meta-numbers bit that ended with Marshall hearing about his dad’s death in “Bad News.” We are led through a storyline we should want, but one that strangely fails to satisfy thanks to its lack of nuance. Then it’s yanked from underneath us, and the real story is revealed, a change that is far less dramatic, far more interior, far less obvious or easy to interpret. We don’t know quite where we’re going, and that, perverse as it may seem, is what we want on this show that supposedly is completely upfront about exactly where it’s going. So we’re right where they want us, and that’s exactly where I, for one, want to be.
- The B-story is Robin wanting a dog and getting instead a doggish boyfriend nicknamed Scooby. I loved the lengthy hot-potato game of dog puns around the MacLaren’s table (“How did you meet? Tell us the tale,” “Shed some light on the subject,” “Yes, how did you whisker off her feet?” “Moving from Canada must have been pretty ruff”), which was old-school HIMYM at its finest. The payoff when Robin flings her keys across the room to get Scooby away from the table for a bit was perfectly done.
- On the other hand, I could go for the rest of the series without seeing Marshall and Ted giggling under the influence of a giant bag of sandwiches. More funny dog-Scooby bits (“He must have learned to open the door by himself!”) were somewhat diluted by the fact that the actors were delivering them in exaggerated stoner gestures.
- I did laugh, however, when Ted suggests they get Scooby on Letterman and Marshall interjects, “I know Paul Schaeffer’s sandwich guy. This could happen!”
- List #1: Barney’s “one rules” for dealing with women. If you’re going to get it on in a portapotty, do it early in the day. Never screw over a girl whose last name ends in a vowel (she’s got brothers). Never date a girl with a hook for a hand. Never go out with the same girl more than once. All of the above come with the exception “unless she’s hot,” but the final rule (“Never ever ever meet a girl’s parents”) admits of no exception, even if the mom is hot.
- List #2: Barney’s blackmail bait that keeps each of his friends from revealing his true character to Norah. Lily: Mr. Buttons the classroom guinea pig. Marshall: Calzone. Robin: The Mr. T. dream. Ted: Not ballet classes, not the N’Sync concert, but the Thermos.
- Never gets old: Barney getting slapped. And punched in the chest.
- More of this, please: Barney curled on Lily’s lap to hear the results of the heart monitor testing (“Go on, doctor,” he says seriously, just as if he weren’t in the fetal position).
- Barney’s evening routine, as it turns out, is Wheel of Fortune, naked push-ups, naked chin-ups, then dinner.
- Thanks for the plug for Wrapped Up in Books (starting March 7)! In Barney’s apartment is the same poster for Carter the Great that appears on the cover of Carter Beats The Devil by Glen David Gold, our next selection.
- My biggest laugh of the night: Lily speaking carefully into her wine glass after consulting with Marshall on how to respond to Norah’s question about Barney: “I don’t recall.”