I get the feeling that the real arc of this show isn’t Ted’s maturation from post-collegiate douche to committed family man -- it’s Barney’s much longer and steeper route to the same destination. Tonight’s episode was How Barney Met His Father, which coincidentally is also How Barney Met His Mother. And although it wasn’t played for maximum schmaltz, I got a little misty at the idea that Barney was growing out of his need for illusions, at the same time as he was thanking his mom for providing them.
Frances Conroy returns as Loretta Stinson (from last season’s “The Stinsons”), and Wayne Brady reprises his role as Barney’s gay black older brother James (from Season 2’s “Single Stamina” and Season 3’s “The Yips”). Seems Barney’s mom is moving out of the house where the kids grew up, and somehow Barney convinces the whole gang to help her pack. (Good gag in the cold open, with everyone declining to help -- Marshall: “Unsubscribe!” -- Barney cracking his knuckles and clearing his throat, and a cut to everyone holding boxes and unrolling bubble wrap.)
While packing, Barney runs across a bunch of mementos from his unusually awesome childhood, like the basketball jersey he never used because the coach kicked him off the team for being too good, or the letter from the postmaster general apologizing for losing the invitations to his eighth birthday party in the mail. (“That’s why nobody showed up. Not because you threw up when they turned the lights off at the planetarium, no one even noticed that. Also, Jamie Masterson’s mother is a whore. Gin on her breath at 10 in the morning, she’s got some nerve kicking us out of the carpool. Love, Postmaster General.”) Turns out Loretta told Barney a lot of lies to make him feel better or stop him from asking inconvenient questions, and Barney seems to have swallowed all of them. When the Stinson boys find a picture of themselves marked “your son” in an envelope addressed to a man in Long Island, James decides to find out whose father Sam Gibbs is.
Meanwhile Robin is spinning her own pack of lies about Ted to makeup girl Liz in preparation for setting them up on a date -- mostly about his sexual prowess. When Ted becomes concerned that Robin is overselling him, Robin fixes it with a follow-up text: “Is he going to rock your world in bed? No. But he’s clean, open to criticism, and not into anything too weird. He’s not bad at all. Not bad at all. I’ll be honest, the first two times aren’t going to be that great. He’s going to say ‘are you finished?’ more times than a waiter at a busy restaurant.”
I really liked two things about “Cleaning House”: The Barney-centric sentiment, and the prose-heavy dialogue. Almost every time someone read or wrote something, this episode brought some serious laughs. But I liked the way Neil Patrick Harris played this one, too. His uncertainty about meeting Sam Gibbs -- and having to let go of the illusion that Bob Barker was his father (“I know ... I’m not crazy,” he assures James hesitantly) -- is touching. His embrace of Sam (played by Ben Vereen) as his dad despite the complexion-based evidence to the contrary is equal parts sweet and funny. You can’t beat the scenes of him jumping into James’ and Sam’s rendition of “Stand By Me” with enthusiastic soul accents. My favorite, though, is Barney running full-speed through the frame shouting “DadlookhowfastIcanrun!” while James shows Sam pictures of his grandson.
There’s nothing particularly innovative about this episode; characters confronting previously unknown members of their families, or choosing to live with the ambiguity of not knowing the truth about their families, are pretty common occurrences on television. But I like these people, so I enjoy watching them navigate this situation, and find a way to succeed. I like the idea that Barney did take a step tonight toward a grown-up engagement with the truth -- that it’s not always worth having for its own sake, but that it can show you a new side of what you thought you knew all along. And I think he might have farther to go before this season is done.
- Apparently Ted thinks The Karate Kid is the greatest movie of all time. Coincidentally, Noel just told me that the remake is quite good, but that he’s never seen the original. Ted would tell him it’s just alright -- underselling, you see.
- Marshall explains his unusually short stature to his mom’s custom of giving him cough syrup to calm him down when he got out of control: “I hit 6’4” in the fifth grade and then I just stopped!”
- Santa is one of those lies that’s for our own benefit. “Like when we tell Ted he’ll meet the right girl and settle down,” Marshall explains. “I always find that reassuring,” Ted muses.
- While bringing the packing crew some sandwiches, Loretta attempts to spin an ad hoc lie explaining the picture in the envelope addressed to Sam Gibbs: Gibbs is the mayor of a North Dakota town whose son the boys saved from falling through the ice, and she was sending him a photo reference for the sculpture of the boys that the town planned to erect. When James demands, “if this picture was taken in North Dakota, then why is our old swingset in the background?” Loretta screeches, “I don’t know! I did my best as a single parent and it wasn’t always easy and I’d recommend putting the cole slaw right on the sloppy joes because it’s delicious!”
- Ted figures out that Sam can’t be Barney’s dad because James is two years older than Barney, and Sam says he only knew Loretta for a few months around the time James was conceived. “He’s also quite the detective,” Robin texts Liz.
- “Valentines -- the second base of third grade.”