If anything could redeem the bombshell ending to last week’s misconceived episode, it’s tonight’s perfectly-pitched “Last Words.” The news that Marshall’s dad passed away came out of the blue, and that becomes the theme for tonight’s trip to Minnesota for the funeral. The meta-gag of the countdown numbers that made that news so shockingly out of place turns into an episode with no cold open and no epilogue—a self-contained, focused exploration of how to deal with what you’re not ready for.
How can friends help when death strikes the family of one of their number? Ted and Barney believe Marshall needs to laugh, and they turn to a source that’s never failed them: Internet footage of a man getting hit in the nuts.” (Barney promises a “four-star nad-rattler.”) Robin has packed an oversized purse full of everything someone might need to get through a weekend like this: pills, alcohol, bottled water (to stay hydrated after the pills), dirty playing cards, phone charger cords (USB and outlet), and a selection of DVDs. (“You’re like Mary Poppins if her bag was filled with drugs,” Ted observes. “If?!” Robin retorts.) And Lily decides to take the pressure off Marshall’s mom, through the expedient of getting her so riled up at Lily that she eats and sleeps.
But Marshall is center stage, with a central dilemma. The minister’s son who tortured him in high school (played by Danny Strong of Buffy, Gilmore Girls, and most recently Mad Men fame) announces a “last words” theme for the service, and Marshall’s mom and brothers have beautiful stories to tell about magical walks through the snow and grandkids being taught to skate. Marshall has some offhand comments from when his dad visited last week: “Plane food is ass,” “You know who would have an umbrella? The Koreans in the apartment across the hall,” and “Rent Crocodile Dundee 3.” Then, his phone newly charged (thanks to Robin’s magic purse), he discovers a voicemail from his dad and has to decide whether to listen to it and risk getting an even worse last impression of his dad.
The scene where Marshall exits the church and listens to the voicemail is one of the most affecting of this season. As he waves around the phone playing the random static of a pocket dial, Marshall rails against a universe and a God who would take away his hero and his best friend before his time and leave him with nothing but pocket sounds. We know what’s coming—his dad’s voice appearing at the end of the long recording of nothing—but we don’t know how long Marshall will go on, and we don’t know whether he’ll hear his dad saying something equally random or something with direct meaning. Lovely acting by the ensemble in this scene; it’s Marshall’s show, but look at the emotion conveyed in the welling eyes of Hannigan and Harris, the slight shame that comes with being present at such a raw moment in the lowered gazes of Radnor and Smulders.
And after all that, a graceful moment with Marshall choosing to keep the voicemail to himself when he speaks to the assembled mourners, maintained in his announcement in the next scene that if this trip to the john should be his last, he has some last words to impart: “I really, really love you guys. And I’m going to drop a deuce.” Then the glance forward that we knew was coming, with Barney capping a montage of everyone calling their dads by telling his mom he’s ready to meet his father.
Last time, I could think of a dozen ways “Bad News” could have been handled better. This week, I’m so happy that I can’t think of any way to improve on “Last Words.” Unpretentious, unobtrusive, funny, balanced, and shot through with genuine feeling and unexpected grace, it brings us all the way back and leaves us in a more promising place.
- When Lily presents her plan to help out Marshall’s mom, Robin blurts out, “Doesn’t Marshall’s mom hate y ... the fact that you aren’t too close?” “Sweet save,” murmurs Ted appreciatively.
- The Internet videos Ted and Barney dig up for Marshall: “Little League coach gets hit in the nuts by a foul ball then vomits in a garbage can,” “Guy playing bagpipes gets hit in the nuts by low-flying seagull,” “German shepherd activates tennis ball cannon while fat kid sips energy drink.”
- Best moment (funny division): Barney and Ted decide they have to step up their comedy efforts by hitting each other in the nuts (“Nothing beats the immediacy of live theater!” Ted enthuses), followed immediately by Barney kneeing Ted in the groin. “So that’s it? No discussion?” Ted groans as he collapses.
- If the gang’s other dads had died right then, their last words would have been: Calling from jail on tax evasion charges (Lily), bragging about dating Ted’s prom date (Ted), and leaving backhanded birthday wishes that she’ll finally make something of herself this year (Robin).
- “That guy gave you noogies? What, did he carry a stepladder?” “... He made me carry it.”