If you have a television show about an ensemble of friends, then over the course of several seasons, they’re duty bound to pair up and recombine into nearly the full mathematical complement of dating couples. It makes good sense in all the ways that are important on a television show. The strategy hooks viewers with romantic tension and avoids bringing in new characters that viewers know are only temporary. It utilizes the characters we care about and encourages us to care about them in new ways—frequently by debating who is and is not right for each other. And of course, the wedding and baby episode payoffs down the line are money in the bank.
Some people will dismiss the roller coaster of the Barney-Robin pairing as just that kind of boring, by the numbers sitcom writing. They’re on, they’re off, other people get in the way, ultimatums are proclaimed, regrets are felt, the initiative ping-pongs back and forth. And all this while we know that by the end of the season (or series, assuming the show is picked up for another season), they’re going to be preparing to marry each other.
But we also know that Robin is going to make one more move to back out at that very wedding, and we don’t know whether they go through with it. Not much of this pairing feels like a triumphant wedding episode for a will-they-won’t-they couple of destiny. There’s the horrible way it all went wrong last time (seriously, a fat suit is the worst fate that can befall any sitcom plotline). Take the seriousness with which Robin said no to Barney, and now Barney’s said no to Robin. They aren’t playing around trying to get themselves free from this thing.
From the perspective of the seasoned and jaded sitcom viewer, the reason they can’t get free is because the show needs them to keep paddleballing. Together, apart, together, apart, in all the ways there are to be in those two conditions, until it’s finally time to resolve their fate in the show’s swan song episodes, presumably. But from the perspective of this particular sitcom’s investment in this particular group of friends, I see another reason.
The thing about a co-ed cohort of friends is that these couplings are inevitable. You spend a lot of time with a group of people, and that’s where you’re going to find your romantic partners. It’s also where you’re going to look for comfort when your relationship breaks up, which could be the start of the next one. It’s the source of reliable friends who starts to look like the nice guys you always said you wanted when you got burned too many times. And if the other half of that failed relationship stays part of the group, it’s where you inevitably start to wonder if you could still make it work. None of that was invented for the purposes of economical television production. For most of us, some subset of it—maybe all of it—was part of our own romantic journey.
So I still identify with Robin, even as she concocts a sitcom-friendly plan to engineer one last hook-up with Barney, to “get him out of her system.” It’s like the time the doctor told her she could never have lobster, and she immediately went out and gorged herself on lobster; both the craving and the terrible consequences were inevitable after such a final proscription, and together, they served to shut the door on the lobster era in Robin’s life. She tries faking helplessness in the face of large office equipment that needs to be moved (Patrice and weathergirl Brandi cheerfully intervene); gathering a group of admirers around her at the bar (Barney enlists them as customers in his newest entrepreneurial venture); showing up at laser tag in full Lara Croft regalia (Barney uses her as a human shield, gleefully explaining “This game affects my league score!”); and even taking Lily’s advice to get him hot and bothered by making out with another chick (Lily’s win-win scenario backfires when Robin brings weathergirl Brandi to the bar for the show and Barney immediately takes off for the station to do it with Brandi in front of the green screen). When you can’t seem to control your feelings, and the person who triggers them is there with you every damn day, you convince yourself that what you really want is somehow also a part of moving on.
Over in the B-story, Ted has a project of his own. He offers to babysit for Marshall and Lily while grandpa Mickey is out with the sniffles. (“For someone who survived numerous beatings from loan sharks, he has a surprisingly delicate constitution,” Marshall observes.) When Marvin crawls for the first time while Marshall and Lily are at work, Lily is furious that Ted’s getting to hog all the precious moments. Turns out that it’s not that Ted just happens to be around; he’s using Marvin as a replacement for the GNB building project that’s now completed, engineering and celebrating in scrapbook form a host of milestones (first spaghetti, visit to Santa, swim class). Once Marshall and Lily figure this out, they reorient Ted toward the headhunter he was blowing off to spend time with Marvin, and they get their baby back.
“Lobster Crawl” doesn’t have the effortless exuberance of the very best HIMYM episodes. But it has an overflowing lollipop bin of throwaway lines and little character moments, especially from douchey Ted, bicurious Lily, and (of course) increasingly desperate and confused Robin. And it has a kind of sincerity, a commitment to the real consequences of this open-ended search for love within the far-too-narrow boundaries of one’s circle of intimates, that I can’t help but respect. Or maybe I just identify with Robin, who declares her passion in front of a man who’s chosen conversation and cookies instead of aversion therapy and gets shamed in a way far more devastating than she deserves. Because everything done in that little group gets magnified, and nobody can pretend that the moments are meaningless.
- After Barney spills ketchup on his red tie, he gets all broken up about the untimely end of “Cornelius”: “Just this morning he said to me, ‘I’m gettin’ too old for this shirt.’”
- This (plus a lobster bib) leads directly to Bro Bibs, everyday protection for menswear in camouflaging styles like Business Casual, Preppy, Robin Williams, and as we see later, Ted’s Exact Checked Overshirt With White Tee Underneath.
- Lily was on fire in this episode, threatening Marvin if he doesn’t crawl for the camera (“you son of a me!”), getting distracted by the surefire investment possibilities of Bro Bibs (“Bro Bibs for women! Bitch Bibs! You know Barney’s going to sue us but let’s go for it anyway!”), and of course, urging Robin to make out with her (“You don’t even care! It’s just stupid, stupid and fun!”).
- Let’s give douchey Ted his due, too: “He can’t stop crawling! He’s Holden Crawlfield! Nope, it’s over.” And my favorite: “Building’s First Spaghetti.”
- My favorite Barneyism tonight, referring to weathergirl Brandi: “Somebody is about to get unseasonably banged.”
- Patrice: “They’re heart-shaped. Sorry, a couple of them are broken.” Barney: “I know exactly how they feel, I’d love one!”