Until the third act, I didn’t think “Natural History” was going anywhere fast. Barney and Robin competing to touch the exhibits in the most taboo ways possible was highly entertaining, sure. But the main two plotlines—Ted tangles with Zoey the architectural activist, and Marshall disappoints Lily by giving up on his dream of working as an environmental lawyer—seemed as if they had been plunked down in a more picturesque setting simply to distract us from their predictable dramatics.
And then, in the third act, the Museum of Natural History became a key character. The idea of history long past, unalterable, unable to be revisited except in memory, pushed its way to the forefront of all three stories. The question that everyone must confront is what to do with the memories we cherish and the ones that have suddenly been framed differently. What should we save, what should we let go, and what does it tell us about who we are now?
The museum is the location for a black tie gala to which, by virtue of being Goliath National Bank fat cats, the gang is invited. All gussied up in tuxedos and gowns, Marshall remembers how their college selves used to regard people who dressed that way as corporate tools. That prompts Lily to observe that the GNB job is only temporary, and that the suit Marshall wears everyday he wears ironically, “like Ted’s fanny pack.” But at the party, as Ted demonstrates the whisper acoustics of the entrance hallway by whispering “Wieners and gonads!” in their ears from across the room, Marshall tells Lily that he’s taking GNB’s proferred five-year contract—that in fact, he hasn’t intended to quit and become an environmental lawyer since the first day he set foot in the GNB offices.
Meanwhile, Ted has inadvertently whispered in the ear of one Zoey Pierson, who, not content with picketing outside Ted’s workplace, has written an editorial about the demolition of the Arcadian and ruined Ted’s dad’s enjoyment of the Saturday crossword. Ted’s sure he’s got the upper hand now that he knows Zoey’s actually the rich trophy wife of George Van Smoot (“But you can and should call me the Captain”). Guest star Kyle McLachlan has a grand time with Van Smoot, calling his 80-foot sloop "she," wearing red pants and naval headgear, and announcing “Stepping off!” before exiting a conversation. When Zoey turns on the waterworks and says she hates her boating life and is clinging to the Arcadian as a harbor of sanity, Ted falls for the scheme and winds up on Zoey’s recorder saying he hates working for GNB. When he pictures the tabloid story that will ensue, it’s adorned with a picture of him in his wizard’s garb and features the pull quote “Just not something a bro would do.”
The third act brings unexpectedly graceful meaning to both of these stories. Lily stands in front of a diorama of sandwich-head college Marshall (extinct) and is reminded that corporate Marshall is still the same person, still trying to do his best by the people he loves. (Also that the sex lasts a lot longer. “You said that any longer would be too much!” protests college Marshall. “It’s okay, college Lily thinks those are orgasms,” Lily explains.) The epilogue elevates the moment still further and points to the fact that these “present” moments, in the context of the show’s premise, are actually history, showing corporate Marshall slaving away in a diorama also labeled “extinct.” And Ted tells the Captain he respects Zoey for standing up for what she believes in, a conversation she overhears due to those acoustics. She promises to destroy the recording and engage in the fight over the Arcadian fair and square, during an encounter that Ted clumsily manages to turn into a dance. Significant looks are exchanged. Hmmmm.
But what really makes “Natural History” a stunner is the way Barney and Robin’s little comic-relief game turns on a dime into an existential crisis for Barney and a shared secret that brings the two of them together. Barney tells a story about knocking down the blue whale with a Triceratops bone when he was six years old—“Blobbity blobbity blue, I knocked down the whale,” he abbreviates—and Robin isn’t surprised that the security guards didn’t bar Barney from the building: “It’s been like thirty years since that completely made-up story didn’t happen.” But in the security guard’s office, as the two are being dressed down for their utter disregard for the DO NOT TOUCH signs, the guard mentions the whale being knocked down. (“That story’s legen—hang on,” he says as his phone rings.) He finds the incident report in the files and sure enough, there are all the details as Barney recounted them (“causing said whale to fall in a downward trajectory”) and the name of the culprit—Barney Stinson!
It’s the next name that counts, though. “Stinson was reprimanded and returned to the custody of his father, Jerome Whittaker," the report continues. Throughout the guard’s story, Robin has been saying no, but now it’s Barney saying no; “Jerry is my uncle,” he explains. But “Uncle Jerry” signed the form and even checked the box for “father” himself. Turns out that’s the last time Barney saw him, on July 23, 1981; his mother banished Jerry from the boy’s life afterwards. But he’s now sure that the incident report told the truth. What to do with the truth? Nothing yet. Don’t tell anybody, okay?
History is in the past, but that doesn’t mean it’s dead and gone. We have to decide every moment what it means for us that we were who we were, married who we did, made the choices then. We have to square them somehow with the choices now. And sometimes the whole thing shifts and means something different from what you thought it did. The making of new history is never a straight line or a foreordained conclusion, is it? Maybe that's a reminder to stop focusing on the presumably foreordained conclusion of the Mother and ruminate on the twists and turns of meaning that change the characters along the way.
- Robin after hearing how Marshall and Lily abused a fellow student for wearing a tie: “I wish I knew you guys back then. You know why? Because you can’t kick a story in the nuts.”
- Arthur introduces George Van Smoot as the future of GNB and a former co-star in their Exete production of Guys and Dolls: “The Captain was Nathan Detroit to my Assistant Stage Manager.”
- Ted has some wonderful moments exclaiming over Zoey’s rich friends. “What are we protesting tonight, the government’s oppressive top hat and monocle tax?” he asks her when they first run into each other. Then when he runs into an actual monocle wearer later, he riffs “Good luck killing James Bond” before complimenting him: “It’s a great look, I think it could come back. One question: Does it cost half as much as glasses?”
- Lily’s changed since her college days, too. She doesn’t spell womyn with a Y anymore.
- “I’ve gone the way of Jane’s Addiction,” laments extinct college Marshall. Informed that Jane’s Addiction got back together toured, and released an album, he’s ecstatic: “Are they just as good?” “Sure,” says Lily magnanimously.
- “I like Galactic President Superstar McAwesomeville. You’re coming on the boat sometime!”