Last season I wrote about the biggest challenge HIMYM’s creative team had to overcome in bringing Barney and Robin together: They had to turn Barney from a catchphrase-spouting breakout character into a human being, someone with whom we could identify, for whom we felt affection, as well as someone we wanted to succeed, who was good enough for the woman Ted once thought was the one. But it’s not enough to do that once, even in an hour of television as monumental as “The Final Page.” It’s not enough to show us one example of him yearning to settle down with a stripper. And it’s certainly not possible to flip him from unrepentant womanizer to faithful fiancé with one proposal tipping the seesaw. What makes tonight’s episode great is that it takes us back to what started Barney down that path. We get to enjoy him as he was before Robin, and we get to appreciate what makes his change worthy of admiration. And in the end, the creative team demonstrates that it has answers to all the stumbling blocks of ensemble romance. Quietly, without making a fuss, the writers produce the evidence that they have mastered this minefield of emotion.
Take the framing story of “Platonish.” Robin, distraught over the news that her mother isn’t coming to the wedding, declares that nothing can cheer her up. “Challenge accepted!” Barney proclaims, and Lily asks why Barney never completed the challenge they posed to him last fall about the diapers and the samosas. Flash back to Lily and Robin trying to stump Barney with challenges that he doesn’t invent himself, intercut with Ted and Marshall at the Harlem Globetrotters game (cheering futilely for the hapless Washington Generals) discussing whether Ted is really done with Robin. Along the way, Ted turns down a job offer in Chicago (that we know he will later take), and Barney meets a woman who tells him he needs to devote his life to reclaiming what he most regrets losing (a woman that we now know is the Mother). When we come back to the present-day of this season, Ted has told the story of Barney telling the story of how he decided to pursue Robin’s love. She smiles. He has done what she declared was impossible, making her happy again. Challenge completed.
And the larger point, the one that speaks to these characters and the tensions and frictions that make them fascinating, is that Barney’s “challenge accepted!” mentality, part of his personality from the very beginning, is what he needed to harness in order to change himself completely. He dedicates himself to what he comes to believe is most important, and he’s able to do that because he has a long history of going to absurd lengths to get what he finds only temporarily desirable. When Ted watches the happy couple kissing, expressionless, despairingly contemplating the woman he’s still not sure he doesn’t want, he’s just heard the reason he’s 31 hours away from losing her forever. While Ted let the universe decide whether they were supposed to be together, Barney was deciding for himself. While Ted said “What’s the rush?” Barney was wasting no time.
If we didn’t know how all of this was going to turn out, this would be an extraordinarily problematic development. Robin as a prize to be won by the most daring, the most worthy? It’s positively medieval. But it’s also vintage Ted. It’s fairy tale stuff, pure romance. When he hears Barney telling the story of Robin’s wooing, all he can think is that he missed his chance. From the perspective of future Ted, it’s his past self’s last delusion. Ironically, he was right to wait for the universe to bring him love, and this moment of seething regret is an especially painful part of that waiting—the part where you think you’ve chosen poorly. The woman the universe is bringing to him is in fact, unbeknownst to him, the reason why Barney decides to take action and win Robin’s heart. Meanwhile Ted continues to hope that the strategy that has so far failed to bring him love will, for some reason and against all odds, start succeeding. Just like that time the Generals beat the Globetrotters (maybe because of perseverance, maybe become of a scoring error and Curly Neal having the flu), Ted’s going to keep on letting fate have the upper hand. He’s never been so right by being so thoroughly wrong. And I’ve never felt his pain more acutely.
“Platonish” is like a thesis statement for the last two seasons. Who these characters were in previous seasons is always just a flashback away; we will never lose touch with Barney’s catchphrases and Ted’s romantic delusions. On a lesser show, that ability to always bring back characters before they changed and grew could be a way of having comedic cake and eating it, too. We could indulge the broadness and immaturity of these people any time we wanted, without having to hate ourselves for continuing to tolerate their juvenile antics. But here, it’s a way of deepening both the past and the present. Barney’s catchphrase turns out to be a description of the ability that saves him from enslavement to momentary pleasures. The depths of Ted’s dreaming, which he blames for his unhappiness, will receive miraculous vindication if he can just hold on—but he’s at the end of his rope and about to give up on eight years’ worth of waiting. The past isn’t just prelude or a vein of references to be tapped for fan-service callbacks; it’s the stage on which the defining moment is about to be enacted.
The people who make HIMYM have transformed its structure from a clever gimmick to a rich tapestry of meaning, where there are scores of threads they can trace back into the weave, or bring together for insight and emotion. Just look at what happens by the end of this episode, spoken and unspoken, shown and implied, foreshadowed and remembered. Challenge completed.
- Oh, and it’s funny, too. Not only is Neil Patrick Harris in wonderful form during the many pickups to which he is challenged (best bit: storming out of the bar in frustration after saying “Yes” with a forbidden E), but Ted and Marshall yelling at the refs for not calling the Globetrotters’ many violations (“Check your voicemail, I think you’ve missed some calls!”) never fails to be deeply satisfying.
- Wow, last week Lily was all over Ted for dragging out his love life instead of grabbing the nearest normal-sized girl and getting on with it, and this week she rails at Ted and Robin for still cracking eight-year-old jokes (like saluting Major Craving For A Mojito). Lily is the voice of the disgruntled HIMYM fan!
- I don’t think I’ve ever loved Robin more than when she calls back the woman Barney won by talking like a dolphin and gives her some much-needed life advice: “I need you to take a year, a full year, and just be celibate. You know I’m right.”
- Why yes, those are my TV Club worlds colliding there in the scenes where Bryan Cranston, playing poor Hammond Druthers, architect of a concave glass building in Chicago that raised the temperature of the aquarium next door and killed hundreds of fish, calls Ted to alternately beg and demand that he join their discredited firm. Because apparently everybody loves the GNB building “and how it hasn’t blinded any pilots on final approach to O’Hare.”
- Barney is suspicious of the challenge to get diapers and samosas. “Sounds like an errand,” he demurs. “... While picking up a girl,” Lily adds. “Challenge accepted!” Barney shouts with enthusiasm that I will sadly miss once this show is over.
- “You passed my test, girl.”
- “Wonder if I know anybody to set you up with? … Drawing a blank.”