How I Met Your Mother: “Rally”
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How I Met Your Mother: “Rally”

The secret ingredient is nothing.

Do you think the HIMYM writers have a giant notebook—heck, a whole shelf of ‘em—filled with loose ends and character bits and vital pieces of mythology, for which they know they will have to construct callbacks during this final season? You know, the way most shows have a “bible” of backstory and conventions, but the Bizarro version; this is continuity they have to reverse-engineer into the show before it runs out of time and they’ve missed their chance. And if those notebooks exist, do you think that they start to loom forbiddingly, accusingly, over the writers’ room as the weeks melt away and the end inexorably approaches?

I expect that when the final episodes air in five weeks, I’m going to be focused on the way the creative team deals with the emotional aspect of the show. So it’s a good thing that we get a chance this week to focus on the clever, warm, rewarding, funny, and yes, courageous way that they deal with the Giant Pile O’ Callbacks. With all of the references they packed into “Rally,” the script could have been a long, rote checklist of fan service—a series of bruising nudges in the ribs with exhortations to remember the old days and the good times. But “Rally” manages to be a fond look back within a stylish final-season package that makes time for almost everything that makes HIMYM great. There are flashbacks, flash-forwards, nested and rhyming structures, in-jokes, even sly misdirection, all in an unrushed but snappy 22 minutes. It’s the Russian nesting doll of sitcom episodes.

When we last left Barney, he was drunkenly advising two young proteges how to be awesome, so, of course, on the morning of the wedding he is passed out beyond hope. Beyond any hope, that is, except Stinson’s Hangover Fixer Elixer, a concoction that he fed to all his friends at their lowest drunk moments, made of ginger and Tantrum soda and Funyuns and grease and a secret ingredient he has never divulged. While Ted and Marshall gather the items in the recipe, Robin and Lily try to wake Barney up enough to find out the secret. And all of them vow to never be that drunk again, vows they break in the future in flash-forwards that reveal details about their future lives.

While Barney is comatose and incoherent most of the episode, his flashback explanation of the origins of the hangover cure, shouted to a wincing Ted on the morning after he was left at the altar, is a classic character moment—energetic and perfectly paced. “The most effective post-bender heads-too-tender ender from here to Denver!” he promises Ted, before launching into one of his fantasy histories about a Stinson ancestor who worked on FDR’s Too Many Manhattans Project. (Roosevelt is most famous for being a world-class drunk, as Barney notes.) “Do you want to hear the story or not?” he demands when Ted asks him to quiet down; “Absolutely not, please leave,” Ted gets in edgewise before Barney, gazing dramatically into the middle distance, resumes his epic tale.

As for wedding-day Barney, floppy, insensate, and inert, the writers give Robin the chance to abuse him both verbally and physically in her quest to revive him. After he rolls down the stairs on an unattended room-service cart, she notes that not only didn’t the experience wake him up, but neither did “banging his head on every step when we dragged him back up here.” She and Lily try all of Robin’s dad’s hangover cures: ice water, grizzly-bear videos, threatening to cut off his tie (substituted for the Cabbage Patch doll and beheading ax of the Scherbatsky homestead). When Lily suggests they make out, Robin asks dubiously whether that will wake Barney up. “Wake up who now?” Lily purrs seductively. The timing for Lily’s big comeback as a comic pillar of this ensemble couldn’t be better. Hannigan’s flustered girlishness when Robin takes her up on the offer—“Are you shurrre?” she squeaks, before demurring in full-on flirtatious ditz mode: “It probably won’t work. It’s stupid. I’m stupid”—is a season highlight.

And all the while, the framing story keeps taking us into the future. Marshall runs for Supreme Court justice against a shirtless hunk with a full head of hair, with Lily by his side, then takes his son to Wesleyan and reminisces about all the “binge studying” he did in those dorm hallways. Robin and Barney get hammered in Buenos Aires and have their peace shattered by a crying baby; “Every time,” Barney chuckles as Robin lifts the child out of the crib before realizing that they don’t have a baby. And Ted and the Mother celebrate New Year’s 2022 after “the best year of our lives” (marked by the Mother’s world-changing book publication) by drinking way too much champagne, which puts them in need of Stinson’s Hangover Fixer Elixer, with its secret ingredient: the lie that there is a secret ingredient, the lie that you tell someone to make it work, because that’s how much you love them and want them to feel better.

In the end, everyone lies to Barney to let him believe that his dream came true: the Weekend At Barney’s play where he is propped up unconscious in all the wedding photos. “Today’s going to be all downhill from here,” he exclaims after his recovery; “Just what the bride wants to hear,” Robin mutters under her breath.  “I just mean, the Weekend at Barney’s is a thousand times better than our wedding could ever be,” Barney happily explains. All the lies make me nervous. They’re kindly meant; they reveal the love that these characters have for their friends; but don’t Robin’s asides and the gang’s easily broken vows have an edge to them? The day that just started is one that Ted describes in “Farhampton” as his rock bottom. For all the happy endings on display in the flash-forwards, we’re not done with the heartbreak quite yet.

Stray observations:

  • When Robin and Ted first try to wake up Barney, they try a risky play: Robin says “Your shoes don’t match your belt!” and the two leap back warily.
  • Barney’s superpower of never taking a bad picture was first revealed in “Say Cheese.”
  • Marshall’s drunk statement to the press after unexpectedly winning the election is a promise that as commissioner of Gotham City, he’ll make Batman work harder.
  • Ah, the old “why are you throwing a Tantrum?” joke, wherever fine Tantrum soda is sold.
  • Ted’s major subplot is that he has to consume an entire tray of bacon in the 10 minutes remaining on the breakfast service in order to get the snooty chef to make more and generate grease for the hangover cure—but he’s always believed himself to be bacon-allergic because his mom invented allergies for anything she found unhealthy (such as donuts, Halloween candy, and not saying thank you).
  • The origin of the Big Fudge nickname revealed: “You eat one eight-pound block of fudge in 12 minutes, and you’re marked for life.”
  • “But that’s the dream!”

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