Recapping Cheers with the rest of the TV Club gang has given me a chance to reflect on the venerated “will they or won’t they” sitcom romance. Sam and Diane hit the ground running in that mode from the very early episodes, Moonlighting made it into a national obsession, and my beloved NewsRadio tried to shortcircuit the convention by answering “they will” only a couple of episodes into the series. One reason HIMYM is such an interesting show is the way the flashback structure undercuts all that will-they-or-won’t-they tension, but with a twist. We don’t know exactly who will or who won’t in the years between the memories and the show’s 2030 present with Aunt Robin and Uncle Barney, but it’s never the outcome that’s in doubt, only the road the characters take to get there.
So when “Symphony of Illumination” began with Robin talking to her kids in Mosby fashion, telling the story of how she and their father Barney got together, I was in awe at the deftness with which the show sidestepped all those hoary issues. When cracks appear at the end of the first act, with Robin learning that not only is she not pregnant but that she’s incapable of getting pregnant, we shift our expectations for the reveal; no longer is it the story of the kids being born or Barney and Robin cementing their relationship. It’s now the story of how they had kids despite Robin not being able to have them.
And then in the third act, something achingly beautiful happens to that increasingly convoluted scenario. It all melts away, and we’re back to square one, but with a new and bittersweet certainty. We don’t know anymore if she gets together with Barney, but we know she never has kids—or, as Ted puts it, that she never became a pole vaulter. She has her friends, and she has all the career and personal success she craved, but her tears on Ted’s shoulder are the soundtrack to that one door closing forever. And the achievement of the episode turns out to be nothing like the cleverness and boldness that I was ready to praise this episode for as it began, nor like the doubts I was developing as it progressed. Yet it builds on those reactions of mine, using the audience’s investment in convention and character to reveal something unexpectedly profound.
Just look at the way all the storylines intersect—almost symphonically, to coin a phrase. At the baby store where Lily takes Barney and Robin shopping, both the dread and the delight of parenthood are on full display. As we see when Insane Dwayne’s children first drive their mom crazy then charm Robin with their unstudied adorableness, you can’t have one without the other. For every ruined hoohaa and cracked, bleeding nipple you get the compensations of wonder and tenderness. And as Marshall plays into his adolescent tormenter’s hands by succumbing to every filial blandishment, we see how much growing up means taking undue pleasure and pride in that most adult of all roles—parent. Finally, Ted’s loyalty to Robin, expressed in his typically outsized gesture of creating the AC/DC light display, is a statement about what need not change with all the changes of moving into a settled phase. It also identifies, with a beautiful sense of economy, what is so haunting about a life sentence of childlessness—the fear of winding up alone. When Robin’s imaginary children dissipate into the snowscape of the park, that’s the emotion that surges.
All this in an episode that doesn’t skimp on the laughs, either. Here, as in “The Ducky Tie” and last week’s “The Rebound Girl,” the writing is so fleet and the performances so nimble that the gutpunchers have increased impact. We’re not waiting for them, and there’s no need to telegraph them, because we’re having a rollicking good time. When Robin imagines how her friends will react to her infertility, it’s a mini-symphony of its own, what with Ted demanding with increasing fervor that Robin simultaneously engage in five different restorative activities (“open your present, I’ll work on your shoulders, eat your fried chicken”), Barney backing up to get a running start on his jokes (“the duck could be Polish, it doesn’t matter… wait, yes it does, the duck’s not Polish”), and Marshall organizing a problem-solving program (“what was the date, length, and consistency of your last period?”). Then when we get an even speedier version of those reactions in response to her euphemistic explanation that she can never join the Canadian pole vaulting team because she’s too tall, the hilarity gets ramped up even further. Marshall not only suggests that she file an appeal to the IOC, make herself shorter by slouching, and consider going back to school and competing at the college level, but relays that insta-advice over the phone to Lily (who dutifully repeats it) while stranded on his roof while Scott and his friends “eat sandwiches” inside the house.
If this episode is any indication—in what it can accomplish, because of what we’ve come to feel about the characters and because of the confidence with which it is moving forward in its overarching story—HIMYM has never been healthier. Far from the rote conveyer-belt-to-the-conclusion that some fear, but equally far from the delaying tactics and red herrings others anticipated, this is a show that is using its core flashback premise and its basic theme of wild youth receding to do something remarkable with the half-hour sitcom format—and succeeding with increasing frequency.
- Big Fudge has come to town, and he brought his two friends Mannheim and Steamroller.
- Barney once gave Insane Dwayne $20 for picking up a girl with only one word, and another $20 for that word being “boner.”
- When Robin finds out from Dr. Sonya that she isn’t pregnant, she celebrates by simultaneously eating a plate of sushi, drinking, and smoking a cigar while mocking teenage mothers on television.
- Barney’s non-imaginary attempt to cheer up Robin with a joke begins: “Three slutty nuns show up at St. Peter’s—wait, they’re not slutty—well, they are but you’re not supposed to know that yet.”
- “Friends with benefits, just like always!”
- Every Canadian woman’s dream: Meet a nice guy, get married, vault some poles.
- “I don’t think of you as some dummy I trapped on the roof. I think of you like my dad.”
- “I know it’s not Canada, but it starts with C, and it’s cold as balls.”