How I Met Your Mother: “The Ashtray”
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How I Met Your Mother: “The Ashtray”

(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)

Reviewing a crucial incident from multiple perspectives is a favorite HIMYM device, presumably because it mimics how stories are told when friends are just hanging out, and because it is an extension of the unreliable narrator principle the show leans on from time to time for laughs, a similar dose of authenticity, and to build suspense followed by that “here’s what really happened” moment. In “Spoiler Alert,” bias makes the friends oblivious to each other’s flaws until they’ve been pointed out, shattering the blissful ignorance. When Marshall is stuck in Minnesota in “Oh, Honey,” each of his friends call him in turn to tell him their part of the burgeoning Ted and Zoey saga. In “The Ashtray,” however, the incident in question took place over a year ago, when Ted, Robin, and Lily ran into the Captain, Zoey’s terrifying ex-husband, at an art opening. Apparently the event didn’t warrant heavy analysis at the time, because Marshall and Barney barely remember hearing about it, but when the Captain calls Ted up in the present day, the gang rehash what happened that night in order to figure out what he wants from them. (Marshall desperately hopes it’s to invite them out for a ride on his boat. Spoiler alert: It isn’t.)

Each of the three players remembers a handful of points in the evening, such as the initial contact, going up to the Captain’s apartment, and the photo he referred to as “my darling, my one true love, my everything,” but in completely different ways. Like Rashomon (or In A Grove, if you’re more of a literary sort), “The Ashtray,” uses the multiple POV structure to make the point that human beings are so blinded by their subjective experience of events, no other version seems possible. They usually see themselves as the hero of their own story, regardless of what the elusive reality may be. Similarly, the device here masks the true point of the episode for the viewers as much as it does for the characters, whose own flaws and fixations are reflected in their interpretation of the events.

Ever the anxious Piglet, Ted assumes all of the Captain’s comments stem from the old man’s bitterness over the fact that Ted did “stick it to his ex-wife. Repeatedly!” However, his reliability has been compromised by the fact that he “smoked a big sandwich,” before the opening; he knocks over a platter of food, doesn’t realize he is making the sticking-it-to-the-ex-wife comment out loud, and straight-up hallucinates an image of his current girlfriend in the frame at the Captain’s house (in reality it is, of course, a picture of a yacht). Enamored of her own good looks, Robin sees the Captain throwing himself at her... when in reality, it is the opposite, her vision aided by some serious pre-art-show boozing. Barney is so desperate to be the fixture of every crazy story that he insists on inserting himself into the others’ versions despite the fact that he was never there. As each stoned, drunken veil is pulled aside, however, it becomes apparent that the story is about Lily, the only one of the gang metaphorically and literally present enough to recount what happened with any kind of objectivity.

The Captain did not, in fact, challenge Ted or try to seduce Robin, but he did tell Lily that her opinion of art means nothing, given she is “just” a Kindergarten teacher, and the comment sticks with her. The fact that Lily never fulfilled her dream of becoming an artist has been brought up repeatedly over the years. In season one, she left Marshall before their wedding in order to pursue an art program in San Francisco, but her journey of professional discovery upon return in “Aldrin Justice,” proved brief when she conveniently decided being a teacher was her new dream after all. In “Everything Must Go,” Lily honestly seems assuaged by the fact that dogs have a deep emotional response to her paintings, even if humans do not. I always found these treatments abrupt, the resolutions a bit too quick, as if Bays and Thomas pull out Lily’s little existential crisis from time to time only in order to use it as a plot device, rather than giving it the more persistent—not constant, but persistent—role it would most likely play in her life. Of course, doubts like these can wax and wane, particularly when other parts of life like relationships and financial security are strong, but this episode’s quickie handling—Poof! Lily remembers her dream but doesn’t say anything about it for a year and a half. Poof! The Captain hires her as his new Art Consultant, problem solved—confirms suspicions that this long running strand has been a little threadbare.

However, it is entirely plausible that Lily tried to quash those feelings, that she had swept them under the ashtray as it were, where they festered until the Captain returned. And regardless of how sudden and pat her resolution may be, those fears that after a certain age, doors start to close rather than open, and that a dream once left on the back shelf for later could actually be in danger of withering away, rang true. That makes it hard for this near-thirty-something not to feel a bit cheered by Lily’s turn of events, a happy beginning just when she thought she’d reached a kind of ending. The Rashomon effect being employed was not just a gimmick; it highlighted the fact that Lily is the one person here who did not see herself as the hero of the story, who felt profoundly overlooked by the Captain, his Art Consultant, and the art world in general. And it makes her triumph that much sweeter.

Stray observations:  

  • The writers use an answering machine as a device, but unlike many film and TV scripts, address the fact that it is now completely anachronistic. The opening lines of the show are Ted saying “That’s weird. I have a message,” and Marshall replies, “That’s weird. You still have an answering machine.”
  • If this is an episode about growing up, in which Lily is forced to sack up and face her dissatisfaction head on, on the flip-side, poor Barney is suspended in a state of adolescence, whining about needing to be part of every crazy story. It may make for some funny punchlines, but the conceit wears thin pretty quickly. After the long, slow seasons of growth for Barney it’s frustrating to be forced back to this one-note version of him. The episode ends with Ted and Robin humoring him, pretty much exactly as they do with his virginity loss story lifted straight from Dirty Dancing in “First Time In New York.”
  • Thanks to the HIMYM propensity for time jumping, the fact that Barney is engaged to Robin does not mean we shall never again enjoy new entries from the playbook. This episode unveils “The Royal Archduke of Grand Fenwick,” which is described as “a simple play you can do using two everyday objects; a Prussian military costume and an oil painting of yourself.”
  • Despite the fact that this episode revolves around a series of unlikely events, the details are completely spot on. Of course, Ted would enlist unchallenging, baby-talking Becky to help lick his wounds after breaking up with Zoey, and of course, Robin, with her daddy issues, would be into the Captain! After all, Kyle McLachlan famously shared screen time with Ray Wise, the actor who plays Robin’s dad currently, in Twin Peaks, where I liked to think of Agent Dale Cooper and Leland Palmer as good and evil sides of the same creepy coin.

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