The trick of turning Barney the womanizer into Barney the fiancé was always going to be a difficult one for HIMYM to pull off. It’s a subset of the problem a lot of long-running shows encounter: taking a cartoonish side character and giving him enough depth and humanity to sustain a storyline where we care about his feelings. In this case, though, the cartoonishly exaggerated traits of the character, the ones that made for such reliable audience amusement and occasional derision, seem diametrically opposed to the traits needed for audience identification and empathy. Promiscuity turning into monogamy? Pleasure-seeking into intimacy-seeking? Conquest into partnership? It’s a long way to go.
So let me be the first to stand up and applaud the whole HIMYM team on how deftly and imaginatively they manage to square that circle. “The Final Page” is a hilarious, touching capper to this half season. Slipping with seeming effortlessness back into its signature rhythm and style after so many fits, starts, and half-measures in the past year or so, the show makes a confident case that it has had the capacity to be this good—this assured, this funny, this poignant—all along, but has been saving it until the moment of maximum impact.
What I admire most, structurally speaking, is the way Barney’s transformation is achieved. We have all been waiting (with dread, in some quarters) for him to give up his old ways and turn into something he is not. To become the anti-Barney, for such would seem to be the only way to pack him into a monkey suit for a wedding, as promised by the flash-forward. And it looked like that’s what was happening with the Patrice relationship. Some of you guessed that Patrice would turn out to be part of the final play (“The Robin”) from the episode title and other glimpses of the episode, and some of us wondered if that was a good idea.
Here’s why it was a brilliant idea. The prior incarnation of Robin and Barney failed because Barney become domesticated and neutered. He ceased to be what Robin fell in love with. So for this new version to have any traction, Barney must be Barney—winning the girl by elaborate schemes involving arcane layers of reverse psychology, hidden cameras installed in Marshall and Lily’s apartment, the ability to predict how Ted will respond when Robin’s happiness is on the line, and (most touchingly, to me) engineering a situation where Ted makes a choice and clears Barney’s way. The Robin is vintage Barney, “legendary, challenge accepted, he winked at me, wait for it” as Ted vaguely reports the conversation. (“That does sound like Barney,” Marshall muses.) But it’s also in service of a different goal than the rest of the playbook, because it ends not with victory but with simple hope. Barney doesn’t become something different—he just applies his familiar self to a less ephemeral end.
And here’s why the episodes that culminate in The Robin are not only cleverly constructed, but also bring back the heady enjoyment that this show at its best can deliver. Nearly every character gets great material. Ted plays superdouche (“Expand on what you were saying about antiquated currency,” Robin invites him), wounded obsessive (in his quest to get his old architecture professor to acknowledge his success), and vacillating third wheel (as he weighs whether to keep his chances with Robin alive by allowing the Barney door to swing shut), and hasn’t seemed this central or vital to the show in months. Marshall makes bearable HIMYM’s standard stock-in-trade, the coinage of a term to express some relationship obstacle or life challenge (here, the idea of throwing our single worst enemy into a pit) through his affable nonchalance. The writers collude with Marshall in pulling a fast one on Barney, rendering him speechless for nearly half this hour and allowing Neil Patrick Harris to employ a delightful range of miming techniques. And then, in the flashbacks showing Barney’s monitoring of the plan in action, Barney gets a chance to build to the big moment.
I knew we were in good hands when, at the end of part one, the jinx became not just a dynamite comic premise, but a test of how our characters would respond to a crisis. After a flashback shows us why Barney and Marshall take the jinx rules (the person jinxed can’t speak again until his name is spoken by someone present at the time of the jinx) so seriously, Marshall manages to get back at Barney for the time his jinx prevented Marshall from talking on the phone with his hero Frank Viola, and enlists the rest of the gang in the effort to mute Barney for as long as possible. When they all accompany Ted to Wesleyan to confront a favorite professor (a wild-haired Peter Gallagher) who said he’d never be an architect, Marshall, Lily, and Barney are collared by Daryl (Seth Green), a near-stalker from their college days who thought they were best friends because they played hackey-sack one time together. As Daryl takes them to a dungeon and cackles about putting their faces on his mantle like a trophy (“Could we do this in the living room, or anywhere less gimp-storage-y?” Marshall requests), Barney can only draw “AHHHHHHH!” on his pad to take part in the general atmosphere of terror.
While they’re picturing being thrown into Daryl’s Silence Of The Lambs pit, Robin is picturing Patrice in hers when Sandy gives her a chance to fire her nemesis. (Patrice oohs and ahhs over lotions on Robin’s desk: “What a pretty basket!” Robin: “THAT’S WHY I BOUGHT IT, PATRICE!”) And Ted wants to throw his professor down there when he hears that the name Mosby doesn’t ring a bell (the professor only remembers students with something distinctive about them, like unusual facial hair; later, he praises a student with an elaborately waxed mustache). But while Ted and Robin are realizing that they’re both the pitkeeper and the pit-dweller, leading them to decide to stop holding onto those grudges, Barney is jinx-swearing Ted to secrecy about his plan to propose to Patrice on top of the WWN building (her favorite place in New York) on the night of Ted’s GNB building’s grand unveiling.
And I appreciate that in part two, all the reasons the characters (and the viewers) have to be ambivalent about Robin and Barney’s coupling are acknowledged—not just as obstacles to be gotten over, but as serious choices that aren’t going to go away because of what was decided on one night. Marshall, claiming to represent for Team Tedward (“always have been, always will be”), wants Ted to be selfish and let Barney remove himself from Robin’s future. (When Ted says he can’t be selfish, Marshall offhandedly delivers my favorite line of the night: “Tell that to the onion rings we just ‘split.’”) Robin wants to pin all her emotional reservations on Patrice’s usurping of Robin’s actual favorite place in New York, and more tellingly, wants to stop making an ass of herself. Ted wants Robin to have what she really truly wants… but he doesn’t want it all the way, as we see when he looks out over a snowy Manhattan, alone on his big night.
HIMYM pulls off a lot of nifty tricks in “The Final Page.” But the best one is bringing together comedy and emotion in an hour that exhibits its expert touch at both. Over the course of its seven-and-a-half seasons, it’s managed to soar at this level many times. I might be even happier to see it reach those heights again, as it moves toward its conclusion, than I am for Robin and Barney.
- Unmentioned above is the secondary storyline in part two, where Marshall and Lily get a 24-hour pass while Lily’s dad keeps the baby, and then spend it missing the baby. Not because it’s not funny (it’s funny because it’s true, and because it comes with an extremely elaborate song where Lily plays the tuba briefly!), but because its simple relationship with The Robin is the theme that the heart wants what it wants, much as you try to talk yourself out of it.
- But before I leave that storyline behind, a shout-out to the baby playing Marvin for his rapt face during Lily’s animal night-night noises and his exuberant kicking when the skeleton plays his own rib cage. And on a related note, the cut to the “super ugly,” “almost physically repulsive” baby at the GNB party looking saggy-cheeks adorable couldn’t have been more perfectly executed.
- Ted apparently modeled his professorial fashion sense from his Wesleyan mentor: tweed jacket, sweater vest, ascot. If only he had the same way with wisdom like “I find my mind is often with the sphinx” or “I have an apple I was hoping to eat in silence.”
- Daryl doesn’t want to torture Marshall and Lily; he wants to give them a big check for being part of the genesis of the Three Hackmigos, which has made him into the Mark Zuckerberg of the jam band concert venue athletics circuit. He has a timeshare with P-Funk! (“Do you ever jam?” Marshall asks yearningly. “That’s all we do!” Daryl reveals.)
- My favorite bit of Barney mime is his sloppy pretense of drawing an anatomically detailed knee and a lovely rustic barn in an effort to make Marshall say his name. “On the way home we should stop at the Knee Barn, pick us up some wholesale knees!” Marshall enthuses.
- Marshall tries to talk up Ted to the ladies in MacLaren’s on the eve of his building opening. “Everything comes out of my body in liquid form now,” Ted confesses his nervousness; “Ignore that, ladies,” Marshall amends.
- Ted has a dream where King Kong refuses to climb his building and calls it “a bit derivative.”
- The song playing over the snow montage is Fort Atlantic, “Let Your Heart Hold Fast.”
- Ted requests that buttinsky Ranjit only communicate with the back seat via text message. “Is this divider even slightly soundproof?” Ted demands at one point, and then reads the ensuing text: “Yes, with a winky face.”
- “Ranjit! To Teddy Westside’s kickass building!”