Kids, there have been many season premieres of How I Met Your Mother before this one. But this one is different. This one is the last one. And that’s not the only thing that makes it different. This season premiere is different because this season is different. After eight years of chugging along fairly steadily in the gang’s life, we’re going to slow to a crawl and spend 24 half hours examining just three days. And we’re all watching the season premiere to get some sense of whether this bold structural change is brilliant or foolish.
Me? I’m confident. I’m a total story-structure geek, and that’s one of the reasons I love this show. When the creative team is cooking, HIMYM episodes illuminate characters, deepen emotion, and generate delight by jumping nimbly about in time, calling back to distant moments or recurring gags, and embracing theatrical artifice. When they’re off their game, of course, these gambits seem forced, artificial, and shrill. But the highs are so very high, and the lows pretty infrequent. We’re likely to see some of both this season, but it’s thrilling that the show is taking this kind of chance with structure. Based on its track record, I’m betting that the net payoff will be entirely satisfactory.
The first two episodes set up an initial set of situations that will probably play out over several episodes. Let me get the one I’m anticipating the least out of the way first. Marshall & Marvin’s Wacky Hummer Road Trip with Sherri Shepherd? I have no doubt that there will be some good laughs, but the whole thing feels like warmed-over Planes, Trains, And Automobiles, at least in premise. Maybe I’m responding to its use as plot machinery designed to keep Lily and Marshall (and Lily and Marvin) apart, depriving Barney and Robin of the one stable married relationship that already exists within their circle. And I’m willing to be surprised if it turns out to be less formulaic than it seems at the moment.
But let’s move on to the more promising revelations. When Ted drives Lily out of the car through his driving glove pretensions (“Nobody wears them,” Lily insists; “Then why is it called ... the glove compartment?” Ted smugly ripostes) and minor historical figure geekery (pulling over to see the boyhood home of buckle magnate Dr. Florian van Otterloop, who “revolutionized the belt industry”), she ends up on the same train with The Mother, sharing a box of cookies. “And that was how Lily met your mother,” says Future Ted. This seems to presage a whole series of such meetings, with the Mother meeting all of Ted’s friends and acquaintances before finally meeting Ted last of all, at the Farhampton train station after whatever wedding disaster is destined to unfold this season.
That’s a lovely idea to keep the premise of the show alive and consistent—when the story of the titular meeting is over, the series should be over—while allowing us an entire season to get to know the Mother and understand what will bring her and Ted together. We get a couple of hints of this as the Mother enthusiastically agrees with Lily that only “huge dorks” wear driving gloves and that nobody cares about Dr. Florian van Otterloop, only to have Future Ted point out that she’s lying. All of Ted’s romantic partners have prompted some questions or doubt from his friends, which usually makes Ted determined to prove them wrong and turn this girl into The One. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everybody else in Ted’s life falls in love with The Mother before he does?
But Ted has other plans for this weekend, and the last-minute jitters of the bride and groom are likely to aid his cause. Four days before setting off upstate, he went to L.A., where the locket Robin didn’t find in Central Park might be in Stella’s storage locker. I expect some outrage about this development from fans who made it very clear at the end of last year that they want no more waffling about Robin from Ted. But I am not in their camp. I wrote about it in the recap for “Something New,” last season’s finale:
This show started with Ted and Robin. It’s not going to reach its titular moment, much less its final season endgame, without returning to Ted and Robin. Not only do I not mind this fact, but I’m happy to see it. Ted’s search for true love has become especially poignant this year. Robin’s engagement and impending marriage have raised for him an unavoidable question: Was she here all along? … This story, like all good stories, isn’t about getting to the ending. Good stories are about the hero becoming the person that the ending can happen to.
Much of the drama of this season is going to be about Ted’s internal conflict about Robin. Robin has always been the hinge of his story; I imagine that at the end of this season we could look back at the whole story as “How I Let Go Of Your Aunt Robin.” It’s given us, just this past couple of seasons, some absolutely devastating moments (the final shot of “The Final Page” comes to mind). I’ve never been one who believes that Ted is the weakest part of his own narrative, and when Josh Radnor puts on that damn-the-torpedoes face while buying the plane ticket and driving alone toward Farhampton, I believe in Ted’s determination to make some desperate gesture, to force the Robin issue. And I’m concerned, not in the way you get when you think a show is going off the rails and betraying its characters, but in the way you get when Jesse Pinkman is hiding under a car and Walter White is about to rat him out. I’m concerned that these characters are going to hurt each other doing what they feel they have to do, motivated by anger or fear or regret. I am certain it’s going to be compelling, but I also know it’s going to hurt to watch.
Nice to know that in this case, there’s a happy ending for Ted already written in history. And likely for everyone else, although I don’t think the show has committed itself to Robin and Barney working out; I keep waiting for assurances on that one as a longtime fan of the couple. When Barney comes out with lines like “I’ve got you; I don’t have to wait for it any more,” it’s so simple and straightforward that it has to be real. But when the two of them are so weirded out by the possibility that their mutual cousin Mitch relates them distantly by blood that their lust turns to nausea, it’s a reminder of the many times their relationship has almost foundered. They’re still sailing close to the shoals, and the craggiest, sharpest rocks are still hiding under the waves, to be revealed as the tide of this season ebbs and swells.
This two-parter sets up much of what this season’s 24-parter will deliver: repeated elements that send us backward into the scattered pieces of the show’s history and step us forward into the culminating synthesis of its premise. The Mother will meet our gang one by one; the wedding will intensify their conflicted feelings; Barney will shed his more cartoonish traits; guest stars will pop up regularly; flash-forwards like the lovely closing scene of “Coming Back,” where the year-from-now Mother shares a table with present-day Ted, will put the unfolding events in context. It’s all worth looking forward to. But more so than knowing what to expect, I can’t wait to experience the developments I don’t have the imagination to anticipate. That’s always been the dynamism of watching this show: Knowing what’s coming without having any idea how it will come. Here’s hoping season nine takes it to new and legendary levels.
- Otterloop, huh? Any chance the HIMYM writers are fans of Richard Thompson’s genius comic strip Cul De Sac, and the eighteenth century buckle magnate is a tribute to Petey and Alice Otterloop (whose surname, in turn, is a reference to the D.C. Beltway’s outer loop)?
- “Click options,” Marshall instructs his tech-clueless mother (“Lemme just get on the online so I can internet!”) to delete the incriminating banana-gavel photo from Facebook. Even better than his rising hysteria is the truth in the gag: Nobody knows how to delete a photo from your Facebook wall because the interface changes every other day.
- Even if Robin and Barney are related by blood, Barney doesn’t think it matters: “King Joffrey’s parents were brother and sister, and he was a fair and wise leader.”
- The gift that Ted gives Robin isn’t the locket as Lily feared; it’s the photo from the opening credits.
- Never not funny: the pity of the front desk clerk at Ted’s single status. “You should check out the lighthouse, so romantic!” he enthuses to Lily; then, to Ted: “Here’s the channel guide for the TV.”
- Never not even funnier: Robin trying to correct Barney’s mispronunciation of ring bearer as “ring bear,” and getting more and more worried that this means her wedding will feature an actual bear.
- The nearest strip club that’s kind of dirty is The Sandbox, but the dirtiest one that’s nearby is The Crab Shed.
- We get two views of Barney racing from the table answering his phone with a desperate-sounding “Go for Barney!” I can’t help but think that there’s bad news on the other end of that line.
- “Ma’am, it’s not a race.” “That right there is why you lost!’