How I Met Your Mother: "The Mermaid Theory"
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How I Met Your Mother: "The Mermaid Theory"

Speaking of theories, let me tell you mine. Last time we all got together a couple of weeks ago, there was a spirited discussion in the comments about whether the show will be over once the mother is met. I think not. The master narrative isn’t about how Ted meets a woman who will become the mother but how she becomes the mother, and I don’t think our story is done until he has not only met her, but forged the relationship with her that will lead to the kids and the house and the whole nine yards.

In fact, my theory is that we will meet the mother at the end of this season, at the wedding of Ted’s childhood friend Punchy (as set up by "Glitter"). But it will take another few seasons for that relationship to come about, for her to change from “the woman who would become your mother” to “your mother.” 

And in the meantime, are we just spinning our wheels? No, not if you enjoy spending time with these characters and delighting in where their stories go. Especially not if you take pleasure in the ways the writers and actors are having fun with the tension between the master narrative and open-ended, episodic television. Take tonight’s wonderful little running gag where Grown-Up Ted can’t remember how the story goes, confuses what year it is, switches Barney and Lily, and along the way just happens to catapult us a few years into the future where Lily is massively pregnant and Ted has some kind of bet with Barney that involves Ted wearing a dress. “Now we’re even!” he announces as he bursts into the bar; “We’ll get there,” Bob Saget promises in the voiceover.

There’s a little forward momentum to the season’s storyline, too, the one with Zoe and Ted getting themselves in trouble by trying to be friends. Now, I don’t mind Zoe one bit, unlike some of you; I thought she justified her existence with that lovely little “Ahoy!” as she called the Captain on the phone, and without her (in some form), we wouldn’t have the Captain in all his over-the-top Kyle MacLachlan-y glory. I wouldn’t want to miss his sudden glare as the limo window covered the lower half of his face (“everything he said was nice, but I’m still scared!” Marshall whimpers), his creepy double-entendres (“looks like it’s just you, me, and six hours in frigid international waters”), his calculated stepping into shadow, or his knocking Ted’s cell phone into the water when he brings out a piece of his harpoon collection. I’ve liked the graceful episode-closing intimations that Zoe and Ted are headed for something more than friendship, from the dancing in “Natural History,” to the ticking at the end of tonight’s half-hour. It’s nice storytelling, and it’s a step toward a crisis that will define Ted’s major character development for the year, I’m sure.

And while “The Mermaid Theory” again goes old-school HIMYM by trying to put some kind of catchphrase or meme out there (this time the idea that men inevitably start to be attracted to the women they spend time around, much like sailors started to see manatees as beautiful mermaids after months at sea), at least they have a good time with it.  There are the manatee costumes themselves, which lead to the adorable sight of the people wearing them trying to pick up paper or hold a drink between their flippers, and to Cobie Smulders’ expressive, drunken deadpan as her manatee acquires blond curls and a seashell bra in Marshall’s mind. And there’s Barney’s acknowledgement that the mermaid theory is a blatant attempt to name something that’s not all that well-defined: “The mermaid theory. It’s a thing.” (Because it really makes no sense. The current phenomenon to be explained results from proximity, and the analogous historical phenomenon proffered to explain it stems from deprivation.)

So we’ve got some momentum, and I trust we’re going someplace. Best of all, the ride has been a lot of fun for the past several weeks, and it’s good to see that a short hiatus didn’t dampen the sense of playfulness, energy, and speed that defines HIMYM at its best. Because it’s the little things that make that work and that provide the necessary grounding for the bigger moments that we wait for. Like Saget confabulating that there was an ice-cream cone involved when one of Barney-and-Lily saved the other from a speeding motorcycle, because it’s the only way to make sense of the line “You saved us.” Like Barney looking at his watch while Saget tries to remember why they were fighting. Like the three topics of conversation Marshall and Robin have to draw upon while together: cold weather, sports, and cold-weather sports. Like—and maybe this is a stretch because it’s a private bit of business Neil Patrick Harris no doubt improvised to have some character moment during a scene where he’s not the focus, but rewind it and you’ll see—like Barney repeatedly dropping his Chinese morsel back into his takeout box and looking annoyed when he dips his chopsticks in and brings them up empty.

The little things are sometimes more hilarious, and the big things sometimes more touching.  But you’ve got to appreciate a show that’s still doing both so very well.  I take it as a sign that my theory may yet prove correct, because confidence like this sometimes results from knowing both who you are and where you’re going.

Stray observations:

  • Myles McNutt points out that we know Marshall and Robin do hang out together regularly—at the Hoser Hut.  It would have been nice if the episode had acknowledged that, but I'll allow it: Those occasions hardly count as spending time with just the two of them (since they’re with all the Hoser Hut regulars), and they provide inexhaustible opportunities there to carry on cold weather, sports, and cold-weather sports related conversations with no danger of running out of material.
  • Lily has three rules for going out with another man’s wife: Don’t go anywhere with candles, no sharing food, and no lying to the spouse about anything you do. Ted and Zoe have to confront the last one when Zoe fails to mention to the Captain that she’s at the Wright exhibit with Ted alone. We should remember to look for candle-lit venues and food-sharing in upcoming episodes.
  • Barney contributes two additional rules: No using the husband’s condoms, and “lubricant is community property.” (Ewww.)
  • Marshall’s giant photo of the Captain’s incongruous face is a great prop for the cold open, and leads to a wonderful punch line when Robin asks the Captain how he feels about the Jonas Brothers and Marshall holds his piece of cardboard vertically instead of horizontally: “He hates that he loves them.”
  • “If a mermaid gets pregnant, she becomes a manatee again. I never thought I’d say that sentence.”
  • Best voiceover line of the season: “Kids, I’m admitting defeat. I will never remember this story. I’m sorry for wasting your time.”
  • “He can get a little murder-y, when he’s nervous.”
  • “Fair enough, the hunting lodge it is!”
  • “You didn’t get a Good Effort medal from the Shaker Heights JCC Swim Camp because you didn’t have what it takes!”

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