How I Met Your Mother: "The Poker Game"
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How I Met Your Mother: "The Poker Game"

Weddings make such reliable sitcom fodder because at weddings, the minutiae of etiquette and custom collides head-on with the chaotic maelstrom of human emotion and the cultural power of a rite of passage. It’s a situation with a million written rules, and a million more unwritten ones. You can’t avoid offending somebody, and no matter what your priorities are, a significant faction of your loved ones will judge you harshly for them. Tonight’s episode devotes a wonderfully flashback-rich B-plot to the wedding equivalent of that jungle pit with sharpened stakes in the bottom and an inviting carpet of leaves draped over the top: gifts. At the same time, Barney experiences the wedding equivalent of the explorer given the choice of death or roo-roo: getting different marching orders from his fiancée and his family.

This is a sharp half hour of comedy, and one of the big reasons why it works so well is that it’s not skimpy with the timeshifting. In the B-story, Lily seethes at Ted’s ostentatious plan to give Barney and Robin not just one wedding gift, but a series of three (and if you’re keeping score at home, as you should, there are two gifts and two slaps still to come). It’s all because she and Marshall believe that Ted never gave them a wedding gift, despite Marshall’s escalating hints about the omission (“You were not wedding absent, no sir, you were wedding present,” he reminisces over coffee; “Get me? A wedding present,” he all-but-orders while dressed as a present for Halloween). But Ted did get them a present, a coffeemaker (“I asked what they used at your favorite coffeehouse and got you that exact one-tier-down model!”), and has been dropping hints to Marshall because he never got a thank-you note (“Do I detect a note of hazelnut? Thank you, note!” he exclaims while sipping Marshall’s coffee; “Dear friend, thank you for the present! Love, your friend” reads his thank-you note costume at the Halloween party).

It’s exactly the kind of perceived violation of wedding rules that wounds friendships while remaining almost impossible to address directly, and “The Poker Game” makes ever-more-glorious hay out of the years over which these offenses have been allowed to fester. My favorite is when Marshall decides to send the ultimate hint by giving Ted a gift-wrapping station for his wedding to Stella, and Ted writes a pointed thank-you note (“There’s one thing that didn’t leave me at the altar, and that’s my manners”) and sends it in a huge, beautifully-wrapped box that Lily and Marshall take as a further slap in the face instead of the ultimate hint it was intended to be. The joke gains layers because we actually have to reassemble it in our memories after we finally get all the information about the missed connections.

Barney’s dilemma is harder to parse, because the easily-bruised emotions of the people we love are so dependent on quirks of personal history and idiosyncratic points of view. Robin wants James to stop cracking jokes about how awful marriage is (“What’s the difference between a Journey song and a husband? A Journey song has a climax”), and she decides to teach him a lesson by taking his wedding ring in their poker game. Then Barney’s mother steps in to demand Barney get her to give it back, and when he dithers, hits the poker table herself and loses her sequin-bedecked shirt to Robin (“She got those sequins from Rick James! … ‘s coffin,” Barney pleads while begging her to give it back). The storyline culminates in Barney demanding Robin back down in the name of family peace, realizing where his loyalty should lie while contemplating the consequences of James’ failure to respect what his spouse wanted, and going way overboard declaring that his family mean nothing to him now that he’s getting married: “This came directly from Robin!”

If the epilogue is any indication, this A-story is as much setup for future Robin/Loretta conflict as it is a self-contained episode. And we should all have seen that coming; somebody with Barney’s family history and longstanding attitudes towards women is going to have to deal with the two dominant females in his life, one representing the past that shaped him, the other the future that beckons him. I find Frances Conroy a marvelously anarchic presence on the show, and I can’t wait for more scenes between her and Cobie Smulders. So I’m happy to give this storyline a pass even though it’s a bit contrived (specifically, Robin doesn’t come off so well for being thin-skinned about James’s jokes, and Loretta’s mandate to protect James seems disconnected from James’ recent personal history). Besides, the awesome ending to the last act casts a rosy glow over the whole episode that no amount of carping can dissipate. We’re reminded that the same douchey superiority that leads Ted to brag about his tripartite wedding gift to Barney and Robin, motivates him to build the most elaborate systems to delight his friends. Like getting Marshall a pizza delivered from a moving car as Daphne rolls through Chicago.  Now that’s the kind of guy you want on your wedding guest list.

Stray observations:

  • Marshall’s rapturous description of pizza almost brings Daphne to tears, leading to a perfect quick edit when she asks why the restaurant shut down, and he shoots back: “Rats.”
  • Unfortunately, Marshall’s commitment to hint-dropping at Halloween messed up the Juno-themed couples costume Lily had planned (“Why did you not get the message to dress up like a pregnant teenager, homeskillet?”). And of course, in the background of the rooftop party, there’s the Slutty Pumpkin.
  • Barney’s best moment: Robin barges into the bathroom to find cards shooting out of his sleeves. “I’m not cheating, don’t tell anyone, I’ll cut you in on half!” he stammers before he even sees who it is. Second best: NPH’s delivery of the Stinson tell. “Sorry, muffberry bluffmuff, all in!” Third: his flash-forward appearance at McLaren’s, tanned and cornrowed from the honeymoon in Belize, getting kneed in the groin by Lily for opining that her outfit makes her look fat “just a little bit around the hips, like always.”
  • The Eriksens have an expression about thank-you notes: “Lick it before you stick it.” The Mosbys have an expression about gifts: “Wrap it before you tap it.” (Wrap the gift before you tap the person on the shoulder and give it to them.)
  • Thanks, CBS, for the big ol’ graphic to tell us that the website on Ranjit’s hat, legalpokeraruba.com, is a real thing from the show that we can actually go to on the internet. That was subtle.
  • “Call me Akira Yoshizawa. … World’s most famous origamist? … I fold.”

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