The slap bet that began in the episode “Slap Bet” (aka “Robin Sparkles”) may be the most inspired overarching mythological construct this gleefully mythological show has ever deployed. Starting with that episode in season two, which established the elaborate set of rules and procedures of a slap bet (including the appointment of a Slap Bet Commissioner to arbitrate any disputes), six slaps have been administered to Barney by Marshall as compensation for a premature slap that went the other way. The five original slaps “for eternity” of this arrangement were augmented by three additional slaps that Barney accepted in exchange for being released from his ducky tie obligation in “Disaster Averted.”
So if my math is correct, we have two slaps remaining as “Slapsgiving 3” opens, and the cold open announces that these will be some epic slaps. “Carmina Burana” plays, super-slo-mo, Marshall’s approaching hand, Barney’s impassive face, overhead shot, close-up—quick break for the kicky upbeat theme music and credits!—and then back to the approaching slap, before Future Ted calls a halt for some backstory.
“Slapsgiving 3” is pure appointment television for HIMYM fans, whether they’ve fallen by the wayside or come back to the fold in season nine. It takes the already convoluted history and ritual of the slap bet and cranks it up to brain-melting levels by spinning a fantastical yarn based on the conventions of martial arts movies. You know, the ones where the pupil who wishes to learn the mystical secrets of a deadly art must study with a succession of teachers and be subjected to increasingly bizarre and philosophical methods in his quest for mastery, like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. It’s appropriately outsize in conception, but the humor comes partly from how the creative team refuses to allow the visuals and sets to get any more grandiose than the show’s ordinary style. Marshall searches out two slap masters in China (and one in Cleveland), but every time he finds the teacher he seeks in the same noodle shop. And the fabled Slapping Tree of Gonjin Forest is the same soundstage greenery that Barney encounters as he runs from Marshall’s first attempted slap in the bar.
We’ve all seen big payoffs that got too ambitious for their own good and forgot that proper scale is an important element of comedy. What I love about “Slapsgiving 3” is that it stays small. It’s a commonplace device of fantasy episodes like this throughout sitcom history that the dream or story being narrated is populated by the other ensemble players in crazy getups, making knowing asides to the audience. It can seem petty and insular—like either we can’t escape these people, or the show’s cast and crew consider us so enamored of them that we’d revolt if they all didn’t have their obligatory appearance. But here, as first Robin (the Red Bird), Lily (the White Flower), and Ted (at his very best as The Calligrapher, who walks a lonely path but would be interested in any divorced former relatives you might want to set him up with) appear, the convention is both lovingly reenacted and freely interpreted. Or maybe it’s that I do like these characters enough to eagerly await their appearances in Marshall’s flight of fancy—and would never, ever want to miss Ted’s claim that “grammar is the first step on a thousand-mile journey to accuracy.” (“I’m guessing there’s no Mrs. Calligrapher,” Marshall intuits.)
The other reason “Slapsgiving 3” delights me is that deadpan practical-joker Marshall is one of my favorite Marshalls. And here it is sustained for the whole episode, complete with gazes into the far distance, appeals to the other ensemble members for support (all of Ted’s assents have something to do with college), and such commitment to the bit that you can believe even the absurdity of Barney’s uncertain reaction; he can’t help but wonder if he ought to buy it. Throw in running gags of equal absurdity, like Marshall’s production of a clinking leather bag whenever someone needs to be paid (“I have much gold!” he tells the helpful child in the karate studio, before later reimbursing Carl the bartender for the busted jukebox with the same bag), and the result is delight, as we viewers realize that the invention of the script, not the size of the budget for sets or special effects, is what makes this return to Slapmarra truly epic.
This is the test case for season nine’s conflicting mission. It needs to bring to an appropriate culmination the long-running threads that have resurfaced again and again, each time in episodes designed to up the ante for longtime fans. But at the same time, it can’t lose the intimate scale of a memory, a story that someone is telling about their past. How I Met Your Mother is a mosaic of these stories, and it can lose its way when it gets too enamored either of one shiny piece, or of the big picture everyone’s waiting to be completed. At its best, it honors the brilliance of the pieces that recur, forming patterns that span the work, and the moments of emergence when something more and larger is glimpsed. This carefully controlled shifting of focus doesn’t just happen in the revelations of the mother mythology. It’s a feature of all the show’s mythologies, and the slap bet is is the greatest of them all.
This last slap-centered episode has the same joy and light touch as the first, which is one of the best sitcom episodes ever. And yet it couldn’t be understood apart from the legend that has sprung up around and following “Slap Bet.” That’s an achievement that shouldn’t be undersold, especially in a seemingly simple half hour of movie parodies and sight gags. Speed, strength, accuracy? I wouldn’t be surprised if that weren’t inscribed on a Successories poster somewhere in the writers’ room.
- What makes the slap bet such an inspired concept is the conjoined inevitability and unpredictability of the slaps. I’ll never forget the unexpected brilliance of Marshall using two of his Ducky Tie slaps immediately. Here we have a whole episode devoted to the lead-up to one slap (hilariously deflated by Barney and Marshall sharing a good laugh about it moments later), but I’m betting the final slap comes completely out of the blue, inasmuch as that is possible with only nine episodes to go.
- Barney is pretty sure everybody knows about the thing where we put numbing cream “on our deal so we can go all night.”
- Of all the minor recurring gags, I think I like the one where Robin and Marshall slap each other while filling out a credit card clip the very best: “You know that tip isn’t a full 20 percen—” whap!
- The Calligrapher has plenty of time to deliver the secret of accuracy (“like, really try to be accurate”) during the 10 or 15 minutes a person lives after having his heart slapped out of his body.
- The word “slap” starts to become hilarious all on its own right around the time Robin tells Marshall to “slap this tree.”
- “Yeah, fake jukebox.”