I always knew that this last season of How I Met Your Mother would be an emotional gut-punch. Years of anticipation, months of anxiety about whether the creative team could stick the landing, weeks of poignant wistfulness as we count down our final hours with these characters—all stressful, all dredging up the feels, as the kids say.
But now, I’m not sure that even the moment that will end the show, the moment Ted meets those kids’ mother, will be the height of those poignant emotions. Because tonight, Ted let go of Robin. In a beautiful, simple, understated effect, she rose beyond his reach just like that balloon he loved as a kid. She’s never coming back. And although Ted believes he’ll never be able to move on, he let her go. As he tells Jeanette at the bridge: Love is wanting that person to have everything they want even though it will destroy you.
I’ve been arguing since late last season that Ted’s hopeless dream of reuniting with Robin wasn’t a rehash of old material, wasn’t a sign of creative bankruptcy, wasn’t another waste of viewers’ precious time. He made the grand romantic gesture for Robin in the very first episode of the show, and he’s never stopped believing that it should someday pay off, even as the odds have grown overwhelming against it. Until she finally moved irrevocably beyond his reach, this nine-year-long story of destiny couldn’t be anything but the tragedy of Past Ted’s dream’s thwarted. It could never become the utterly unexpected, yet in retrospect inevitable story of Future Ted’s present. What I never expected, and what knocks my socks off in “Sunrise,” is that Ted bookends his pursuit of Robin with another grand romantic gesture: He sacrifices himself for the woman he loves. He does so not by hiding his feelings from her, but by coming clean about all of them, so both of them enter the new day with eyes wide open; that’s important, because otherwise, it’s one of those tragedies about missed connections and sentiments left unspoken, and you always think that there’s something that would have made the difference and changed everything. Instead, Ted plans to head into exile with the private satisfaction that Robin has what she wants most in the world, and the only thing that could be better is if it were him.
Meanwhile, Ted’s two male friends are dealing with their impending life changes in their own fashion. Barney has found two poor lost souls in need of his tutelage, and gets a chance to pass on his player wisdom while reliving his molding of Ted into the ultimate wingman. The storyline is full of callbacks (“Today I’m going to teach you how to live!”, “Haaaave you met Justin?”, “Just clothes?! Ted—sorry, force of habit—boys …”), and seems largely free of the kind of regret over leaving that life behind, or of second thoughts about getting hitched, that we might have feared when we saw Barney’s rollaway empty last week. Instead, Barney spends one last night sharing his hard-won expertise with some guys who are truly hapless and hopeless without it. They’re drenched in Drakkar, wearing new white socks, trying to impress female party guests with mime, and unaware that relaxed-fit jeans do not constitute “being dressed.” In the end he leaves them with a stack of scribbled Post-Its: the reconstructed Playbook. There’s something skeevy about this if we take it too seriously; who really wants two new Barneys stalking Farhampton trying to bed as many women as possible? But it’s Barney’s far less emotional, far more cartoonish way of letting go—by becoming, fittingly, a legend.
And Marshall finally gets to the end of his fight with Lily, too, by realizing that even though they have to make a choice about whether to go to Italy or not, that outcome can’t result in one of them getting exactly what they want and the other one not. This has been the toughest storyline of the season for the creative team to navigate, because there doesn’t seem to be any way to get this couple out of it with honesty and toughness and heart, rather than capitulation or taking sides or just giving up on the drama of it all. I can’t fault this resolution for wisdom and nuance. And along the way, we get time-travel Lily from 2006 (“How many MySpace friends do I have by now? Has James Blunt put out the steady stream of number 1 hits we all expect from him?”) and even Marshall’s dad showing up to complain about his death not being his son’s absolute low point. Lily sacrifices getting everything she wants so both she and Marshall can keep what they most want—their family—and asks only that Marshall recognize that so he’ll remember to do the same for her.
The vision of love that Ted outlines on the bridge could result in a doomed, desperate, endless pursuit. It could mean that no happiness is ever possible if it isn’t met with complete acceptance and reciprocation. Or, if Lily and Marshall are any indication, it could mean that every once in a while you have to remember that the priority isn’t your dream or your beloved’s dream, but the world where your relationship continues to evolve and grow and change. A world not of “always” or “never,” a world with no ultimatums, a world where—as dramatic as it is to say that you never talked to the women who broke your heart again—you call them up when you need their help because hey, they’ll always be a part of your life and a part of your story.
That’s the eternal flame.
- “Do you think he tried to get the locket out of the river?” Noel asked me as soon as the episode was over. No, he really let go, and as he learned when his balloon sailed away, that means it never comes back, I opined. God, I hope that’s right. Please, let that locket still be down there, never to be seen again.
- “It was the classic story: Boy loses balloon when boy’s mom set out hot dogs in the backyard.”
- The front desk can’t do anything about the A/C in Marshall’s room because the ghost of Captain Dearduff, who haunts it, likes it muggy.
- Top five Ted girlfriends (“there’s kind of a running email chain about it,” Robin confesses): 5. Stella. 4. Zoe. 3. Slutty Pumpkin. 2. Marshall when they pretended to be a couple (“The Fortress,” season 8). 1. Victoria. Bottom five: 5. Blah Blah. 4. Boats Boats Boats (Becky). 3. Karen. 2. Zoe. 1. Jeanette.
- The epilogue fulfills the promise made by Future Ted in the pilot that Robin eventually told Ted she wanted him to kiss her.
- “Bro Hell sounds bad.” “I’m sure Barney has a whole thing about Bro Hell.”