Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How I Met Your Mother: “The Drunk Train”

Illustration for article titled How I Met Your Mother: “The Drunk Train”

Last week’s misfire got me worried about HIMYM. That’s not a feeling I’ve had through this whole season, despite the usual cultural chatter about how it’s lost its way. This season has featured our gang being funny, expressing touching emotions, and expertly dancing their way through complex and delightful episode structures—and occasionally doing two or three of those highly entertaining things at the same time. What was so troubling about last week is that it was an 0-fer on the HIMYM tote board.  

So even though “The Drunk Train” isn’t especially funny, and even though it doesn’t demonstrate the dazzling facility with construction that the show does so well, I still regard it as a return to form, because it had those touching emotions. Not at the level of “Symphony of Illumination,” which is still the high point for deeply-affecting HIMYM this season. But I was moved by the unexpected way that Marshall and Lily’s concerns about scorekeeping intersected with Robin’s reasons for turning down Kevin, and I am both intrigued and troubled by the way Ted and Barney, separately, are about to have their self-images challenged by women they can’t get out of their heads.

Why does Robin turn down Kevin when he proposes at their out-of-town couples retreat with Marshall and Lily? She thinks it’s because of her secret—that she can never have kids, and doesn’t want them. By forcing her to reveal this, Kevin has put their relationship at a crossroads. At first he’s magnanimous, repeating his proposal twice after she tries to make the situation clear. But Robin is soon in the position of trying to talk him out of the proposal altogether, and she succeeds. The key is her line: “I just don’t think I could ever owe someone that much.” Now this I completely understand. To have someone sacrifice a dream for you, no matter how distant or vague, is to be in a hole on the scoreboard that you have no chance of overcoming. You may be determined not to keep score, but indebtedness isn’t something you can talk or think yourself out of. It’s an existential reality. Nobody gets to erase the board, even with the other person’s permission.

Meanwhile, Barney is using his own well-honed credit sense to get Ted to come with him on the Drunk Train, the last train out of Manhattan back to Long Island each night, filled with desperate and inebriated partiers. While acting as Ted’s wingman (in the latter’s pursuit of a girl whose boringness certainly broke records), Barney had his confidence shaken by Quinn, a girl who refused to play along with his lines about Enormous Penis Syndrome (“that’s the problem with EPS—lack of awareness; that’s why I’m organizing a 10K fun run”) and pinpointed his insecurities, including, apparently, that he could never love anything. But after they crack the secret of the Drunk Train (get drunk) at the same time as Ted is ready to chuck his search for The One and have some meaningless sex, Barney starts turning down the meaningless sex he has so relentlessly pursued. When he leaves the ska—uh, lovely innocent flower in the cab because he has “something, maybe,” there’s a touch of ambiguity as to who he means. Yes, immediately, it’s no doubt Quinn, whom we find in the epilogue is a dancer at his favorite strip club (under the name of Karma, did I hear? That would be rich).

But in the larger sense of our gang and the journeys of the characters, we know that the something, maybe, could be Robin. And yet intercut with Barney’s determination to pursue a woman for more than a night is Ted’s offer to Robin to be her One.

We’ve been heading for this love triangle all season, and I know it won’t be what some people are looking for from this show. But I think it’s exactly right. This isn’t the story of how Ted met the kids’ mother; it never was. It’s the story of how he said goodbye to all the other potentials, all the roads not taken, and we all know that the biggest hurdle on that journey, for all of us, is the friend who makes it possible to stop looking. Some may see it as convenience that the main characters all have to pair up in various combinations to keep the show’s romantic engines churning. I see it as all too real for characters on the far side of 30 wondering how to get out of their dead-end ruts.

But then, I’ve never been as much invested in setting up pieces for the endgame as in understanding what drives these characters right now. The frown that was on my face when the credits rolled wasn’t unhappiness or disapproval, nor was it worry about the show’s direction. It was worry for Barney, Ted, and Robin. And I think that means the show’s working as it should.

Stray observations:

  • I loved the string of “top 10 things Marshall and Lily said to each other on their wedding night” in the cold open—“It’s hard for the little guy to perform under pressure”; “It was small but I think I felt something”; “Stop laughing at it, Lily”—but it seemed to promise an episode far different from the one we got.
  • Quinn tells Barney that she has I’m Not a Gullible Dumbass Syndrome, which “as a former Surgeon General,” he doesn’t think is a real thing.
  • Ted thinks that a backwards baseball cap “really youngs me down” (so much so that he could pass for under 18 at the Newark father-son Lazer Tag tourney).
  • Best gag of the night: Marshall at the experimental theater performance whispering to a fellow audience member, “Is it just screaming?” and having him hold up the playbill titled “Just Screaming.”
  • “Last week I went out with a girl whose favorite band was Glee.”