Warning: here be spoilers. Run the other way if you want to ruin, er, watch the show for yourself.
I’ve seen more than one source describe How I Met Your Mother as “Friends for Millennials”. After the train wreck of a finale this week (which was just the cherry on top of a bad season), I’m starting to see why. By the end of the series, most of the characters have done exactly zero growing up or maturing, only superficially learning necessary life lessons long enough to get past their personal crisis du jour. Instead of giving us some kind of ending with a hope for people being better than when they started, we realize they don’t really change at all.
But first, let me give kudos where kudos are due. Marshall and Lily should be the example of what people should strive for. They get into fights, often big ones, but they have a firm commitment to working through them. Aside from their broken off relationship when they were dating, I never once got the feeling that they ever considered splitting up to be an option. They learned better from their brief time apart. As they transitioned into family life, they adjusted accordingly to behave responsibly. Marshall often had a job he hated because it was good for the family. All of his hard work was rewarded when he got the judgeship positions he really wanted, but he did work for it. He wasn’t just handed the dream job because dagnabit he was just a beautiful and unique snowflake. They both cut back on going out when kids came along because really, that’s just how life works when you actually want to raise children, not merely keep them alive. Lily even grew up to no longer be pulling her family along for her quest for superficial self-fulfillment. In many ways, they embraced the work and social ethics of generations past.
The rest of the characters don’t seem to get anything out of these good examples of being a responsible adult, preferring an eternal adolescence. Barney is obviously a tragic figure, but he gets the comic relief treatment so we won’t be forced to uncomfortably acknowledge it. He never had a father or father figure growing up, and his mother was often absent. To cope with that kind of pain, he constructs elaborate lies about his life and past that are far more glamorous than the reality that he had no parents to speak of. The flashback to his coffee shop days show he had figured out a way to cope with it and be a more-or-less decent guy, but getting abandoned sent him into the spiral of self-destructive behaviors that came to define his life. Then Robin abandons him and he goes right back into it, never learning a lesson. Even seeing his daughter didn’t really force him to confront that he used other people to try and numb his own pain. Instead of trying to make amends or warn other men about his unhappy lifestyle choices, he jumps to blaming women for ruining his life. There was an opportunity for Barney to finally face his problems and the writers chose the cop-out.
Robin is at least as bad. She starts off as selfish and insensitive. By the end of the show, she’s still that same person. If there’s any kind of emotionally uncomfortable situation, she runs from it. She involves herself deeply in her work to avoid it in the first place. When she’s involved with Ted, she runs as soon as things start getting more than superficial. Just look at how she reacts to the idea of having kids, an emotionally intense experience she wants to avoid. When Barney is getting upset because he sees an encore of being abandoned by a woman, she reacts by running even further away, paying little heed to how much damage she’s doing in the process. By the end of the show, she still lives alone, still has a bunch of dogs that won’t challenge her, and is still making work, an ultimately meaningless pursuit, her top life goal.
And why exactly is Ted, the hopeless romantic looking for The One chasing down an emotionally unavailable basket case like Robin? Here’s a guy who is fully invested in the idea of true love: find a woman you’re head-over-heels in love with, marry her, have kids, and grow old together. Even career goals like having a building on the Manhattan skyline take a back seat to this kind of idealism in relationships. And this is where things start getting really sloppy. Ted, the guy who literally says “I love you” on first dates, meets The Mother, who is perfect for him, does a crazy amount of wedding planning, ends up with a “whoops baby” before the wedding… and then waits five years and two kids to actually marry her? When did Ted become a relationship slacker, just going along with the flow? And the idea that he’s completely hung up on Robin the whole time, who seemingly offers him nothing but the challenge of attaining the unattainable, instead of what appears to be the perfect woman? Are we really going to believe that the hopeless romantic was just putting on a show?
So what we have are “party hardy to numb the pain” Barney, “sabotage relationships and bury your nose in work to avoid hard things” Robin, and “hopeless romantic who can’t help but chase after something they can’t get” Ted. They’re eternal adolescents, never really growing up and embracing adulthood, teenagers that can legally drink. Marshall and Lily, instead of being presented as the responsible lifestyle to which their friends should have aspired, are a curiosity that their “friends” push away from as they refuse to confront their own issues. Why bother spending an entire season focusing on a wedding that would force Robin and Barney to both grow up (and Ted to move on from obsessing over the woman he doesn’t really want) only to flush all of those examples of personal growth down the tubes in a few minutes of airtime? If this was to be the ending the entire time (and the filming of Ted’s conversation with his kids from the get-go seems to hint at it), why would you intentionally refuse to develop the idea over nine years, much less spend the entirety of the last season moving in the other direction?
Friends has everyone grow up to pursue living like adults. Scrubs gave us an ending montage that hinted at the same. How I Met Your Mother just trolled millions of viewers for the ending they never wanted to see. If the point was to provide an uncomfortable mirror of how many of us don’t grow up and face our problems, you could have tried to develop that thought. Instead, you lead us on the road of growing up only to pull the rug out from under us for… what reason exactly? Beats me, but I doubt I’m going to watch any of the show again with this bad taste in my mouth.