It wasn’t great, or more accurately, it wasn’t satisfying. But maybe the series finale of How I Met Your Mother made sense.
The show spent a great deal of time convincing us that the idea of a romantic relationship between Ted and Robin was toxic for them both. It seemed to hammer home the point that while Ted and Robin had a spark, or a connection, or something that continued to draw them back to each other, they would never truly fulfill each other’s needs, and they were, more often than not, only going to hurt each other in the attempt. Numerous episodes posited that there were simply fundamental differences between Ted and Robin that would keep them from working out over the long haul.
And yet much of the overall story of How I Met Your Mother is Ted and Robin having to relearn this lesson over and over again. Several times over the course of the series it seemed like they had figured that out; once and for all, only to come back to each other in moments of weakness or wanting and have to painfully learn it all over again.
Maybe it was the draw of that spark. Maybe it was misplaced feelings they’d originally projected onto each other that were too ingrained to erase. Maybe it was just sheer stupidity that kept them returning to drink from that same poisoned well. Whatever it was, when it came to Victoria, or Barney, or numerous others, they would repeat the same mistake time and time again, and let the ghosts of their relationship return to haunt them both.
Then, finally, Ted met Tracy, the titular “Mother”, and for ten years of his life, he found the true fulfillment he’d seen seeking for so long. He found someone who mirrored both his idiosyncrasies and his love. Because of that, because of finding that person who genuinely fulfilled all those expectations he’d been trying to impose on women for nine years, he stopped making that mistake. He married the woman he had been looking for all along, and was no longer compelled to try to make the romantic interests in his life, Robin chief among them, fill a role that never suited them.
Then Tracy died. And Ted found himself in the same position he was in at the beginning of the series — lacking the person who made him whole. Except this time, he realized exactly what he was missing, in a way that was far less palpable when “the Mother” was an idealized abstraction rather than a human being whom he had loved and lost.
And so six years after Tracy’s death, he recounts to his children the path that led him to meeting this woman. And although it’s been six years, he still feels the gaping hole that his wife left in his life when she died. So, at the encouragement of his children, who are too young to know better, he reverts to his old habit — trying to make Robin into something she’s not, in the hopes that she can fill that void.
That’s what struck me about the finale after the fact. There’s nothing definitive that says Ted and Robin end up together over the long term or even the short term. The initial suggestion of that outcome, admittedly the likely intention of the show’s creators, is what felt so tin-eared about the finale. But what if the ending isn’t a happily ever after? What if it’s something more like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? What if the ultimate thrust of the show is that we have witnessed nearly a decade of Ted being emotionally self-destructive, that Tracy was the only thing in his life that pulled him out of that cycle, and that with her gone, he regresses?
What if, in Tracy’s absence, with enough time for her good influence to wane but the pain of her loss to persist, Ted runs back to Robin, and starts the same toxic relationship over again? What if he dooms himself to repeat that same mistake once more? What if, in 2030, Ted and Robin enjoy the same initial burst of joy at being together, and then slowly realize, as they always do, that they’re not right for each other, and end up hurting themselves again?
Maybe it’s not a happy ending. Maybe we’d rather see Ted and Tracy live happily ever after and sit on that porch with Lily and Marshall in their old age. But if Tracy is gone, then maybe the ending is at least true to what the audience has seen for nine years — Ted trying to make his relationship with Robin something that’s it’s not, putting it on a pedestal meant for someone else, and setting both of them up for failure. It’s not pretty, but it might just be in line with everything we’ve seen, and more realistic than fans of the show would care to admit.