Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Broken Myth of "How I Met Your Mother"

Ha ha! It was you all along!

I thought I'd write something about the How I Met Your Mother finale while it is still somewhat fresh. I know that in a week or two, discussion of it will disappear like most topics in our information-overloaded age, and even I won't care anymore, so I'll strike while the iron is warm.

I've always enjoyed HIMYM--it's funny, smart, and often touching--but the series finale episode disturbed me from the perspective of storytelling and the way it undercut the mythology established during the years of the show.  

According to Joseph Campbell's well-known Hero's Journey or monomyth, most stories follow a basic archetypal pattern. The hero has a goal to achieve and encounters many trials on the way, receiving advice and aid from a supernatural helper (who is expendable) and making use of certain talismans or magic objects before receiving his just reward. For nine years, the Mother (Tracy McConnell) was clearly presented as Ted Mosby's goal, his prize, in the mythology of the series. There are magical objects or icons, like the yellow umbrella or the bass guitar, and near encounters designed to create a mystique about the unknown Mother who will also be the love of Ted's life, his soul-mate. Many an episode speaks of Ted finding "the One," even the finale. With all this intense build-up, it is shocking to discover that the Mother is not Ted's soul-mate, nor his reward in the hero's journey but just the expendable supernatural aid. 

Tracy giving wise help
As viewers, we probably should've seen this coming. Actress Christin Milioti was surely cast in part for her waif-like, ethereal appearance. Earlier appearances of the Mother during the final season were strange examples of "wise help." In Platonish Tracy meets Barney by chance and convinces him to pursue Robin; she consoles Lily in The Locket, runs into Marshall by coincidence in Bass Player Wanted and gives him advice, and lastly convinces Robin not to bail on her wedding in The End of the Aisle. Each of these seemed annoyingly magical and guru-like at the time. Turns out they were just examples of the writers assigning the Mother the role of magical  fairy, who, like Mary Poppins, comes to set a lot of things right before going away, or, in this case, dying, which she again takes with otherworldly stoicism. In fact, we don't even see her die or have a funeral, so she could very well have simply gone back to fairyland (which would actually make her part of "Meeting the Goddess" in the Hero's Journey, still a transitional step for the protagonist, not the culmination).  

In this scenario, Robin is Ted's true love. Tracy's true love was Max, the boyfriend who died, and she dies to be with him. Even the kids sagely suggest that the sum of every narrative told by their dad is that he has the hots for Robin; the story of "how I met your mother" is relegated to being a sub-plot, and Tracy and Ted are a temporary bookmark. This is all fine and good (a lot of people like the chemistry of Robin and Ted) except for the fact that, for nearly a decade, we have been primed as an audience to see Tracy as Ted's eventual soul-mate, and it's terribly disappointing to have the rug pulled out from under us. It spits in the face of the whole build-up, the entire mythology. The writers try to soften the blow by minimizing the Mother's place in some of the last scenes where it is very much "the gang" at McLaren's plus Tracy, who is relatively silent and isolated from the group (other than kissing Ted). We see no mourning, no funeral either. Unfortunately, this has the opposite effect of diminishing her value. And this is also where the writers blew the chance to recover something of the storytelling after they wrote themselves into a corner with the necessity of having a Mother who is not Robin. 

If we had a death scene or a funeral, we as an audience would have some closure, and the place of the Mother in Ted's life would have been elevated instead of a "snap your fingers and she's just gone" sort of goodbye, glossed over as if the whole relationship were insignificant. Tracy's death gets much less time than Barney's discussion of his "perfect month." It's emotionally vacant. Robin could have attended the funeral and consoled Ted, being there for him and his kids in the six years that followed, which is more of a plausible reason for the kids to love "Aunt Robin," who seems to have stayed apart and on the road for all that time. How would they have known her much otherwise? This could, in turn, open the door for a situation where the kids declare that Robin has been "a Mother to us" while Tracy was their "Mom" (which is what they call her). "Robin practically raised us," one of them could say. In this way,  "How I Met Your Mother" could at least have referred to Ted and Robin rather than being just the title of a sub-plot. 

P.S. Ultimately, Ted does fulfill his Hero's Journey in that he becomes the "Master of Two Worlds" at the end. He has had the domestic life expected by most people--a wife and two kids: a boy and a girl--and now will have a romantic, adventurous life with (infertile) Robin, his blue French horn, chateau wedding and hot air balloon. He can have his cake and eat it too.

P.P.S It's truly evil that the producers of HIMYM are making us buy the Season 9 DVD to see an alternate ending. I, for one, will not buy it but wait for the spoiler to be revealed online. Will you buy it?