It’s been about three years since showrunners Craig Thomas and Carter Bays treated viewers to the finale of their nearly decade-long sitcom, How I Met Your Mother. The series, which focuses on Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) recounting to his children the many events that led up to his first encounter with their mother, grew in popularity as Ted’s fictional journey to meet “the One” grew ever more lonely and desperate. The following the series brought in could be attributed to audiences’ attachment to Ted’s story (possibly due to the similar popularity of heartwarming rom-coms of the 2000s), or to the series’ biggest star, Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) and his humorous theatrics, or even to the colourful members of “the Gang” that comprise the main cast reminding us of another group of Friends in a popular sitcom. How I Met Your Mother is born out of and shaped by the rom-com genre, but what makes the series special is how it subverts the fantasy of the “perfect love story” and focuses on defining what true love actually is and how the beauty lies simply in that we do it.
“Love is the best thing we do,” Ted explains to Robin (Cobie Smulders) as she breaks down before heading down the aisle to marry Barney. This speech from Ted in the penultimate episode of the series isn’t exactly a turning point for the series nor for any one character, but it does highlight the very thesis of the series: love doesn’t make sense, but we are lost without it. It’s the type of cheesy, hopeless romantic line that defines Ted’s character, and although he means it sincerely, it doesn’t come from the fantastical and naïve perspective Ted had on love when he started his journey to find “the One” eight years prior.
Movies like to sell the idea of the “right place, right time” moment as well as the notion that the grand romantic gesture is the only way to win a person’s heart. While those certainly look great in movies, How I Met Your Mother argues that using those fantastical moments and ideas as a foundation for a loving relationship is dangerous and unhealthy. Ted’s character showcases this growth of learning how to prioritize focus on the fundamental aspects of the other person instead of on ideas like “right place, right time” and destiny. In season one, Ted meets both Robin and Victoria by simply locking eyes in the middle of a crowded room and proceeds to win them over through romantic gestures – like stealing a Blue French Horn for Robin, stopping Victoria as she’s about to leave for the airport, hiring a blue string quartet for Robin, and of course, making it rain. The first two seasons feature Ted’s fantastic “movie moments” in the name of love, but the series uses it as a tool to highlight that despite this (or because of this), Ted still wasn’t able to get them to stay because they weren’t ready for the serious commitment Ted had in mind.
Ted and Robin don’t work out at the end of season two because of the long-running struggle of “careers vs. romance” the characters have throughout the series. The conflict is first introduced in season one, with Ted losing Victoria because of her decision to chase a career down in Germany, and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) leaving her fiancé Marshall (Jason Segel) to pursue art in San Francisco. It’s brought back once again at the end of season two, when Ted and Robin break up because of their two fundamentally different plans for their futures. Robin wants to explore the world and see where her career path brings her, while Ted wants to settle down to start a family. Despite loving each other, they weren’t perfect for each other at the time.
The point where Ted and Robin break up is arguably the start of the road that allows Ted to meet the Mother with the right perspective on love. Ted’s next two major love interests (Stella and Zoey) drastically change his perspective on love. Stella leaves Ted at the altar to reunite with her ex-boyfriend Tony, which makes Ted accept the fact that rushing into his happily ever after will only cause him pain, while Zoey, being both a literal and figurative roadblock in Ted’s career goals, forces Ted into a situation where he finally chooses his career over a girl. On the other hand, Robin’s development came through her relationship with Don in season five, where she actually chooses the relationship over her career, but it backfires when he fails to reciprocate. Ted and Robin’s love story isn’t the perfect love story, but their respective growth over the course of the series allowed them to eventually become right for each other.
Even the title suggests Ted’s growth in a way. He starts his journey to meet the Mother starry-eyed and fooled by this fantasy that he’ll meet the One. However, after being left at the altar, ending many relationships, and witnessing the girl who, at that point, was the love of his life marry his best friend, Ted ends his journey completely different. If the sadder/less hopeful latter seasons don’t prove that point, it’s quite evident in season nine’s flashforwards to Ted and the Mother’s relationship. Ted’s first date isn’t a grand romantic act straight out of a movie, he just takes her out and they talk while walking around. He doesn’t even marry her until over half a decade after getting into a relationship with her. Even after her death, the show still makes a case that Ted has stopped believing in the idea that a person is only destined to have One by showing him go after Robin one final time. It’s not perfect, but it’s Ted, and loving is the best thing he does.
However, then we have Barney – everyone’s favorite redemption story – who is also saved from the typical “fall in love to end the character arc” development. Barney is saved with a different kind of love. Unsurprisingly, the three girls Barney fell in love with came at points where the destructive nature of his lifestyle were revealed to him – Robin, when Abby had the women of NYC turn against him; Nora, when his estranged father came back into his life; and Quinn, by just being the completely identical match (both good and bad) to Barney. He never is able to permanently hold on to any of these women – even when the legendary story of Barney and Robin’s wedding weekend made it seem like he could – but he finally does find the love of his life when he accidentally fathers a baby girl. Robin was never the one to completely heal Barney, but their love for each other was enough to trigger the change. Barney’s daughter was the only able to bring it home (“Daddy’s home”).
Finally, there’s Marshall and Lily, whom most people find to be the least interesting couple in the Gang, but if anything, their struggles with owning up to adulthood and fears of commitment should make them the most compelling couple of the Gang. Interest in them aside, their relationship is the torchbearer of the series’ thesis on love. Their love isn’t perfect at all, despite every character calling them “the best couple they know”. Lily left Marshall before their wedding, they bought a crooked house they couldn’t afford, they struggled to conceive their first baby, Lily thought about running out on Marshall and the baby, and Marshall took a New York judgeship when he promised Lily they’d move to Italy. There are many more instances of their shortcomings as a couple, but after the initial problem, their unwavering love found a way to guide them to the next step. Lily came back to Marshall, Marshall’s committed to provide their family with a better lifestyle, and Lily’s pregnancy reminded Marshall that they weren’t in a relationship but in a family. They broke all of their wedding vows by the end of the series, but they’re still the best couple of the series.
There’s still a lot to be said about this three-year old series; the importance of parents (especially father figures) in the lives of the main cast, long-time director of the series Pamela Fryman’s excellent use of quick time-jumping, and even on a negative note, the series’ tendency to delve into racial stereotypes. However, since today’s Valentine’s Day, a great topic of conversation I thought to bring up is the series’ thoughtful and sincere exploration of adulthood, friendship, and of course, love. It’s an unconventional, imperfect love story, and that’s what makes it worthwhile to advocate, so this Valentine’s Day, accept that love isn’t perfect, but it is the best thing we do.
Featured Image: CBS