A Case Study in Twist Endings: How I Met Your Mother

For nine seasons, the television show How I Met Your Mother followed Ted Mosby’s tale to his children of how he found his soul mate, their mother. In a twist ending, the finale reveals that the mother in question has in fact been dead for this whole story, and that Ted is really asking his children’s permission to pursue their “Aunt” Robin. I remember my initial reaction to this ending, which was “that sucked”, a feeling echoed by a lot of fans. My wife and I recently went back through the whole series and . . . it still sucks, and I think I know why.

What the Ending Got Right

1. Unexpected, Yet Inevitable

First, I have to admit that the series finale accomplished a key factor of twist endings, it was unexpected, yet inevitable. The movie Sixth Sense is lauded as the king of twist, because when we learn that Bruce Willis is really a ghost, we are shocked, but it all makes sense. All the clues were there, but only visible in hindsight. By that standard, the How I Met Your Mother finale should have been a rousing success. From the very start, the entire show focuses on the failed romance between Ted and Robin. Even through the last season, all of which takes place in the days before Robin’s wedding to Barney, the question is repeatedly put out there: Why aren’t Ted and Robin together? Watching the series again, this becomes even more obvious. They even foreshadow the death of the mother.

2. It Completes the Circle

The series started with a love at first sight encounter between Ted and Robin. He steals her a blue French horn and tells her he loves her. Robin is career-focused and afraid of a serious relationships. The series ends with Ted under her window again, blue French horn in hand. The obstacles to their relationship are gone, and they can finally be together. A happily ever after ending, right? Not at all, because in heading toward this ending, the writers made some crucial miscalculations.

What the Ending Got Wrong

1. The Twist Ending Must Fulfill the Promises Made

How I Met Your Mother makes a key promise, that every failed relationship and event along the way leads us closer to Ted’s soul mate. She must be a match for his quirks and as much a hopeless romantic as he is. It is the promise of any romantic comedy, but stretched over nine years. Nine years of build up and we finally meet a woman that meets all our expectations. She is adorable, quirky, and a perfect match for Ted. But just as we get start to know this woman, to see Ted’s joy at finding his journey complete, our joy is ripped out from underneath us before we’ve even registered it’s there. Tracy (the mother), surpasses Robin on every level. By killing the mother, the writer’s broke their promise and gave us the consolation prize. Sixth Sense, on the other hand, is about a therapist getting a second chance to help a boy like the one he’d failed years before. That promise is kept, and so the twist becomes the cherry on top of an already satisfying sundae

2.The Twist Ending Must be More Satisfying than the Expected One

You might argue that HIMYM is a love story, and that it ends with Ted finding love, so everything is good. The problem is that a widower finding solace with a career-obsessed woman who rejected him time and again is not more satisfying than seeing him together with the love of his life. A twist ending can be amazing, but the twist has to elevate the story and the satisfaction, not diminish it.

3. The Twist Ending Must Fulfill the Characters’ Story Arcs

A twist ending should heighten and highlight the characters’ personal journey. In Sixth Sense, we not only get Bruce Willis’s redemption and the saving of a child, we learn that his marriage has never really been broken. His wife wasn’t ignoring him, she was mourning him, and now that he has helped this young boy, they can both move on.

In contrast, HIMYM seemed intent on sabotaging almost every character arc they’d set up over the series. Sigh. This, above all, ruined the ending for me. Let’s look at the main three.

Barney is presented as a despicable yet hilarious womanizer, whose life is devoted first and foremost to his next one night stand. Over the course of the series, this changes. We learn that originally he was in a long-term relationship, but had his heart broken. He dates Robin, and we have a glimpse that he might be ready for something more serious. This escalates with Nora, and then Quincy, who he is even engaged to for a brief time. And then we end up with him marrying Robin. Finally, the selfish, juvenile, sex fiend has learned to commit and love a single woman. So what do the writers do? He and Robin divorce in three years, and Barney goes right back to his old ways. They try to salvage his arc by having him get a woman pregnant and have a daughter (all in about the span of 5 minutes). Finally, a girl he can commit to! Except for the fact that seeing Barney degenerate to his first episode character does nothing but make us feel sorry for that poor girl who has Barney for a dad and a mother dumb enough to fall for one of his plays.

Robin’s arc shadows Barney’s fairly closely and fails for the same reasons. Unlike Barney, she’s not interested in sleeping with lots of men (though she has her fair share). Rather, she makes it clear from episode one that her focus is on her career, and that her personal success will always take first place over any man. She doesn’t want kids. She doesn’t want a serious relationship. It is the reason that she and Ted fail as a couple. But as Robin starts to see success in her career, she realizes she wants something more. She moves in with Don and refuses the opportunity to advance her career because it would mean leaving him (ironically, he is then offered the same job, which he takes). She originally broke up with Ted after she thought he was proposing, but after seasons of growth, accepts a wedding proposal from Kevin. In a heart-breaking moment, Kevin breaks off the engagement when he learns that Robin can’t have children and won’t adopt. We briefly meet Robin’s two mythical kids and hear her crying as she is forced to deal with her own sterility. This new Robin is finally ready for a commitment. And so is Barney. So why do the two divorce? Because Robin’s job takes her all over the word, and it puts too much of a strain on their relationship. Forced to choose between the two, she chooses her career. Robin is right back at episode one. What’s worse, is that backsliding her personal development undermines Robin as a legitimate love interest for Ted.

Ted is the hopeless romantic who says, “I love you” to a girl on the first date. In some ways, his character arc is minimal, because he never ceases dreaming about love, about finding that one perfect woman he’s destined to be with. But Ted has to grow, and the one area we learn that is holding Ted back from any truly meaningful relationship is Robin. Even though he knows she is wrong for him, he can’t let her go. This is brought to a head with Victoria, a girl it seems Ted could marry, but he chooses Robin instead. Fast forward to the final season. Ted knows this to be true. Even after finding Robin’s long lost locket, he refuses to give it to her. We have an episode where he talks to a fictional Robin and lets her go like a balloon—literally, she floats up into the sky like the balloon he lost as a child. Ted has taken a job in Chicago, because he knows that he can’t every truly be happy as long as he keeps Robin as a best friend. Finally, Ted has the emotional maturity to move on, and now that the time is right, he meets the “mother”. But wait. Ted hasn’t really moved on, and now that the “mother” is dead, Ted has been counting the days until it wouldn’t seem too weird to go after Robin again. Yuck. It feels like a betrayal of Tracy and it also puts Ted right back where he was in episode one. It’s okay now though. He’s got his two spawn, so it doesn’t matter if Robin doesn’t want kids, or if she’ll keep putting her career first.

Final Thought

It is not enough for a twist ending to make sense, to be unexpected, yet inevitable. A twist ending that leaves you wishing for the predicable should be thrown out, shot, and burned. What do you think? What are your favorite (and least favorite) endings and why?


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