It was just over a year ago when How I Met Your Mother pulled what I consider its most offensive move to date: the Barney-Patrice gambit that ultimately hooked Robin into realizing her feelings for the duplicitous suitor. It was in this experiment, one that advertised the impossibility of a fit central character drumming up feelings for a full bodied woman, that the CBS sitcom showed off a peak in immaturity — a long-gestating immaturity that had taken form in the hearts of Barney, Robin, and, most of all, our hero Ted.
Ted’s vantage point has always celebrated a very specific idea of romantic love. The kind that you’d find in a decade-long Meg Ryan movie. In universe, Ted has endured some treacherous punishment for his pursuit of this singular manifestation of love — not even in pursuit of a return of that love, but of the love itself. Ted needs to love the way he understands love to take form. The restrictive, illogical, selfish, immature way that he (and, let’s be honest, we) defines this all-consuming phenomenon. And although it’s more enchanting to view love this way, it isn’t fair.
It isn’t fair to the people we love — to Robin, in Ted’s case — or to the people doing the loving. To dismiss your feelings is deemed cynical by films and television shows like How I Met Your Mother. To get over someone after years of desperate, agonizing passion would render these years illegitimate. There is only one kind of love, the show has affirmed, and it doesn’t change.
A third party to whom this mentality isn’t fair: everyone else. Everyone who hasn’t been loved like this, or who hasn’t felt this specific kind of love. Anyone who didn’t meet his or her soul mate on the first day of college (Marshall and Lily), who wasn’t saved from a lifetime of destructive behavior by the only person “as messed up” as him (Barney), or who didn’t spend nine years stealing blue French horns, setting up elaborate Christmas decorations, retrieving lockets, and destroying himself over the one (Ted). To everyone who hasn’t experienced this kind of love and who has been made to feel like he or she is not experiencing real life because of it, this whole maxim isn’t fair. And it’s more or less a lie, too.
But for 199 straight episodes, How I Met Your Mother seemed bent on upholding the idea of love that it inherited from everything in between Casablanca and When Harry Met Sally, laying waste to the toxicity it instills in the lover and the lovee, a party reduced to an idealized end-goal who is robbed of her own industries, passions, and feelings of organic love as they are devalued as little more than roadblocks in this sprawling romantic quest (Robin). In universe, Ted was punished for his journeys, but we all knew that How I Met Your Mother was rewarding him for his “uniquely pure heart” by repeatedly crowning him a tragic hero. And to all those who’ve endured Ted’s path before, the tragic hero title is a nice compensation prize, ain’t it? Just enough to keep you going, to keep you adhered to the journey.
And then came the big 2-0-0, last week’s episode, when we were treated to the backstory of the still nameless Mother. The episode, titled “How Your Mother Met Me,” gave us the first big surprise of the season: Ted would not be her first love. Years before taking up with Mr. Mosby, The Mother was deeply and devotedly involved with another, Max, whose untimely death was the only cause for their relationship’s end. No, he wasn’t proven to be “not quite the one” (although a subsequent pre-Ted beau would). This Max, for all we know, would have made The Mother the happiest woman on Earth. But we were surprised to hear our old, traditionally immature friend How I Met Your Mother assure us that this doesn’t mean Ted can’t do the same. For the first time in its nine year span, the show admitted that there might not only be one kind of love.
A week later and our surprise is doubled. We find Ted on Central Park’s Bow Bridge (the most romantic place in New York City, you know), begging his nutty ex Jeanette (Abby Elliott) to return the locket that he has been dying — really, killing himself! Contacting old girlfriends like Stella and Victoria and flying across country just to figure out where he stored the thing — to retrieve as Robin’s wedding gift. In a rare moment of earnestness, the kooky Jeanette challenges Ted’s judgment, insisting that he needs to get over Robin and that he’s better off without the locket. But Ted disagrees. He can’t stomach the idea of getting over Robin, as it would mean that his years of devotion to her meant nothing. And, as said love is what he used to define himself altogether, it would mean that he meant nothing. And for the first time, after so many romantic diatribes in which Ted has spelled out his aching, ceaseless, unwavering obsession with his own love, we see How I Met Your Mother take a different stance.
“I’m in love with her. If you’re looking for the word that means caring about someone beyond all rationality and wanting them to have everything they want no matter how much it destroys you, it’s love,” Ted cries. “And when you love someone, you don’t stop. Ever. Even when people roll their eyes or call you crazy. Even then. Especially then. You just — you don’t give up. Because if I could give up, if I could just take the who world’s advice and move on and find someone else, THAT WOULDN’T BE LOVE. That would be some other disposable thing that is not worth fighting for.” And then, Ted manages one desperate, “That is not what this is,” almost too worn out to convince Abby or himself.
For the first time, the show seems to understand that this isn’t right. That this isn’t how someone should feel about love. That it shouldn’t be something that destroys you, or that you adhere to obsessively in an effort to become what you wish you were. And that if this is the sort of “love” you are experiencing, then you might be better off tossing your locket into The Ramble and Lake… which, of course, is what Jeanette does next. An act of malice on her part, but one that sets him free.
And so, we flash forward to the wedding weekend, with Ted sitting beside Robin on the beach as the sun comes up, waiting for Barney to stumble back from his drunken night of tutoring two young schmoes in the art of wooing women (the passing of the torch, you could call it), finally deciding that everything in his cold, concrete definition of love needed to change. And so, he decides to let her go. Forever. And more importantly, to let go of his belief that his love for Robin is not just the only thing worth fighting for, but worth living for. Because love doesn’t have to be defined by Casablanca or When Harry Met Sally or Marshall and Lily. Some people find it in Paris, some people in road trips, some people in college hallways, some people in New York City pubs, some people on dating websites, some people through set-ups, and the list goes on. Some people find it once, some people find it over and over. It’s different for every one who experiences it — any two cases are incomparable. Every case has its own, unique, honest story. And after trying to capitalize on everything he thought it should be for so many years, the fellow telling his story via Bob Saget voiceover to the two kids on his living room couch is finally ready to begin it.