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How I Met Your Mother: why we obsess over finales

SPOLIERS FOR EVERYTHING EVERRRR

It has been a week since the series finale of How I Met Your Mother aired, and as is common practice these days, everyone on the internet freaked out about it. The general public (or at least the more vocal social media portion of it) seems to feel robbed by the ending of the series, for some even ruining How I Met Your Mother as a whole. If you want an example of angry How I Met Your Mother fan-splosions, look no further than the comments section of any Facebook post from the show’s account.

How I Met Your Mother‘s finale fan rage is nothing radically new of course. We as a collective 2014 culture place a lot of stock into our pop culture; especially as far as series finales are concerned. The television milieu of the past several years has positively changed but I think it’s safe to say that we have always been pretty critical of series finales, for better or worse.

If Lost or The Sopranos ever comes up in casual conversation, you can bet your last jar of Dharma Initiative mayonnaise that somebody is going to steer the dialogue into “Worst Finale Ever” territory. When Breaking Bad’s finale aired in October, Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof received a legion of tweets that simultaneously denounced his show’s finale while praising Breaking Bad’s. What is it about that final episode of a series that stirs such emotion in us as a viewing collective? Is it some strange form of survivor’s guilt? Are we evaluating our TV finales accurately?

Generally what loyal fans want from a series finale is closure – IE will Walter White get his come-uppance for his methy ways, will Ross end up with Rachel and most importantly, will we get some goddamn answers to the goddamn questions we’ve been having this whole goddamn show? Asking for that kind of closure can be tricky though; in a way you’re holding the series hostage and making a list of demands that it must accomplish before it comes to a close. Also, expecting the final episode of a series to be the best one is probably a fool’s errand. We all learned story structure in grade school right? There’s no way that the conclusion is going to be as thrilling as the climax that precedes it. (IE Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias” > “Felina.”)

More important than specific plot points and story beats is the overall theme and message that the finale sends. Does it gel with what we have been presented up to this point? Breaking Bad was a show of consequences, and we might not have loved the finale as much if the soul of the show Jesse Pinkman didn’t escape while the soulless Walter White lived to fight another day. Probably what upset How I Met Your Mother fans the most was a combination of unwanted closure (Ted ending up with Robin after seemingly haven gotten over her) and thematic betrayal (from the viewers’ perspective, “the Mother” was killed off shortly after she met Ted on screen.)

To properly wrap it up, let us take a look at possible definitions for what a series finale actually is.

Definition A: The Finale is The Last Will and Testament of the Show

  • Barring any pipe dreams for a movie continuation, the series finale is usually the final word on a story. This is the series’ deathbed letter to all of its loved ones. To its loyal sons and daughters, the show bequeaths rewards in wealth, love and happiness. To the children that have been nasty and ungrateful, the show condemns them to burn in hell for their misdeeds. And they all lived happily ever after…except for the ones that didn’t. This type of finale is often a bedtime story that the show tells its viewers as we are tucked in at night – reassuring us that karma is real and we all get our due in the end. Breaking Bad’s finale was arguably as popular as it was because it followed this format explicitly.

 

Definition B: The Finale is a thesis statement. (The Show is ______ or Humanity is _____)

  • This one goes in line with my little discussion on theme. With this theory, the series finale takes one last stab at defining itself with a period at the end of its long sentence. This is the creative team’s final chance to say something unique about the human condition, after all. People rag on The Sopranos’ “cut to black” ending, but it absolutely fit into the thematic mold of a series that never wrapped up its narratives in neat little packages or particularly cared about “answering all of the questions.” (Whatever happened to the Russian in the woods?!?) Often the series finale/final season will try to reincorporate themes that were explicate at the show’s beginning (IE Buffy the Vampire Slayer = Girl Power.)

 

Definition C: The Finale is an acceptance speech that goes on way too long

  • How I Met Your Mother can count itself among many other shows that have outlived their usefulness long before ending (The Office, Dexter and Weeds included.) These are the types of finales that bring back old actors from the show’s past who have wisely moved on from the show. Before The Office finale, NBC aired an hour-long retrospective that reminded us why we loved the show in the first place. That certainly made the otherwise average finale much easier to swallow; while simultaneously reinforcing the idea that the cold embrace of cancellation couldn’t have come soon enough. Stunts like these are a strange juxtaposition that become clearer as a show takes that gratuitous victory lap. Yes, you lasted for nine years, good for you.

Definition D: The Finale is a drunk rock star that grabs its crotch, screams “F*#% you!” and exits stage right

  • A lot of people probably subscribe to this particular definition, typically when things in the narrative don’t go their way or they don’t get “answers.” While I will argue till the end of days that Lost and The Sopranos do not necessarily fall into this category, many viewers will absolutely disagree. One particular finale that does fit this mold of self-celebration and inexplicable behavior is the Dexter finale. If you so soon forget, this was the finale where our anti-hero callously tosses his dead sister’s body into the ocean like so many of his victims, sails head first into a hurricane to fake his death then ends up as a solemn lumber jack in exile. How I Met Your Mother’s finale is equally head-scratching in a way that makes you feel like the showrunners don’t really give a crap about what you think the show is about.

Definition E: The Finale is like life because you never know when you’re going to get cancelled

  • Life is random, TV is not. But for every The Office there is an Arrested Development. For every Dexter there is a Deadwood; sometimes TV doesn’t get to plan its ending either. While the majority of audiences enter into fits of hysteria if certain loose ends aren’t tied up, there is also a kind of wonderful reality that resonates when we don’t get to see characters ride off into the sunset to their pretty, happy lives. One of the great almost series finales was the season 3 finale of Community – a show perpetually on the verge of being cancelled. What made that work so well was that it tied up its current narrative while laying seeds for the future seasons, knowing full well that they might never be explored.

The How I Met Your Mother finale may be filed under each of these definitions depending on who you ask. Right now everyone is still up in arms about it, but maybe it will die down eventually? Then again, this is the internet we’re talking about, where mistakes live forever!

Finales may bring us to tears of joy or fill us with infinite rage; but perhaps now you’ll have a better handle on why you’re feeling all the feelings.

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