How Fairytale Syndrome Sunk How I Met Your Mother

Picture credit: ExtraTV
Picture credit: ExtraTV
I didn’t intend to write yet another review of the How I Met Your Mother finale. Not exactly, and not just because all the salient points have been scrutinized, celebrated (or mourned according to each person’s taste), and thoroughly discussed by now, but because I gave up on the show, emotionally speaking, over a season ago. (I didn’t even watch the finale until the reviews and mixed reactions piqued my curiosity.) I gave it up because HIMYM, like most sitcoms and dramedies that exist today, had a terminal case of Fairytale Syndrome – a blend of realism and wishful thinking that makes a fulfilling and satisfying ending virtually impossible.

But what is a fulfilling and satisfying ending? The one we want? Well, yes and no. If a writer has done her job well, an ending that is meaningful and satisfying for the character will also satisfy the audience, because we will want for the character the things he wants for himself. Any ending, even a tragic one, can be meaningful and satisfying if it’s well constructed. But that’s easier said than done. Just for starters, it has to be consistent with character psychology and history, as well as make good on the story premise and any foreshadowing made along the way. The conclusion MUST be true to everything that came before. Even then it won’t make everyone happy. Unfortunately, it’s far easier to make most everyone unhappy. This is why the internet exploded into rationalizations, justifications, and explanations when the HIMYM story came to its end. The series had long since over-committed itself by trying to deliver on two love stories at once, one that followed a fairy tale path and one that followed a more modern adult story arc. Blending elements like that is difficult enough without also having the added complication of never knowing for sure how many seasons a show will be on the air.  It couldn’t help but end in an awkward hybrid of a happy-tragic-fairy tale-real life knot in which none of the possible conclusions were well or fully developed.  Instead they were delayed for as long as possible and wrapped up in a rush.

So we watched The End. Some responded by applauding the tenacity of the writers for sticking to the desired and heavily foreshadowed conclusion, some by alternately defending and criticizing various pieces of the show. Out of all the reviews I’ve read, I can’t find a single piece of praise or criticism that’s false. Nor did I see a single instance of “wow, that was great.” Not yet, anyway. It was a show that promised everything and delivered on all it promised, but at a cost. There were moments of truly phenomenal writing intermixed with the standard annoyances that come with every television show (characters that devolve into caricatures of themselves, painfully contrived romantic obstacles that are obviously just delay tactics, etc.). Aside from the pacing issue at the end where so much is crammed into such a little space, there was nothing logically wrong with what happened. Yet, it wasn’t in the least satisfying. Reviewer’s reactions underscore the lack of meaningful closure. They discuss the show in terms of what’s realistic or foreshadowed or expected – all terminology of fellow writers doing a thorough postmortem of the architecture when what’s missing, what’s been missing for such a long time, is the heart of the story.

Picture credit: Glamour
Picture credit: Glamour
The problem with the ending isn’t that Ted is an unreliable narrator trying to gently, and indirectly, tell his children that he still carries a lifelong love for someone other than his late wife, or that he did (or didn’t) end up with a particular person. It isn’t even (entirely) that the writers tried to shoehorn the conclusions of two major disparate story arcs together (it’s just the symptom of an underlying problem). The issue is that the two interwoven stories undermine each other, in architecture and outcome.

Three expectations/patterns still dominate modern fairy tales (these are prevalent in the majority of romantic story arcs, regardless of form or genre): that The One definitely exists, that the hero/heroine will definitely find The One, and that there’s no conflict, internal or external, too large to resolve a.k.a. Love Conquers All. Even death. These stories are about the elimination of whatever is bad or wrong in life and the Happily Ever After conforms to the character’s expectations. The villain is punished, the first love is a true and abiding love, and the heroine gets her heart’s desire in the end.

That pattern is fundamentally in conflict with most of modern literature where characters are supposed to grow up, get over themselves (resolve internal conflicts and hang-ups), and fix the story problem (resolve external conflicts) before obtaining the Happily Ever After (in whatever form it might take). These stories aren’t about life meeting the character’s expectations, but about the character coming to understand and appreciate life for its intrinsic beauty and wonder, despite whatever personal tragedies occur. There’s no expectation or implication that hardships are gone for good at the conclusion of the tale, only that the character has grown capable of facing them (or fails to grow capable, in darker tales), with or without a partner, and is still capable of the love, hope, and strength – the things we prize most within the human experience.

Despite the inherent conflicts between the two story structures, hybrids do exist. Some are successful, others not so much. However, there’s one more aspect to consider. In classic literature comedies and tragedies also follow predictable patterns.  In comedies the hero gets married and in tragedies the hero dies (when the meat of a story is a romance, the death of the love interest is functionally the same thing).  Those paths go in two different directions. HIMYM is, in essence, two stories told simultaneously, nested together and concluded together. That is the crux of the problem. You can tell two stories, but you can’t tell one story with two hearts. No writer, no matter how skilled, can do it.  It’s tantamount to walking two divergent paths. That’s what Fairytale Syndrome is – trying to serve two separate and unique journeys with one story. In this instance the modern, all-too-real tragedy of lost love plays second fiddle to the comedic fairy tale.

To be fair, the majority of stories in our culture have some degree of this problem. We grow up with fairy tales and tend to, consciously and unconsciously, project those simpler patterns onto life itself.  Expectations and reality frequently come into conflict, which is in turn a fundamental part of human consciousness and psychology. The play of the two off each other has resulted in some truly beautiful literature throughout the years, but that doesn’t mean that both can be brought to successful fruition in one story.

Picture credit: Wikipedia
Picture credit: Wikipedia
In an attempt to settle the inherent conflict, Bays and Thomas made some very logical choices. They chose a dominant story, the story of Ted and Robin, made the title story secondary, using it largely as a framing device, and bringing it to a conclusion with a death. All clarified in a horribly perfunctory way via Penny’s assertion that the story isn’t really about her mother (in the unlikely event we missed the point). Using a death to resolve a story conflict is a common enough device in literature, if a bit deus ex machina, but the amalgamation leaves both stories wanting in that the conclusions are consistent, but very emotionally muddy. Two types of love stories with two different conclusions, juxtaposed so intimately can’t help but cause mixed emotions because we have to react to the death of one love and the revival of a first love in virtually the same space. Anyone pulling for a clear resolution of the story in one direction or another (instead of both) wound up sorely disappointed.  In trying to satisfy both archetypes, neither love story got the full time and attention it deserved – especially in the resolution. The fairy tale portion wound up artificial and predicable, while the modern romance portion wound up being a mere device, despite all the energy put into its development.

Any aspiring writers should learn this lesson well. When you try to do it all, you run the risk of spoiling the story altogether, or worse, getting a round of commentary that acknowledges how expected the ending was, as opposed to how touching and meaningful.

One thought on “How Fairytale Syndrome Sunk How I Met Your Mother

  1. Wow. Thanks for this! I’m sad so many people hated the last season. I’m not sure what it was, but I really liked it. I did; however, watch it all in one sitting (ahem … the past 3 days). I can guess that watching the 50ish hours right before the wedding play out over 40ish weeks was a little annoying. I really fell in love with the “mother” over the course of the season. They did a great job of developing her character to play well off the other friends and especially Ted. I am sure that they did that to make the end seem not so jarring … I’m not sure that worked, but I am ok with it.

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