(Caution: This post contains spoilers for Symphony of Illumination, the seventh-season Christmas episode of How I Met Your Mother.)
How I Met Your Mother is unique among TV shows for its approach to narrative and storytelling. The entire show is conceptually a flashback, a father telling his children stories of his youth. That alone isn’t particularly unique – it’s basically The Wonder Years – but even within that framework, there are stories about stories. Events are described by multiple characters, often tainted by perspective or memory, there are flashbacks within flashbacks, and more than one narrator has been revealed to be entirely unreliable.
It doesn’t always work. How I Met Your Mother is frequently lazy, with characters explaining events they should have little-to-no knowledge of. The central concept of the story of how Ted met the mother of his children fades in and out of effectiveness, depending on whether you think it’s cleverly subverting viewer expectations or merely dicking around and drawing out the series far longer than it needs to be.
But when it works, it can be great show. The episode that won me over to the series was Season Two’s Ted Moseby, Architect, in which Ted spends the night partying and picking up women after a fight with Robin. Except he didn’t, really – it was just Barney, pretending to be Ted, proving that women would find an architect attractive and compelling. It worked because all the stories about “Ted” were told by people who didn’t know Ted or Barney, even if they were heard – and therefore envisioned – by people who did. (It was further sold by the fact that Marshall’s dialogue made sense if he was speaking to Ted or Barney, whether he was scolding Ted for cheating on Robin or Barney for impersonating Ted.)
How I Met Your Mother enjoys playing with audience expectations, and when it does it well, the audience feels in on the joke – they were tricked, but its a fun trick. It’s like reading a mystery: Even if you can’t solve the crime on your own, you want to be able to say you could, if only you’d bothered.
But with Symphony of Illumination, the show crossed a line. How I Met Your Mother lied to us.
It gets off to a great start by playing with the central concept of the show: Instead of Future Ted telling his kids a story, it’s Robin telling her kids the story of how she met their father. The male child bears a conspicuous resemblance to Barney, and there’s a Stormtrooper costume in the background. She proceeds to tell them the story of the episode: That she thought she was pregnant, then she found out she wasn’t pregnant, then she found out she couldn’t ever have kids at all. That leaves us to wonder who these kids are, and how they came to be… until Robin tells them they don’t exist.
There’s no trick. The entire episode was told in an imaginary conversation.
On the one hand, one of the major points of the episode is that Robin doesn’t want to tell her friends about her bad news, so the imaginary children provide a storytelling outlet. But the episode closes with the return of Future Ted’s narration, which suggests either a) she did tell someone, or b) it’s all bullshit.
An unreliable narrator can be a wonderful device – think Tyler Durden or Patrick Bateman, for example. But it needs to be executed carefully. The clues need to be there, even if they aren’t completely obvious on the first viewing. Symphony of Illumination offers no such clues as to the nature of Robin’s children. Is Robin delusional? Is there some evidence that, despite not wanting children to begin with, she’d be overcome with hysteria upon finding out she couldn’t have them? Does she have an established track record of talking to imaginary people?
I admit that I know little to nothing about infertility, so I’ll throw out a little room for doubt: Is it standard for women to talk to imaginary children upon finding out they can’t have a baby? That this is all totally plausible and I’m only missing out because I lack a uterus?
I suspect not. The children are there for a very specific purpose: To get the audience’s hopes up. When the doctor tells Robin she can’t have kids, the children are an emergency flotation device for the audience: The news isn’t that bad, since Robin clearly does have kids after all. The question then becomes how does she get from infertile to motherhood. Was the doctor wrong? Does she find some experimental treatment?
Nope, she doesn’t. Suckers.
And now that the writers have established that it’s okay to simply make shit up for the sake of misdirection, what developments will we see next? Maybe Ted’s kids aren’t real, either. Maybe Lily isn’t really pregnant. Maybe Barney is really a Yorkshire Terrier. Maybe everyone died, and Ted’s kids are actually God.
What makes it even worse is that the kids didn’t need to be imaginary to further the story. Robin says she’s telling the kids the story of how she met their father, not how her egg was fertilized by his sperm. Instead of concluding by revealing the kids don’t exist, she could say they’re adopted, or even just her step-children; the latter option doesn’t even conflict with her desire to not have kids, and neither scenario requires explicitly stating who the father is.
It’s unfortunate because, aside from the part where the show flat-out lied, Symphony of Illumination was a pretty good episode: It had a strong performance by Cobie Smulders, who often doesn’t have much to do on the show, and her journey from maybe-pregnant to not-pregnant to can’t-be-pregnant felt right. There was more than enough drama and emotion without foisting a narrative fraud upon the audience.