Why the How I Met Your Mother finale was an absurdist masterpiece

If, like many of the show’s fans, you found yourself confused and angered by the meaningless finale of How I Met Your Mother, do not despair — a quick look at the work of Albert Camus will explain everything. By Matthew Weddig

Stars of How I Met Your Mother Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders at the 100th episode celebration. Photo: Frances Orante / Flickr

How I Met Your Mother is an American sitcom narrated by Ted, who is telling his teenage children the story alluded to in the show’s title. The action, therefore, follows Ted and his friends as they muddle through their 20s and 30s in New York. It recently ended its nine-year run with a twist in the last episode that, ultimately, he ends up with someone else instead.

The Myth of Sisyphus is a 1944 philosophical essay by French absurdist Albert Camus studying how the rational human mind can exist within an irrational world.

These two works may seem almost as unrelated as the first 206 episodes of HIMYM were to the last one, but through Camus, the show’s frustrating ending can actually be understood to be a timeless masterpiece, insofar as time and everything else in the world has no meaning at all.

The final episode was met with controversy when it was devoted to a twist that the story being told over the show’s nine seasons wasn’t a story about how Ted met his children’s mother, but rather — as his teenage daughter, strangely concerned with her father’s sex life, points out — about how he “totally has the hots for aunt Robin”.

The first episode began with Ted meeting a woman who seemed perfect for him, and then revealing to his children that that was how he met their aunt Robin, not their mother — thus beginning a lengthy story about how he became the person who would meet and fall in love with his true love, their mother. Until, of course, the finale nine years later, where none of this was determined to be important.

This ending caused outrage amongst fans, who complained that it undid literally years of character development in a single episode, that the entire last season devoted to Robin and Barney’s wedding now made no sense within the overall narrative, and that for a show that held in its heart of hearts that it’s not about the destination, but the journey, the destination sure did everything it could to make the journey meaningless. However, what these complaints fail to recognise is the absurd state of existence, where nothing has meaning anyway due to the incompatibility of the rationality of thought and the irrationality of the world.

As Albert Camus explains in The Myth of Sisyphus:

The world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.

What is Ted’s nine year longing for true love but a longing for clarity? More importantly, what is the last episode of HIMYM but a final confirmation of the irrationality of existence, where he ends up with Robin anyway, despite years dedicated to character growth culminating in Robin and Barney’s wedding, only to be reversed in the first 15 minutes after it finally happened? What is the confrontation of Ted meeting the mother, with whom he had unprecedented chemistry, and just killing her off so he can end up with Robin, if not absurd? The finale thus embodied the absurd “born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world”, which is a natural fit for a sitcom.

Complaints that having Barney’s character grow into a real person after having a daughter with one of his many random hookups — even though his character already grew over the past two years in the exact same way before suddenly regressing again — fail to take into consideration the irrationality of this plot. Arguing that it does not make sense misses the point, because the irrational inherently does not make sense within the limits of human understanding that humanity has the capacity to define. As Camus explains: “The absurd has meaning only in so far as it is not agreed to,” and asks, “What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me?” Ted ending up with Robin despite years of repetitive plots establishing them as an imperfect couple thus encapsulates the absurd finale, which simply cannot have meaning due to its transcendence beyond rational human thought.

Camus speaks on the absurdist work of art, describing it as a work that “will not yield to the temptation of adding to what is described a deeper meaning that it knows to be illegitimate”. For an ending in which Ted and the mother ended up together, Barney and Robin remained married, and Lily and Marshall did … something … this would have yielded to the rational narrative it spent nine years establishing (which is, of course, illegitimate, as it limits itself to human-defined meaning, which is meaningless). While How I Met Your Mother may have concluded with a disappointing ending barely pertaining to the story it had been telling for nine years, these are concepts that are ultimately meaningless and can never be understood — much like the finale itself.


Originally published at abstractmag.com on April 4, 2014.