Ever since I started doing these “ten best episodes” pieces, I’ve been both looking forward to and dreading the upcoming end of How I Met Your Mother. Looking forward to it because while I love the show, it’s been on for too long. Dreading it because even though it’s been on for too long, I really love it. And it’s difficult to say goodbye to something you really love.
Unlike most people, I’ve been with How I Met Your Mother from the beginning. Before it was a hit show, before Britney Spears guest-starred on it, and before it descended into a sometimes-unwatchable series of plot twists and red herrings, I heard about a new CBS sitcom and thought, “Hmm, this show sounds interesting” (something I haven’t thought about a CBS sitcom since) and decided to give it a try, even though I knew hardly anything about it. Thanks to an excellent pilot, which is worth mentioning even though it didn’t make my list, I was hooked from the beginning. I mean, with an ending like that, how could I not be? I had never had a sitcom pull the rug out from under me the way one did when Bob Saget concluded the first episode with, “And that’s how I met… your Aunt Robin.”
Unfortunately, the show’s premise also became its downfall. In the first few years, which are still by far the best seasons, it felt like it was just me watching. Well, at first it was just me, and then I recommended to my mom and my sister, and it felt like there were only three of us. But as the show went on and continued to get more popular, we began to fee like something had ruined our private party. It became clear that How I Met Your Mother wasn’t really about how someone met the love of their life; it was about someone hanging out with their friends while they waited to meet the love of their life. More specifically, it was just about a bunch of friends hanging out (you know, kind of like, what was it called? Friends, I think?).
This brings me to one of the central questions you have to ask yourself while watching HIMYM: do you care that they stretched the original premise so thin it’s pretty much been ready to snap for several seasons, or is the dynamic of the cast alone enough for you to keep watching? Obviously, the dynamic of the cast has been enough for me to keep watching, but it hasn’t always been enough to keep me happy.
But the cast really are great at playing off each other (as much as I love Greta Gerwig, I can’t help but worry whether she and the rest of the How I Met Your Dad cast will fit together so seamlessly). As Ted Mosby, Josh Radnor might not be the most compelling lead ever, but his story has been relatable and heartbreaking in a way very few sitcom protagonists’ have. Although most of America didn’t notice her until The Avengers, Cobie Smulders has made Robin Scherbatsky one of the most unique female heroines on television. As Marshall and Lily, Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan shined equally goofy and lovable both individually and together, proving that even the most perfect TV couples can convey real life struggles. And although Barney Stinson’s slimy antics are responsible for some of the show’s lowest points, Neil Patrick Harris still deserves an Emmy for so fully transforming into his character and changing people’s perception of what he could do.
These five actors made this show boundlessly likable at its best moments. Heck, they even made it mildly tolerable in its worst ones. I’m going to miss them, and I’m going to miss How I Met Your Mother’s outlook on the world. Bays and Thomas have said the show premiered at a time when everyone was saying the sitcom was dead. They refused to believe that, insisting only that the sitcom without heart was dead. (This didn’t turn out to be true either; unfortunately, in a post-Seinfeld world, we were left with Chuck Lorre to take up that mantle.) The result of that belief was a sitcom with more heart than anything else on its network. Big, romantic, ambitious, messy, silly, and sometimes beautiful, How I Met Your Mother has been peerless in its time.
The finale airs tonight. Here are my picks for the ten best episodes.
10) “How Your Mother Met Me” (Season 9, Episode 16)
Carter Bays and Craig Thomas always said that if they had to, they could wrap up their story in about five episodes. But they never mentioned that no matter what happened, they basically would wrap it up in about five episodes. While I understand not wanting to devote too much time to the titular Mother for fear it will throw off their already loved and established group dynamic, they may have underestimated their own choice when they cast Cristin Milioti. A stage veteran who also has credits dating back to The Sopranos and 30 Rock, Milioti has proven to be such a fan favorite that saying goodbye to her may end up being as hard as saying goodbye to the rest of the cast (especially if some of those alarming finale rumors turn out to be true). Just look at this graph tracking fans’ reactions to episodes over time, and you’ll see that “How Your Mother Met Me,” from earlier this season, is actually the current favorite. The episode is told from the Mother’s point of view, and in it, Milioti proves that she is not only effortlessly charming, but that she can also carry dramatic heft. We learn that the Mother lost a serious boyfriend at a young age, and that this has affected her life ever since. It’s difficult stuff, but Milioti handles it incredibly well, easily sliding back and forth between the episodes sadder moments and its funnier ones. In fact, Milioti is so good that when it’s all said and done she may be the most beloved unnamed TV character ever (although hopefully that detail will be cleared up in the finale).
9) “Arrivederci, Fiero” (Season 2, Episode 17)
One of the things that makes How I Met Your Mother work is that it recognizes the power of nostalgia. “Arrivederci, Fiero” is all about that power, and how it continues to drive us forward no matter what we do. As Marshall prepares to say goodbye to his beloved Fiero (and his beloved Proclaimers tape), this episode finds the whole gang looking back at the good (or bad) times they had in it. In the end, they realize that like any piece of nostalgia, they have to let the car go. But they also realize that even as you get older, grow up, and discover that life doesn’t turn out to be what you thought it would, the good part is you get to make a lot of new memories, all while still holding onto the old ones. And any episode that flashes back to bespectacled college Ted is guaranteed to have at least a few good laughs.
8 ) “The Wedding Bride” (Season 5, Episode 23)
There’s a lot of unevenness during the middle few seasons of How I Met Your Mother. Stuck between the initial exuberance from the first few years and the lead-up to the main narrative’s end in the last few, a lot of the individual episodes and the larger story arcs from these seasons aren’t particularly memorable. But every once in awhile, you’d get a surprise like “The Wedding Bride.” In the episode, Tony Grafanello (Jason Jones), the man Stella left Ted at the altar for, wrote a movie called (you guessed it) The Wedding Bride, and got all the details wrong. Now, Ted’s baggage over the whole thing is messing up a new relationship he’s having with a girl named Royce (played by the always capable Judy Greer).
If you decide to view the crazier elements of HIMYM through the prism of Ted telling his kids these stories from the future, therefore enabling him to embellish as he wishes, the absurdity of episodes like “The Wedding Bride” makes a lot more sense. The film within the show is the most over-the-top romantic comedy ever, complete with music borrowed from Love Actually. Chris Kattan, Jason Lewis, and Malin Akerman play the stand-ins for the caricatures based off the actual characters from the show, each one of them doing fake “bad acting” in a way only actors in a story within a story do. It’s almost too much to buy into, but the premise is just so clever, and the show follows through on it so well, that the episode is irresistibly enjoyable. At one point in it, Marshall calls Ted “un-cynical, sincere,” and a guy who “believed in things.” These are also the best qualities of HIMYM, and the reasons that the show works as a classic romantic comedy, even when it’s making fun of them.
7) “The Time Travelers” (Season 8, Episode 20)
For most of the episode, “The Time Travelers” is typical How I Met Your Mother shenanigans. Then in the last act, we find out everything we’ve seen has been part memory and part fantasy, as Ted sits in the bar by himself, thinking of better times. It’s also the episode where Ted delivers the heartbreaking “45 days” speech, prompting the widespread circulation of the death theory. But whether or not “The Time Travelers” has larger implications about the end of the show, it’s a haunting episode for anyone who’s ever felt hopelessly, completely alone.
6) “Game Night” (Season 1, Episode 15)
“Game Night” takes place during the period where Ted is dating Victoria (Ashley Williams), still most fans’ favorite of his many girlfriends, and for good reason. Although bringing her back in later episodes when she clearly couldn’t be the Mother seems almost cruel, Williams was so likeable as Victoria in the initial episodes she appeared in, you kind of hated Ted for messing things up with her. But what really makes this episode work is Barney. “Game Night” is Barney’s origin story, and also the first indication that there was more to him than the suit-wearing, scotch-swilling jerk he projected to the world. We learn that he used to be a granola-eating virgin in love with a girl named Shannon, before she dumped him for a corporate type, bringing on his transformation into the womanizing narcissist he became. Seeing Neil Patrick Harris play a chilled-out ‘90s hippie alone makes this episode worth watching, but seeing Barney get turned down by the love of his life makes it worth re-watching.
5) “The Pineapple Incident” (Season 1, Episode 10)
“The Pineapple Incident,” in which Ted does a bunch of shots, blacks out, wakes up with a girl (The Wonder Years’ wonderful Danica McKellar) and a pineapple (the only detail Marshall really cares about), then has to piece together what happened the night before, is just a lot of dumb fun. Supposedly the show won a drinking awareness award for this episode, which is odd considering how fun it makes drinking look, although they do acknowledge some of the repercussions that can come with a night of overdoing it (for instance, Ted calls Robin multiple times like a jackass, and is forced to listen to the moronic messages he left her the next morning). But any way you want to look at it, “The Pineapple Incident” is a great episode in the way it showcases both the highs and lows of being young and drunk.
4) “The Final Page: Part Two” (Season 8, Episode 12)
Believe it or not, there were clues from the very first season that Barney and Robin might end up together. Whether it was consciously on their minds or not, the two characters have always been similar enough for their coupling to make sense. Over time, How I Met Your Mother became a lot less about how Ted met the Mother and a lot more about how Barney married Robin. Yet there is a certain logic that follows there: Ted falls in love with Robin, Ted and Robin break up, Barney and Robin fall in love, Ted meets the Mother at their wedding. It’s almost as if the whole series has been one big trick on the audience (much to many fans’ chagrin). But Harris and Smulders have undeniable chemistry, and seeing Barney finally propose to Robin in this episode, in the most Barney way possible no less, was incredibly rewarding. Here, Barney and Robin’s love story began to come to a close, so Ted’s could finally come front and center, making “The Final Page: Part Two” a cathartic experience for the show’s characters and its fans.
3) “Symphony of Illumination” (Season 7, Episode 12)
As is the case with a lot of great series, many of the best episodes from How I Met Your Mother are ones that fundamentally change the style of the show. In the case of “Symphony of Illumination,” this stylistic change comes from shifting the show’s perspective from Ted to Robin, not unlike the way the show’s perspective shifted to that of Milioti’s character in “How Your Mother Met Me.” But with “Symphony of Illumination,” there’s a catch: Robin is talking to her kids, from the future, in the same way we hear Bob Saget deliver voiceover to set up the beginning of each episode. Except before the episode is over, we learn that Robin has discovered she can’t have kids, and is talking to a made-up son and daughter from the present. How I Met Your Mother has taken a lot of borderline tragic turns it its day, but few episodes are as wrenching as “Symphony of Illumination.” It might be the show’s hardest episode to watch, yet it’s also one of its loveliest.
2) “Slap Bet” (Season 2, Episode 9)
In case you haven’t guessed it from the other two on this list, How I Met Your Mother exceeds at flashback episodes, but no other entry in this category is quite as good as “Slap Bet.” Introducing Robin Sparkles and, of course, the aforementioned Slap Bet, this episode somehow flawlessly sets up the best two out of the show’s many running gags in just 23 minutes (it really is a shame the last Slap Bet episode turned out so poorly, because up until then the recurring joke provided many of HIMYM’s funniest moments). Plainly stated, this is one of the smartest, best executed, and most hilarious sitcom episodes of the last ten years.
1) “Come On” (Season 1, Episode 22)
Remember that perfect mix of sweet and sad I mentioned earlier? It’s all right here, encapsulated in one magical episode. How I Met Your Mother’s season one finale finds Ted getting together with Robin, Lily leaving Marshall, and Barney being Barney. It has little to do with where the story ultimately went or what the show turned into, but its juxtaposition of some finding love while others lose it is poignant in a way few sitcoms have the courage to be. And if it doesn’t prove anything else, it at least proves that this show had a lot of heart.