How I Met Your Mother, Nietzsche, and Metaphysical Finales
By Matthew William Brake
I have a really bad habit of coming late to the party with popular TV shows. I discovered how awesome How I Met Your Mother was in late Fall 2015. Years before, I had stumbled upon reruns of it on Lifetime (wait, I don’t watch Lifetime. I was just…channel surfing…) where I saw what has become a favorite episode of mine, “Slap Bet.” I remember stopping to watch the show because I happened to glimpse Alyson Hannigan (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) playing Lily. I found the episode enjoyable, but not being a fan of many sitcoms, I thought, “They’ll pull the plug on this thing after a season or two. Just another sitcom fighting for its place in a crowded market. They’re trying too hard to be funny.”
I’m happy to say that I was wrong, and HIMYM went on for a total of 9 seasons, the ending of which was quite controversial. I wasn’t watching it at the time, but I heard that a lot of fans weren’t happy.
In the final season [SPOILER ALERT!!], Ted Mosby (and the audience) finally meets the long-talked about “mother,” Tracy McConnell. The long-awaited happily-ever-after descends into sorrow, however, as we find out that the story Ted has been telling his kids in the year 2030 about the events of the show (i.e., the events about “how he met their mother”) has all taken place after Tracy’s death years prior!
Here’s where the controversy really heats up.
Ted’s kids confront their dad about how their mother hardly features in his story, and they point out how their “Aunt Robin” plays a suspiciously larger role. His kids then conclude that he has “the hots” for Robin and that the entire story was a set-up on his part to get their permission to date her (which they give). The show ends with Ted standing outside of Robin’s window with the blue French horn, a call back to their first date in the pilot episode.
It turns out that this ending was filmed during the show’s first year and that the actors playing Ted’s kids were legally obligated to keep it a secret, so the show’s ending was determined from the very beginning.
Now, there are things that could be said in favor of How I Met Your Mother’s ending, but for the sake of argument, let’s take the side of those who were disappointed with it.
Many fans felt cheated to finally meet “the mother” only to have her taken from them immediately and replaced by Robin. Cristin Milioti does an excellent job of portraying Tracy as a charming and loveable counterpart of Ted, and it probably would’ve been sufficient to have the show end with Ted meeting her at the train station. As it stands, her death lacks the emotional impact it might have had if we had gotten to know her and built a rapport with her over multiple seasons.
It’s possible that Carter Bays and Craig Thomas may have painted themselves into a corner with their choice to stick with the ending they shot in season one. Shows grow over time, and characters develop in ways you sometimes don’t expect when you set out on any fictional venture. By sticking with a pre-decided ending, one limits the creative possibilities of what the characters in a story may become.
One might relate this to Friedrich Nietzsche’s comments about metaphysics in The Gay Science. Nietzsche writes, “[E]very metaphysics and physics that knows some finale, some final state of some sort, every predominantly aesthetic or religious craving for some Apart, Beyond, Outside, Above, permits the question whether it was not sickness that inspired the philosopher” (34). Nietzsche thus has a dim view of metaphysical beliefs that posit a predetermined end or “finale,” accusing those who come up with such beliefs to be suffering from ill health. I think of times I’ve grossed a friend out, and they’ve told me, “You’re sick!”
But what is it that Nietzsche finds so unsettling about metaphysical “finales”?
For Nietzsche, metaphysical beliefs are nothing but congealed metaphors that have received an undue power to determine the nature of reality (“On Truth and Lie,” 58). The name and value that are assigned to things is “almost always…arbitrary, thrown over things like a dress and altogether foreign to their nature and even to their skin” (The Gay Science, 122). This issue of the skin or the surface of things is important for Nietzsche’s thought, for he holds that one cannot reach “beyond the [surface] image or behind it” (172). Appearance is not simply “a dead mask that one could place on an unknown x or remove from it!” There is no essence behind the appearances one sees (116). All one has are perceptions “only on the crust of the earth” which are made into “something essential, universal, and eternal” by mistake (167).
This is important for Nietzsche’s understanding of what it means to affirm life and be a “yes-sayer.”
Nietzsche writes, “I abhor all those moralities which say: “Do not do this! Renounce! Overcome yourself!” (244). Nietzsche disdains ‘negative’ moralities that forbid him to perform particular actions because they ultimately indicate that there is only one universal, metaphysical standard (265). Such a standard causes one to worry about maintaining a “firm reputation,” but Nietzsche is not worried about firmness or consistency. He believes one should be able to “to declare themselves at any time dauntlessly against their previous opinions and to mistrust everything that wishes to become firm in us” (238). In other words, why not change your plans? Why not change your mind? Why not change your values? No need to stick to the original plan. There’s no unseen metaphysical standard requiring you to.
Which brings us back to the How I Met Your Mother finale.
When planning a television show, I imagine that the creators may have some idea of where they want their characters to go and how they want them to develop, but the creative process can take on a life of its own.
One has to wonder about the wisdom of pre-deciding nine years in advance about a show’s ending when the week-to-week developments of various plot lines and character arcs may take a show in an unanticipated direction. We need to be mindful of those developments which “we perhaps do not know or see as yet” (246).
As on television, so in real life.
Have we cut ourselves off from the possibilities of who we could have become because we have decided ahead of time who we have to be? Did we do so because we felt like we were following some kind of pre-ordained plan?
Nietzsche challenges us to lay aside all prearranged plans and to embrace the ever-changing “infinite interpretations” of the world, which may not be the same today as they were yesterday and may not be the same tomorrow.
To decide on only one ahead of time, for Nietzsche, cuts short your creativity and makes you sick in the head.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books. 1974.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.” The Continental Aesthetics Reader. Edited by Clive Cazeaux. New York: Routledge. 2000.
Matthew William Brake is finishing up a dual masters in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. He is a metaphysician who really likes Nietzsche’s anti-metaphysics.