I can’t remember the last time I wrote about a singular episode of TV but since this week’s How I Met Your Mother appears to have split the internet right down the middle, I felt like throwing my two cents in.
(Obviously there are spoilers from this point on.)
On the surface, most of “Bad News” seemed to be HIMYM as usual – and the current, still-finding-its-way-back-comedically incarnation at that. Some particularly astute viewers picked up on the “countdown” going on in the background but otherwise, it was just another episode of the series. But I’m pretty sure that was part of the point.
If the episode had focused entirely on Marshall’s relationship with his father then the ending would’ve seemed cheap, manipulative and unearned. (“Hey, remember this guy and how fun he is? WELL NOW HE’S DEAD!! SAD, HUH?”) If Future Ted had chimed in at some point with some wise words about bad news or “life’s little countdowns,” the episode would’ve taken on a heavy-handed, “very special episode” tone. Instead, the audience received the sad news in the same way that Marshall did – the same way that we all have/will at some point: in an unexpected, blindsiding, devastating sucker punch.
I really do not believe it was the writers’ intentions to pull the emotional rug out from under the audience. The episode was titled “Bad News” and if you noticed the countdown, you knew something was about to happen. Once Marshall called his dad and the phone kept ringing… and the numbers became more prominent… I had a bad feeling.
Speaking of the subliminal “countdown”, the viewing audience seems to be of two minds on this: some spotted the hidden numbers right away and found them distracting to the narrative and then crass once it was revealed that we were counting down to the news of Marvin Eriksen’s death. I am not of this mindset. (And for the record, I didn’t notice the numbers until Marshall held up the specimen cup marked #1716 and I didn’t consider them distracting. My brother, on the other hand, claimed to not notice the numbers at all.)
I am of the mindset that the countdown was meant to be more than just your typical HIMYM easter egg. It is entirely possible that I am reading too much into things (worshipping at the throne of Joss Whedon will do that to you) but I see the countdown as a subtly profound statement that whether we realize it or not, these “countdowns” are unfortunately always going on in the background. We never know when we’re going to receive bad news or when we’re going to lose a loved one but these sad things will inevitably happen to us and the people we love. So we go about our lives and everyday is a normal day until it isn’t. Just like this episode was a normal episode until it wasn’t.
HIMYM has very rarely taken on dramatic arcs (Barney’s search for his father is the only plot that’s come close and even then it’s been given equal comedic treatment) so some viewers have expressed feelings of aggravation or betrayal that the show would take on such a suddenly dark or dramatic tone. I think that’s a frustrating reaction. Yes, the show is a “comedy” but we all know comedy and tragedy are a package deal. And HIMYM has a long and storied history of being smarter than your average sitcom, so I don’t think it’s out of the question for them to explore some more dramatic territory. Frankly, after 6 years on the air (and the past couple of seasons being met with lukewarm reception) I appreciate that Carter Bays and Craig Thomas are willing to take such a thematic risk and to challenge themselves and the audience in this way.
Of course, HIMYM has unfortunately been a bit… inconsistent for some time now, so my praise for this episode could become completely embarrassing in the coming weeks, depending on the way this plot is handled in future episodes. (The follow-up episode, “Last Words,” doesn’t air until January 17. A repeat is inexplicably breaking up the arc this coming Monday.) But for now, I strongly feel we should applaud Team How I Met Your Mother for having the creative courage to tell this potentially alienating story. It may not have worked for everybody but it sure worked for me.