Spoilers for How I Met Your Mother coming up:
I’ve taken a break from the HIMYM Watch here, until the show started producing some episodes I had much to say about, which is to say episodes that began treating the characters again like real people with ongoing challenges and goals. But when I talk about How I Met Your Mother advancing the characters’ stories, that doesn’t necessarily mean: “Telling us more about who the Mother is.” The beauty of HIMYM, or the beauty before it began falling off, anyway, was that each of its characters had enough real story to carry an episode, Mother or no Mother.
And sure enough, “Natural History” got back to the idea of character advancement, without even—so far as I know, I think—particularly giving us much on the Mother front.
First, we had Lily and Marshall, again confronting the long-simmering issue of Marshall’s having given up his ideals to make a lot of money working for GNB. I actually like that this conflict only surfaces occasionally, because it seems about right for their marriage: something that lurks unacknowledged under the surface until it gets dredged up.
As I’ve written before, I’m not sure the show has always been consistent or straightforward with how it’s handled this money-vs.-principle issue; when Marshall first took the job, it was presented as something he felt he needed to do—with prodding from Barney—to make a life for Lily and their family, given her teacher’s salary. (And I’ll say it again: you are not exactly going to starve as an environmental lawyer in New York City, but I’ll chalk that up to TV Reality.) Later, though, in “The Window,” it was treated as though both Marshall and Lily had reconciled themselves to the decision, as she convinced him that he was a good person no matter what he did for a living. Here, however, it’s flipped: Marshall tells us that he was happy at GNB from the beginning, and we’re given to believe that Lily has never wanted him to stay at the job, and has in fact been nudging him to leave it.
I’ll accept that, though. Maybe they’re both ambivalent. Maybe their position changes from day to day. Maybe Lily likes the idea of Marshall going nonprofit more than the reality, and maybe he doesn’t love GNB so much as he’s convinced himself he does in order to justify his decision. Who knows? These things are complicated. What mattered in “Natural History” is that we saw the two of them confronting the question as adults—which is to say, the show acknowledged that this is a permanent question for them, one that’s not going away. (And, it hinted, one we haven’t seen the last of, since Corporate Marshall’s days are numbered just as College Marshall’s were.)
I’m not sure I buy the idea that it doesn’t matter what Marshall does, or how evil GNB is, as long as he’s a good person at home. But I’m also not sure Lily and Marshall completely buy it. It’s just a sloppy, real issue involving a difficult choice, and I’m encouraged that HIMYM is willing to take it that way.
Meanwhile, the show also—in a nicely executed left turn I did not see coming—returned to Barney’s search for his real father, in a more effective way than the season’s earlier Wayne Brady episode. The fakeout, as Barney and Robin egged each other on to touch the museum’s forbidden objects, was that it seemed the subplot was just intended to tease us about Barnman and Robin getting back together (and I’m sorry, but they just seem more and more compatible); instead, it took us into Barney’s past just as he had seemed to give it up—not unlike HIMYM itself.
As for Ted’s storyline, unless there is some elegant con going on here, I simply don’t see Zoey at all being the Mother—famous last words?—though she may be another in the ever-longer chain of events that link to her. But it’s all right, because Ted’s storyline, in which he found sympathy for his nemesis, worked better than the rivalry-flirtation the show had been working for the past few episodes. I’ve always found any HIMYM story involving Ted’s architect career is too broad for me to take seriously, but a story in which Ted is just a decent guy trying to do the right thing is what this show is about.
HIMYM can take as long as it wants to find the Mother. I’m just glad an episode like “Natural History” shows it hasn’t stopped searching for its characters.