Spoilers for last night’s How I Met Your Mother coming up:
When the last episode of How I Met Your Mother ended with Marshall getting the news of his father’s sudden death, I gave the show credit for, unlike many sitcoms, being willing to engage real emotions and not-so-funny passages in life. It’s one thing, though, to end a funny episode on a sharp turn into drama, and another to follow up on that tragedy for a full episode. “Last Words” was a worthy effort that didn’t flinch from the repercussions of the story development, but while it also built to a strong ending, it went through some rough patches getting there.
It’s not wrong or unrealistic to combine humor with a funeral. Grieving often involves not just tears but laughter—funny memories, cathartic moments and the jokes you share with other mourners to break the tension. So I’d divide the comedy in “Last Words” into the natural, believable comedy, which worked, and the forced, nervous-seeming comedy, which didn’t.
In the first category I’d put, as crass as some might have seen it, Barney and Ted’s attempt to distract Marshall with guy-hit-in-the-nuts videos. It was the kind of thing a guy’s friends, and particularly this group of friends, would well-meaningly do to try to get their buddy through a rough time. Likewise the running gag about Robin’s magic purse of vice, and even Lily’s deciding to be Marshall’s mother’s “bitch”; they captured the real phenomenon of people trying to find a role at a funeral, and thus avoid feeling helpless in the face of death.
But many of the other gags felt shoehorned-in, as if the writers felt antsy that the episode might seem too much of a downer and were determined to get the joke ratio up to normal. Barney’s Nathan Hale cutaway was weak compared with past Barney fantasies, and the running joke about Marshall’s childhood bully being the officiating reverend (Danny Strong), and extremely short, didn’t work. It wasn’t that strong a joke to begin with, but more important, it took the episode out of the emotional realism and bittersweet comedy it seemed to be aiming for.
I forgot most of that, though, when we got to Jason Segel’s excellent scene of heartbreak and disappointment over his father’s apparent pocket-dial of a last voicemail. Segel played the scene without overplaying it; rather than rage against God, he complained to God, which seemed perfect for Marshall, a guy who is in touch with his emotions but not given to going to dark places. He lost it just enough for us to be affected by the sight of even-keeled Marshall losing it, and—well, it may have been snowy in Minnesota, but it was definitely misty in the Tuned In living room.
Not a perfect outing, but one that deserves credit for not backing down from a real story—and for largely doing well by it. Let’s hope HIMYM follows up as well (or better) with Barney’s finding his father.