On Monday night, the series finale for “How I Met Your Mother” robbed its viewers of our perfect happy ending. For nine seasons, most of us tuned into a show about how an overly romantic and destiny-driven young man named Ted tossed and turned through life to finally marry the woman of his dreams. Finally, this past week, for a brief, three-minute segment on the show, it seemed that this was finally happening. Ted meets the mother. We find out her name is Tracy. They realize their paths were always meant to cross. All is well in the universe.
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But then, the series finale falls fast into a downward spiral. It turns out that the wedding, which has been the backdrop to the entire final season ends up in a quick divorce. Within the final five minutes of the episode, we find out that the mother died six years earlier of an unknown illness. And it turns out that the background story about how the protagonist met the mother is not actually a story about the mother, but is a widower’s justification to his children about why he will now date the very divorcee of the wedding we’ve been watching all season. The show, it turns out, has never been about the mother’s story. It is about how a widow, after hardship, comes to find happiness in his life.
Reading through the myriad of comments and dozens of articles and postings about the finale, I think one could divide the sentiment about the series’ shocking conclusion into two non-mutually exclusive camps: those who absolutely hated the finale for robbing them of the perfect ending, and those who appreciated its untraditional twist.
After nine seasons, like other viewers, I felt that the protagonist who had experienced so much hardship in his life deserved better. Yet a part of me also appreciated that what I got to see for really the first time on a television program was a glimpse of what actual life happiness is like. Some TV programs geared toward younger people today demonstrate happiness as the perfect happy ending: the screaming bride gets her perfect wedding cake or the perfect wedding dress, or privileged elites find a way to solve their first world problems. But this was a different kind of finale that reminded us that while life is imperfect, all of us must still find a way to find happiness.
Jewish tradition, in particular, echoes this sentiment. The Book of Ecclesiastes, (8:14), for example, reminds us that life rarely turns out the way we would expect:
יֵשׁ צַדִּיקִים אֲשֶׁר מַגִּיעַ אֲלֵהֶם כְּמַעֲשֵׂה הָרְשָׁעִים, וְיֵשׁ רְשָׁעִים שֶׁמַּגִּיעַ אֲלֵהֶם כְּמַעֲשֵׂה הַצַּדִּיקִים:
There are righteous people he writes, who often get what the wicked deserve, and vice versa.
Nonetheless, we have a responsibility to find happiness, even if our happiness is not that perfect ending. “A man,” Kohelet writes (6:3-5) may have 100 children and live many years; but if he cannot enjoy his prosperity, then a child who has not been born alive is better off than he is. For even “though that child never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more peace of mind than does that man, even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his life.”
This is the kind of joy, it is clear by the finale, that the widowed protagonist, Ted, has found for himself.
There is an old Yiddish proverb that says, "Even a bear can learn to dance." Throughout the series and finale of How I Met Your Mother, Ted learns to dance, even though it may be a different dance to that which he started. For this I say thank you to the writers of How I Met Your Mother: for shocking us and for not taking the easy way out and giving us a perfect ending. Thank you for reminding us that real happiness rarely happens when we say, "yes" to a wedding dress or a perfect wedding cake. In the real world, sometimes our happiness comes when we are bears who do not feel like dancing.
The ending may not have been perfect, but it was nonetheless a happy one.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on twitter @danieldorsch.