Recap and review of How I Met Your Mother – Season 8 Episode 20 – The Time Travelers:
Oh, How I Met Your Mother. I have no idea what to make of you when you give me an episode like “The Time Travelers”. I didn’t hate it. Hell, I’m not even saying it was the worst thing ever. But it basically amounted to an experiment that just didn’t work. At all. It felt like such an unnecessary deviation from what this show does well (the emotional arcs), while also trying to situate it within that context (a last-act dream speech to the unseen “Mother”). Josh Radnor is almost able to save it in those last five minutes of the episode, but it still feels like a cheat, sort of like the episode in which Robin (Cobie Smulders) is narrating her own story to her future kids, only to reveal she’s narrating to no one at all, upon discovering that she’s incapable of having kids. It’s a twist that’s meant to be punch to the gut, and in that instance, it was. However, with tonight’s Ted-centric arc, it felt more like a gimmick with no real purpose behind it. With Robin, we were at least learning something about her, through the “it was all in her head” conceit, that we didn’t know before. But we already know Ted is achingly lonely. We know Ted has a fear that he’ll be alone forever, that he’ll never meet “the one”. So this episode basically utilizes a gimmick that purports to bring Ted to a point, psychologically and emotionally, that he’s already reached. I laughed, sure, and that speech at the end really was some of Radnor’s best work. But this still, ultimately, felt like the most pointless episode of the season.
Future Ted (Bob Saget) reveals in the introduction that, at this point, The Mother was living in an apartment on the other side of town, while dating some finance guy named Louis. Meanwhile, he was stuck at MacLaren’s, where Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) desperately tries to convince him to come to Robots vs. Wrestlers: Legends, which Barney promises will be legendary. What follows is a surreal journey that plays out like a one-act play, as Future Barney materializes beside Ted and says that, in twenty years time, he’ll be glad that he went to Robots vs. Wrestlers. Enter Future Ted, who materializes beside Present Barney, agreeing that Robots vs. Wrestlers was amazing, and totally worth it. But no sooner does he say this than “Ted: 20 Hours from Now” enters the scene, looking hungover and rough. He warns Present Ted against going — which is enough of a complication as it is, without the Coat Check Girl (Jayma Mays) from season one entering the bar.
The Coat Check girl had hit it off with Ted back when he went to that club seven years ago with Barney, who ultimately ended up grinding on his own cousin (something that Future Ted will never let him forget). Matters only get more complicated from there. Present Ted tries building up the courage to approach her, only for Future Coat Check Girl to appear and warn Ted not to talk to Present Coat Check Girl, as the relationship ultimately ends up burning out in disastrous fashion. “Coat Check Girl from Several Months Later” materializes — she’s a girl in a battered gray Weselyan sweater, runny mascara and a tray of muffins (her attempt to win Ted back by reminding him of her nickname for him, Muffin). She’s utterly devastated and desperate to win Ted back, while Future Coat Check Girl insists that this isn’t what she wants. The two Coat Check Girls bicker while Ted lets the opportunity with Present Coat Check Girl pass. As Ted despairs of his romantic situation, Barney reveals that this is all in Ted’s head. Barney’s not really here, he’s off looking at caterers with Robin. Meanwhile, Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) aren’t really here either, they’re off putting baby Marvin to bed. Barney tells Ted that he’s been sitting alone at MacLaren’s for hours, staring at a ticket for Robots vs. Wrestlers because he’s got nowhere else to be.
Spurned by this revelation, Ted leaves MacLaren’s, at which point Future Ted talks about his past despair, and how there was only one thing he could do in such a moment: Cue the dramatic, romantic sprint to the apartment door of the woman he loves. He goes to The Mother’s apartment and confesses that, in 45 days, he’s going to meet her and they’re going to fall in love. They’re going to have two children, and they’re going to love each other for the rest of their days. Ted confesses that he loves her so much that he doesn’t want to wait 45 days, he wants each one of those extra days with her — hell, he’ll take the 45 seconds before her boyfriend shows up and punches him out. And that’s exactly what happens, as the boyfriend comes back home, spots Ted and knocks him out. Again, none of this actually happened. The only way that any of this is actually useful in the development of Ted is if, say, it’s revealed that The Mother ultimately passes away. In this sense, the story becomes poignant, as it’s Future Ted attempting to pull an “Atonement” and give himself extra time with The Mother, time that they perhaps didn’t get in life. But as it stands now, this entire storyline is a complete and utter mess that struggles for poignancy by forcing it, as opposed to simply allowing the emotional resonance to issue, organically, from the characters and their natural circumstances. How I Met Your Mother never needed to do this sort of gimmick before, and I don’t know why it feels it needs to do so now. This is without even getting into how it makes no sense within the context of a man telling his kids a story. Does he leave in all the parts that didn’t actually happen? It may be nitpicking, but one of the points of recommendation for this series to begin with was its exceptional attention to detail (I mean, really, tonight they brought back a one-shot, insignificant character from season one! So they still must have people there who know how to keep up logic and continuity). I love How I Met Your Mother. I always have and I always will. But this just felt like a fan script they decided to film, a story that tries to encapsulate the spirit of the show, but ultimately lacking the down-to-Earth foundating that makes the emotional arcs feel so real, and resonant.
On the plus side, the B-plot with Marshall and Robin was a winner. Marshall is proud of a drink he invented at MacLaren’s that he calls the Minnesota Tidal Wave. However, upon going to order the drink, he learns that Robin has been ordering it so often that bartender Carl (Joe Nieves) eventually just named the drink after her, putting it on the menu and everything. Marshall is incensed, and launches an episode-long vendetta against Robin that involves a series of pranks: Marshall puts Robin’s information on the bathroom wall (“For a good time, call…”), and Robin retaliates by writing a detailed apology to Marshall on the wall of the women’s restroom. An emotional Marshall reads the entire screed before learning, in the final sentence, that it was simply a way to get him to stay in the bathroom long enough for a woman to eventually enter, causing him to hide and remain trapped in the ladies’ stall. This culminates in a dance-off between Marshall and Robin that captures the zany spirit of the group (because, really, it’s not just Ted and Barney who are the silly, ridiculous ones, it’s often the entire group). There’s also a fun bit where Carl, offended that Marshall doesn’t know his last name, says he’ll name every drink in the bar after him if Marshall can correctly guess his last name (which should be obvious, given the name of the bar). However, I guess because this happened concurrently with Ted’s story, then this didn’t really happen either?
I can appreciate the ambition behind the idea for “The Time Travelers”, and I did enjoy Josh Radnor’s work here, as his dramatic talents are often underutilized. Ted, in recent years, has frequently become a punchline, an example of a guy who’s super self-important and corny. But when they give Ted those real moments, Josh Radnor always delivers. But it’s not enough to save this episode. I’m not saying I hope they never try anything this ambitious again. But I hope that, if they do, it’s better executed than it was here.
(That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the episode’s tag, in which Ted and Barney sing Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” with their Future selves. I’m a sucker for a capella and harmonizing)