the season-five apocalypse

okay, here it is: The one mistake How I Met Your Mother made that was so damn disappointing I almost stopped watching.

Dear lord it’s bad.

It makes me angry.

I will try and be coherent.

Season four is this amazing thing that I just gobbled up whole. We get to watch Barney – the most commitment-phobic man in the universe – fall in love. The scene in episode one where he’s calling Robin to try and ask her on a date is just heartbreaking. You can see every part of it on his face, and hear it in his voice – how impossible those simple words are for him to say, because they undo every single defence he has. And that’s a man with a lot of defences.

That scene does what great writing should do – watching him, I know that feeling. I know that impossible moment when you’re trying to break your world apart without feeling like you’ll die in the process.

Throughout the season we watch Barney struggle against his own nature. We see him clean Robin and Ted’s flat, because they’ve decided to have sex instead of arguing about things like who didn’t take out the garbage. We see him declare himself to Robin and be misunderstood and not find it in himself to try again. We see him vulnerable.

In my post about Barney I touched on the fact that Barney Stinson is always playing Barney Stinson. In the moments when he’s being vulnerable, we see the real Barney Stinson – and that is narrative gold. It was eagerness for those breadcrumb moments that pulled me through the season.

And then you start to wonder: What would the real Barney look like incandescent with happiness? Okay, maybe not everyone would wonder that, but I certainly do. First there’s vulnerable, and then there’s risking feeling something genuine on the other side of vulnerable.

This is a fantastic character arc, but it’s also an incredibly courageous route for the writers to take. Barney, as I’ve said before, makes the show. And his character is a very definite thing: a philandering, apparently heartless, purposeful idiot. It’s a bold move to let a character like that develop.

And that’s where season five comes in. Where the writers, apparently, choked on the idea of Barney Stinson growing up.

Where to begin?

*** Okay, I have to break in to my own post here, because I’ve just watched the most recent episode and it’s sort of eclipsed my season-five pain. They got Robin and Barney so, so right, and they broke my heart. In the good way this time. So my rage is a little less…focussed now. End interruption. ***

Sitcoms take place in these alternate universes that are slightly grotesque, and more than slightly dysfunctional. We go along with it, without breaking our suspension of disbelief, because real life never intrudes. Something I love about HIMYM is that they’re not afraid of using real life as a measuring stick against which to say, “These people are pretty messed up.”

The best example of this is in the current season when an ex-girlfriend of Ted’s tells him straight up why he hasn’t found the woman he’s going to marry yet: he still hangs out every night at the bar with his ex, and his best friend who is also her ex. That doesn’t work. Ted still doesn’t see it, but the whole presumed world of the show is shifted.

So what they completely fail to do when Robin and Barney finally get together, is to judge it in light of the real world and real feeling. Instead, it becomes a ridiculous, farcical pantomime of itself and we are never invited into the world of Robin and Barney. We just get to see the train-wreck antics of them sending themselves up at exactly the wrong moment.

Seriously, the writers had set up the perfect scenario: two messed-up, commitment-phobic people who might just be in love with each other. It makes sense that it doesn’t work out between them – but watching it not work out between them could have been amazing television, instead of a stupid waste of four seasons’ work.

All I wanted to see was how the most banal daily situations were navigated, now that the world had changed. I wanted to see them do the dishes together. Make each other laugh. Attempt and ultimately fail the moments that were new to them both.

Instead, we get this:

The most obviously bad episode, first: “Rough Patch”. Barney’s put on relationship weight and Robin’s let herself go. They finally see themselves clearly, realise that they’re killing each other, and part amicably. Seriously. After a whole season of coming to realise what they feel for each other, the best reason we get for their break-up is a fat-suit and some bad make-up.

But actually, the episode that makes me angriest is “The Sexless Innkeeper”. It plays out a joke about couples needing other couples to survive; basically, we’re watching the same “single in New York” bit play out, but this time with couples. Everywhere you look, there are double-couples; if you go to brunch as a single-couple you get looked at weird; there are good and bad double-dates, etc. It’s kinda cute, whatever.

And here’s what makes me so mad: We haven’t been let inside Barney and Robin as a couple yet – we don’t even know the smallest details about how they are together – and instead we get them as a presupposed couple thrown into a relationship with Marshall and Lily. Who cares about the double-couple? It’s never going to play beyond this one episode. Yet here we have a couple we’ve shipped for a whole year, and we don’t get anything?

There’s a scene where they’re lying in bed together eating ice-cream, lamenting their relationship with Marshall and Lily – a play on the single woman crying and eating ice-cream – and all I could think was, “Are they even comfortable lying in bed together? Have they eaten ice-cream together before? Isn’t it too early for them to let themselves go in front of each other?”

And that might seem like I’m taking a sitcom too seriously, but even with – especially with? – comedy (especially character-based comedy, like HIMYM), you cannot sacrifice character for a one-liner. You just can’t. You enrage your viewers, which leads to long rambly blog posts.

One final thought.

The obviously fail here was that the writers weren’t committed to Barney’s growth yet, so they re-set him as the broad-strokes character we all knew and loved. Only, this show is about growing up, and Barney had grown out of himself. His antics took on this new, unsavoury aspect.

Since season five they have really committed to it, and we’ve seen Barney go through amazing development.

But I suspect that back when they were writing season five they were scared of bringing the real-world to bear, because there was no way for Barney to get out of a relationship with Robin without looking kind of awful. The play he makes for another girl the episode after they’ve broken up is truly cruel: he manipulates an emotional moment with Robin in order to get the other girl to go out with him. But because it’s all played as farce, you almost miss the impact of that.

If they’d been brave enough to make his flaws clear, they would have given him a much stronger arc to bring him back to Robin.

Comments 7 Responses

  1. bleu_bleuet

    So,…. I have been lurking around for some time now, and I thought, I might just as well tell you how much help what you have written here has been to me. You got me thinking, and made me re-focus and inspired me (so much so, that I actually started working on the story again which I have been wanting to write for five years).
    I was fourteen when I first had the idea for the story (or the characters, rather), all of which have changed more than I myself within these five years. In fact only the leading protagonist and his infernal great grandfather – who is quite dead and therefore will never show up in the book – are still recognizable.
    Quite frankly, I think, I would still be agitating about nearly 400 years of background story – which will only be evident by setting the site – had I not stumbled across your marvellous blog and started thinking about why I need this specific political, social and cultural background, where I want to go, start from, and why I want to do all of this. This was only possible, because I was able to think about the characters more clearly and this, in turn, helped me finding what about the situation will enable and what will hinder their actions and ambitions and their personal growth.
    In other words, all my recent progress and my new found motivation are thanks to you!

    If you don’t mind, I will ramble on. You don’t need to reply, of course. But if you did, I would appreciate it, since I have only my mother to talk to about style, plot devices, characters and so on, and while she is a reader, she is by no means a writer.
    I found ‘why Barney Stinson is so awesome’ and ‘in defence of Keith’ especially interesting (although nearly every of your posts about any kind of film or literature are helpful), because they came incredibly handy, just when I started writing down the actual plot for the first time – where I had a major problem justifying, WHY the best frind of the leading protagonist (someone who does not trust, and is not allowed to trust), is his best friend. Especially, since said best friend never takes his side, never tries to moderate the punishment the protagonist receives or to influence his decisions or his behavior. WHY is there constancy/staunchness (because it is not loyalty), despite a certain distance between them, that is never overcome, that, in fact, only continues to grow over the years?
    The post ‘in defence of Keith’ helped me out: “What do they allow in the protagonist that no-one else in their life allows in them?”
    A surprisingly easy question: Rest. The protagonist can rest, he can get honest, un-prejudiced answers from someone who does not want to influence him or the political landscape. He can be silent or shout his lungs out, but the person will always be there and never do anything to come near him or to shape his personality, kind of like a well-loved piece of furniture, a mirror maybe, useful but low maintanance. Kind of like a therapy, as well.
    And what gets the friend out of this – after all, it is not very nice to be with this kind of person? The same. Only in a different way. There is absolutely nothing the protagonist expects of him – not even an own opinion – but being near him helps him to think of other things than his duties. And although they never talk about what is expected of either of them and never talk about what they feel or think about personal things, things that might influence them, about fears or hopes, they learn to read and know the other one like no one else. In their seeming ignorance of each other and each other’s problems, lies constancy and unspoken understanding.
    Thanks for that realisation, Miss Cowan! Who knows when I would have figured that out, if not for your post.
    In fact, I think this technique will be part of how I will approach character design and relationship building from now on. After all, every person we meet enables us to express ourselves a tiny bit different. And I think that is applicable not only to the most important person(s) – and individuals – but also to whole groups of people. Servants, for example, or soldiers or even lords, because the characters will approach each of them differently and have different expectations of them. This, in a sense, also allows for a certain kind of behaviour and action, allows for the characters to be a very particular, very defined self when interacting with one another, by bringing out some traits and deaden some others.
    This is ancient wisdom, but I have never looked at it from exactly this perspective, never so clearly, never so focussed. ;D

    Basically, I love you.


    I hope you even came this far, so the declaration will not be lost unheared in the world wide web.
    If there are grammar, vocabulay, spelling or punctuation mistakes, I am very sorry. Englisch is not my first language (French is not either).
    Oh, yes, I know most of my sentences are horribly long. Sorry.

    Best wishes,

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I loved reading this comment, Bleu!! Sometimes I feel like I’m shouting out into a vacuum, but I can’t stop, because my brain insists on figuring out why writing works the way it works, so it’s absolutely brilliant to know that my thoughts are making a difference to your writing. Grab whatever gets you motivated, I say!

      It sounds like you’re getting some really interesting insight into your characters that will help you figure out what your book’s about and how to structure it. This is fantastic, and all I can really say is: keep investigating! The friendship you’ve described sounds really interesting. One thing I wondered, reading what you’ve said: What’s the best friend’s arc? What are they getting out of the friendship? It also seems like if one of the friends transforms in some way that could create some difficulty within the relationship (ie. could it keep on being what it has been?).

      I love conversations about writing, so speak up when anything I have to say interests you (or, you know, bothers you 🙂 ) and we’ll conversate about it.

      (I’m curious what IS your first language now… I’m thinking German.)

      1. bleu_bleuet

        Yep, German it is. For some reason I thought you would know, even without me telling you. But, tell me, how DID you know? My guess is that it was the long sentences plus many commas and some strange word order… or it was the “EnglisCh”. 😀 … Do you speak German?

        I really loved that you asked these questions! Seems I simply need someone to set me to it.
        When their relationship starts, the friend (T) is nine a half and the protagonist (F) has just turned eight. F. has been brought to the royal court as a hostage and T. has been chosen as his watchdog, since what F. learns (magical powers *sheepish grin*) is decisive of how to best hold him down. Therefore, T starts out knowing that real friendship is not supposed to develop. He sees all of the time he has to spend with F as a duty he has to fulfil how ever reluctant he might be. He doesn’t see F as a comrade or someone who resembles a real person. Rather T perceives him as something that has to be watched, because something might happen. Like a pot that might boil over. The only thing he is aware of about F, is that his father got into trouble because of him and that F is important to the other side, those people who always make his father worry.
        However, as time wears on T realises that F IS a person. Maybe someone whose actions he cannot understand and who cannot be trusted, but someone he can empathise with. Someone who is, in fact, able to empathise with HIM. And so T starts overlooking some of the things he should have reported – and gets some freedom for him self in return (it is difficult to explain without knowing the whole situation and all of the other characters).
        “It also seems like if one of the friends transforms in some way that could create some difficulty within the relationship.”
        This is exactly what happens. F is expected to change and therefore does so. First his appearance, then his behaviour. With fifteen F receives his title and from then on is expected to cover up every inch of his skin, even seeing his eyes would be sacrilege in the eyes of his people. And suddenly T is confronted head on with the realisation that he is unable to judge F’s character any longer. That F might kill him or one of his other friends or the family he and his father serve and that it is truly dangerous to associate with him. T also comes to realise that he himself might be ordered to kill F, but that he cannot forget that F IS a person and for him always will be, whether enemy or friend.
        F comprehends this dilemma and actually gives T permission to kill him, should he be ordered to do so and then F shows him how little T really knows him. This ends the friendship as such.

        Heh, you probably didn’t want to know all this.
        Sorry I got so carried away…

        That’s just because I like what you write (blog and fiction). Your blog is marvellously insightful and inspiring and your fiction is funny, lively and the interactions are engaging and believable…

        I will probably have problems keeping quiet about things you write since so much of it is interesting! 🙂

        1. anna cowan Post author

          I think I only knew because I do speak German, so I could reverse-translate some clues!

          Your story and characters sound fascinating. I love how mysterious your protagonist becomes, seen through the eyes of his guard/friend. I’m not sure if you were already reading my blog back when I was talking about Lymond all the time, but from what you’ve described of your book so far, that could be a book to try and read (although, beware – you will spend the rest of your life trying to write Lymond). If I’ve understood your characters correctly, you might enjoy reading the post I wrote about Lymond where I talk about using a ‘witness’ character to create a superhuman protagonist. (It’s here.)

  2. bleu_bleuet

    Hmmm… yeah, I know what you mean.
    I am following your blog since September, some date between the 19th and the 22nd. I did read some of your earlier entries, but I stopped reading your entries about Lymond because you had me convinced that I must read it myself before I know too much about book and character. Still don’t have the money to buy it though. *sigh*

    Reverse-translate? Do you speak German because you are German?

    I don’t think the ‘witness’ technique would work. Sounds like what I had planned waaaaaay back when I first had the idea for the story. The problem is the set up of the book, but also the extreme agility F has in comparison to all the other characters. If I had to categorise the book, I would say it is a mixture of fantasy and bildungsroman. In any case extremely character based. Now that would support the ‘witness’ technique. However, since F has the ability to jump between places (not like teleportation, but not entirely unlike it. He needs a medium: either a door (a normal one), which might kill you since you practically have to create the connection to the place you want to go while you are already on the way there or a wall with a picture of the place) and can easily overcome more than a thousand kilometres while the others have to ride…….nah. Not a good idea. At least not if I want the story to be at least slightly coherent. The other thing is that there is not much action in the sense of fighting and/or running, because the whole purpose of the book is exploring how the image and expectations of other people (even the dead) can influence a character’s journey and decisions. This is best explored from the point of view of the influenced character. Which decision is the right one if both have the same (negative) result? Do you want to take responsibility or look away?
    Therefore, I have decided to do something similar to the process you have described (“As the narrative draws to its climax the two versions of Lymond become mutually exclusive – one must give way to the other”). The first scene of the story takes place when F is eight, but the really important stuff happens when he is between 17 and 21 years old. I find it idiotic to narrate from the point of view of an eight- or even eleven-year-old, because they barely have a defined personality yet, at least not one you can work with very well in a story about intrigue.
    Also, I am a firm believer of showing a character’s emotions and thoughts through environmental description. Not only nature (and not in the storm=anger sense) but also buildings, other persons, animals etc.
    Therefore I will try to start out with an omniscient third person narrative (albeit without ever really showing the thoughts of any character) that slowly turns into a pseudo first person narrative where everything is seen though F’s eyes (= absolutely NO thoughts of other characters), but still without showing any of F’s thoughts. Rather, I would like to use HIS perception of other’s perceptions of HIM, so that with each person he meets he sees his mirror image reflected in their eyes. This means I can never show how he perceives himself. If I can do that, the technique would even help to support the “image and expectations of other people”-thingy. Of course, the whole technique only works because there is no ‘master plan’ and everything is about this one decision and what leads up to it. After the decision…. I don’t know how to go on. I will worry about it should I ever get there and decide to write a sequel.
    Does this plan of mine sound like what is happening in “Queen’s Play”; Lymond as his own witness?

    *looks above* Wow, this is too long. I will not answer with comments this long any more. Promise!

    Also it is silly to talk about something I haven’t actually managed to do yet. -_-°
    Even if I do not try to write Lymond I think I will be occupied for at least five more years…

    Anyway, thank you for listening to my babbling. I promise I won’t go on swamping you!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      You sound really in control of what your characters are doing – and even more importantly, you sound ENGAGED in what they’re doing and who they are, and how they grow and change. Don’t apologise for talking about it – this is the perfect time to be discussing and thinking and dreaming big. I hope you really take on the project and get your ideas down and start writing!

  3. Pingback: I just don’t know if I can take another damn iceberg | diary of a(n accidental) housewife

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