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The ending of How I Met Your Mother finally explained

As much as fans might want their favorite shows to run forever, all good things must come to an end, a fact that's particularly true for network sitcoms. And after nine seasons and nine years, How I Met Your Mother, created by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, closed out its run on CBS in 2014 (after premiering in 2005), finally solving a television mystery that lasted for almost a full decade.

For nine years, Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor), Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders), Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan), Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segel), and Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) navigated life and love in New York City, all of which was set within the larger story of how Ted met the mother of his children. However, the show's series finale stirred up some serious controversy after years of buildup when it aired in the spring of 2015, so we're here to tell you why HIMYM's grand finish felt, to many fans, like more of a splutter. After all this time, here's the full explanation of How I Met Your Mother's big ending.

How I Met Your Mother was a super complicated sitcom

From its very first episode, How I Met Your Mother made its mark on the television landscape by taking a typical sitcom and turning it directly on its head. Rather than simply tell the story of Ted Mosby, a Manhattan-based architect looking for love in all the wrong places, it places his tale within the context of a much-older Ted in 2030 telling his children the story of, well, how exactly he met their mother. Voiced by Bob Saget (for some reason), Older Ted leads both his kids and the audience through the full story of how he met their mom, as well as all of the obstacles he encountered along the way.

This complex framework gave the show a totally unique spin and its own mythology. Between Ted forgetting important details (like an ex-girlfriend he refers to as "Blahblah") or his attempts to sanitize his past ("eating a sandwich" has nothing to do sandwiches whatsoever), this is a show that requires you to watch it in order and to pay attention, or you might have trouble understanding the intricate narrative.

Who's with who?

Ultimately, How I Met Your Mother is a show about love, and during nine seasons, the five main characters experience plenty of ups and downs in their relationships. As the main character, Ted is a hopeless romantic, and in the very first episode, he spots Robin across the room and immediately falls for her. The two end up dating throughout the show's second season, but when they realize they want completely different things out of life, they ultimately split up and remain good friends. Afterwards, both date other people, and Ted's parade of girlfriends continually drum up suspense about which one might be "the Mother."

As the most stable couple of the group, Lily and Marshall get engaged right at the start of the show, and despite a small blip where Lily leaves Marshall to attend art school in California, the two get married and have children, marking every major life milestone together.

However, the show's least likely couple ended up being one of its most important. Despite the fact that Barney Stinson spends the majority of the show operating as the world's biggest womanizer, he eventually falls in love with commitment-phobic Robin, and the two get engaged as the show moves towards its conclusion. Robin and Barney weren't planned from the beginning, but thanks to palpable chemistry between Harris and Smulders, the writers decided to craft a storyline involving the two, and the rest was history.

The final season's structure

Despite intense contract negotiations between CBS and the stars of How I Met Your Mother (Jason Segel, for example, reportedly almost walked away from the show to pursue his successful film career), the show was ultimately renewed for a ninth and final season, which kicked off during the fall of 2013 and concluded in the spring of 2014. Throughout its entire run, HIMYM made a name for itself thanks to its unconventional choices and unusual framework, and the show seriously upped the ante for its final season, making the risky choice to center almost the entire 24-episode season around the weekend of Robin and Barney's wedding (with a few notable exceptions).

This structure was definitely a gamble, and in the end, many viewers wondered why HIMYM made such a risky choice for its final season. Despite cameos from stars like Lin-Manuel Miranda and returning turns from previous guest stars like Scrubs' Sarah Chalke, Twin Peaks' Kyle MacLachlan, and Once Upon a Time's Jennifer Morrison, the uneven final season — which featured an entire episode in rhyme, as well as a totally tone-deaf conclusion to Barney and Marshall's slap bet — felt stretched out and inconsistent for most fans, and the final blow of the finale was still yet to come.

How we met the Mother

Despite an uneven final season, there was at least one standout episode during HIMYM's swan song, and that was the sixteenth episode of the season and 200th episode of the show overall, "How Your Mother Met Me."

After audiences officially met the Mother, played by the incredibly endearing Cristin Milioti (a Broadway ingenue who would go on to star in projects like Black Mirror and Modern Love) at the end of the eighth season, they clamored for more, and this episode provided all of the Mother backstory fans needed. Finally, viewers got the chance to see the entire narrative of the show through the Mother's perspective. The episode perfectly contrasts her life with Ted's, as she grieves the tragic loss of her boyfriend and moves on with her life, culminating in a heartfelt performance of Edith Piaf's "La Vie En Rose" — which, as it happens, she performs on a balcony right next to Ted's hotel room. The episode was soundly praised by critics, marking a rare bright spot in HIMYM's troubled final season.

How did Lily and Marshall end their storyline?

As the show came to its conclusion, audiences wanted to see how their favorite characters ended the series, and the show's most lovable couple, Marshall and Lily, had an eventful journey to the finish line. Throughout the series, Marshall, a big-hearted lawyer who wants to save the environment, and Lily, a kindergarten teacher with a passion for art, always worked towards their goals while supporting one another, and their ending ultimately proved perfect for the inseparable sitcom couple. 

After moving out of the show's signature apartment — which Lily, Ted, and Marshall had shared for most of the series — Marshall takes a job as a judge, a choice which causes some serious distress between the couple during the ninth season as they argue over Marshall's job prospects just as Lily is offered a job opportunity in Rome. However, they manage to do both, living in Rome for a year before returning to New York, where Marshall takes a vacant position left behind by a judge in Queens. With three children — their youngest daughter, Daisy, was conceived during the final season — the two continue their lives together, and Marshall eventually runs for a position on the New York Supreme Court.

What happened to Barney in How I Met Your Mother?

Viewers never expected Barney, a sworn Lothario, to end up married by the end of the show, so they were pretty thrown when the entire final season revolved around Barney's wedding to Robin, who was also an enormous marriage-phobe. With that in mind, it's unsurprising that Barney and Robin's marriage eventually doesn't work out, and three years after their wedding (which, for viewers, is just minutes later), the two get divorced.

Before long, the suave, suit-clad Stinson is up to his old tricks in New York, using catchphrases and outright trickery to seduce the women of Manhattan and beyond, but eventually, something unexpected puts a halt to Barney's bawdiness. One of his many conquests gets pregnant and keeps the baby, and though Barney is initially unwilling to become a father, he changes his tune once he meets his newborn daughter, Ellie. Some fans found the ending lacking for a variety of reasons — upon becoming a father, Barney becomes unnecessarily harsh to young women who he thinks are acting inappropriately, and weirdly, the mother of his child is never named or seen — but there's little doubt that Barney's ending gave Neil Patrick Harris a chance to show off Barney's emotional core.

Ted, the Mother, and Robin

Once audiences finally met the Mother, it was immediately clear that she was perfect for Ted, with their shared sense of humor, common interests, and seemingly unbreakable bond. However, throughout the ninth season, it became unpleasantly clear that the Mother was headed for an unfortunate end, and after plenty of clues and theories, most viewers' suspicions turned out to be completely correct. In a flash-forward to 2024, the Mother passes away, just four years after her 2020 wedding to Ted Mosby, leaving her grieving husband and two children, Penny and Luke, behind.

Meanwhile, Robin has finally achieved her lifelong dream of becoming a successful journalist after divorcing Barney, but her previous relationship with Ted still looms large in her life, especially after he confessed his feelings for her shortly before her wedding. Though Robin and Ted have been living separate lives, his children, who have listened to his seemingly endless story, tell him that it's obvious to them that he still loves "Aunt Robin," and in a flash forward to 2030, the final moments of the show see Ted appearing outside of Robin's window with a blue French horn, a unique instrument he gave to her back in the show's first season as a romantic gesture.

The ending was a long time coming

Understandably, loyal viewers of the series were largely and loudly frustrated with the show's conclusion, which seemed to throw out the entire premise of the show by killing the Mother and pairing off Ted and Robin, who'd figured out multiple times during the show that they were ultimately not meant for each other. In one hour, How I Met Your Mother seemed to undo all of the good will it had built up over nearly ten years, which makes it all the more disappointing that this ending had been planned from the very beginning.

Many of HIMYM's episodes open with a shot of Ted's children sitting on a couch and listening to their dad's story, but obviously, since those kids got older throughout the years, most of those shots are silent, since they were filmed years before the finale. For that same reason, Bays and Thomas, the showrunners and creators, also filmed the final scene — where Penny and Luke tell their dad to go after Robin — back at the beginning of the show, setting the finale in stone despite the various twists and turns the show took during the ensuing seasons. As for those kids? They knew the ending the whole time, although David Henrie, who played Ted's son Luke, claimed he forgot what the ending even was in the years that followed.

An alternate ending

In the wake of HIMYM's finale, fans and critics expressed their disappointment in droves, and eventually, Bays and Carter mollified their long-time viewers just a little bit once the entire series was released in a special DVD box set.

After the uproar over the Mother's death in the finale, Bays and Carter released an alternate ending to the entire show, which focused on a moment that had come and gone in the actual finale — the moment that Ted met the mother of his children, whose real name was Tracy McConnell. As the two stand on train tracks near Robin and Barney's wedding in Farhampton, they strike up a conversation under the Mother's signature yellow umbrella (which can be seen countless times throughout the series), and as the scene ends, Bob Saget's voice reappears, saying, "And that, kids, is how I met your mother." It's a pitch-perfect ending, leading audiences to wonder why Bays and Carter stuck with their original, arguably worse plan, which is less "how I met your mother" and more "how I got back together with my ex-girlfriend."

The clues were always there

Fans might not have been thrilled about how How I Met Your Mother ended, but throughout the show's intensely and carefully mapped-out run, sharp-eyed viewers might've picked up on clues along the way that revealed the show's entire endgame.

Some moments flashed all the way back to the beginning, like when the Mother's real name, Tracy, was revealed in the pilot. And if you were rooting for Robin to find a cooler partner than Ted, you were always going to be disappointed. At one point, when the two men are fighting over Robin, Barney tells Ted that he'll take Robin until she's 40, and Ted can "have her after that," literally predicting the end of the show. And as the ninth season approaches, the show drops some seriously heavy hints about the Mother's eventual passing, including a tearful moment where she wonders what kind of mom would miss her child's wedding (indicating that she was already sick by the time that the scene occurs). 

Ted is also frequently seen reading Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (and mentions that it's his favorite book), which tells the story of two lovers who can only be together after one of their spouses dies. These are just a few examples, so during your next rewatch, see what clues you can find about the show's eventual ending. 

The inevitable backlash to How I Met Your Mother's ending

After investing years in this mystery, it stands to reason that both fans and critics would flock to the internet to voice their extreme displeasure over the show's ultimate misdirection, and they definitely did, using words like "betrayed" and remaining petulant about the show's finale for years after it aired. Some critics even went so far as to write that the finale "bailed" on the entire premise of the overall show, particularly because the series went out of its way to say that Robin was not the titular Mother during its own pilot. (Technically, she isn't the mother of either of Ted's children, but still.) 

Beyond that, Ted and his children had six years to mourn the Mother and move on, but viewers had about two minutes, giving audiences a whiplash effect when he went after Robin after all. Even for a show that trafficked in twists and turns, most fans felt the ending, conceived so long ago, simply wasn't true to the entire show. 

However, as the years have gone by, some forgiving fans have come around to the finale, saying viewers should "forgive" the show, but after nine beloved seasons, the finale is a legacy most people can't forget, and it still regularly finds a place on lists of the worst season finales in television history. 

How the cast felt about that ending

Fans and critics certainly made their feelings about the How I Met Your Mother ending known, but as for the five core members of the cast who were clued into the ending before anyone else, they had more time to think about it, and one by one, they've all touched on their finale feelings in the years since the show ended.

Firmly in the pro column is Harris, who liked Barney's ending and felt that, overall, it was true to the series, saying that a happy ending just isn't always meant to be. Harris was joined by Radnor, who told Vulture shortly after the last episode aired that he was a "fan of the finale" and that the ending stayed away from safer, less interesting possibilities. (Years later, however, Radnor would essentially say he wanted people to stop asking him about it.) 

Smulders was a bit coy about her feelings, saying she "wept" at the table read and was thrilled that Bays and Carter saw their vision come to fruition, while Segel, always evasive, never even bothered to watch it in the first place, even though he obviously knows what happens. Finally, Hannigan was quite blunt, saying she didn't agree with many of the finale's choices, but she chalks it up to the finale's short timeframe, saying that a lot ended up on the cutting room floor that could've better served the show's last episode.