How I Met Your Mother‘s season eight premiere, “Farhampton”, begins with a story told by Ted (Josh Radnor). But because we know that the show makes a habit of self-satire and sitcom meta-jokes, we anticipate that it will take aim at his storytelling, and also its own delaying of gratification and self-indulgent narrative.
Typically, that aim here has to do with a too detailed personal history. The new season opens its self-analysis with jumps in its timeline and jokes about how irritating that jumping around can be. After a title card that reads, “A little ways down the road…”, the episode opens with Ted sitting at the Farhampton train station. He’s wearing a tux and a woman asks if he’s come from a wedding. Ted begins, “It’s a long story, and I really don’t mean to be rude, but I really don’t feel like talking about it. [Pause] It all started when….” Cut to another title card, “10 hours earlier.”
The flashback-within-a-flashback is about Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and Robin (Colbie Smulders) both getting cold feet at their wedding and trying to jump out of the church window. Here, as we see Ted trying to comfort Robin, he flashes back yet again to May 2012, when he tried to run away with Victoria (Ashley Williams), when she left her fiancé Klaus (Thomas Lennon) at the altar, a story involving yet more defenestration farce.
And then, just as all the flashbacking is bound to turn irritating, the show turns back around on itself. During the May 2012 flashback, Barney begins to explain to his new fiancée Quinn (Becki Newton) that he used to date Robin, his story transformed into a 60-second recap of everything that’s happened to that point. It’s seven seasons of TV in a minute, a hilarious, breathless redux that underlines how long it’s taking for Ted to tell his version.
Such self-awareness — of both sitcom conventions and How I Met Your Mother‘s specific vagaries — has sustained the show for these seven seasons. The episode also catches us up on how Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) — new parents as of last season’s finale — are coping with sleep deprivation, which is to say, not very well. In one cute sequence, they see people around them as if through fish-tank water, hearing adult voices as if from far away.
But the most and least surprising turn in the new episode is Barney’s ongoing relationship with Robin. At first, he shows off how he’s been photoshopping his old pictures to erase her, so that instead of Barney and Robin in a Central Park horse carriage, we see… Barney and a tiger: it’s silly, but goofily charming too. It also reinforces for us what we know about both Barney and Robin, that they fear commitment and share a skittish sensibility. When Barney reveals to her that he has, in fact, kept copies of their un-photoshopped pictures in a storage facility, the moment is close to poignant — and also suggests that they will still be working out their relationship as the season goes on.
This turn also reinforces How I Met Your Mother‘s romantic sentimentality, which tends to trump its satire. We learn here that Klaus also jumped out a window to escape his wedding, a plot point he reveals to Ted at the Farhampton train station. Klaus says that he didn’t want to marry Victoria because she is not his “lifelong treasure of destiny,” but instead, “the thing that is almost the thing that you want but is not quite.” The comedy gives way to mawkishness when he adds that Ted will know “instantaneously” when he’s found “the one”: “If you have to think about it,” he says, “you have not felt it.” That comment makes Ted realize that Victoria is not “the one” for him either.
As Ted wonders how and when he’ll feel “it”, the final season of How I Met Your Mother seems poised between the show’s two usual inclinations, between sentimentality and sarcasm, optimism and inanity. Even as the characters try too hard to escape weddings through church windows, they’re also headed toward responsibility and maturity. Whether they reach this end before the series is over is another question.