From its very inception, How I Met Your Mother was based on the execution – often marvelously botched – of the big romantic gesture, most often committed by the eternally hapless Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor). The show’s entire premise, that a middle-aged man would spend what amounts to actual weeks telling his bored teen kids (these poor, poor bored teen kids) about how he met their mother, just reeked of such a gesture. This was big romance! This was a hell of a gesture! It was also one that had some majorly diminishing returns for a long period of time.
As the series began to wind down in its final season – a protracted goodbye that has long stretched the admiration of even the most hardcore of fans – the specter of the big romantic gesture loomed both large and literal, with actual objects standing quite effectively in for behaviors and actions. You know them. The locket. The blue French horn. Lloyd Dobler had his boombox, but Ted Mosby had an old piece of jewelry and a stolen instrument – and he almost managed to bury both along with the myth of the Big Romantic Gesture.
The show’s final season hinged on a number of things happening – including Marshall (Jason Segal) and Lily (Alyson Hanigan) coming to terms with their seemingly mismatched career goals, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and Robin (Cobie Smulders) coming to terms with their impending nuptials, the Mother (Cristin Milioti) showing up at the right time, and Ted successfully seeking out Robin’s long lost locket to deliver to her under the guise of it being the perfect wedding present. (The blue French horn had since been, mercifully, chained up.)
Ted’s quest for the locket took him across the country (to Stella’s storage locker on the West Coast) and forced him to interact with some of his most memorable exes (from Stella to Jeanette to Victoria). As repetitive and wrenching as the entire subplot was (hell, the first episode of the season was even titled “The Locket”), it also seemed like a damn fine way to make Ted grow up and kick his reliance on the BRG, one that had never worked out for him to begin with.
In the show’s penultimate (ish?) episode, “The End of the Aisle,” Ted finally gives up the locket, after Robin makes it explicitly clear that the one thing she needs to make her cold feet go away is a big gesture from Barney. Ted hands the locket over to Barney and tells him to act as if he found it. It’s the right thing, the mature thing, and the nice thing to do. Robin, however, doesn’t buy it – and when she realizes that the locket came from Ted, she spouts off the one idea that he’s secretly wanted to hear for months.
Let’s run away together. Let’s do it like The Graduate. Hell, let’s do it the same way Ted and Victoria did from that same church a year prior. But Ted doesn’t go for it.
Robin’s request that Ted run away with her was never a real request, both because it was never actually going to happen (on a literal level, as the show’s final season had already presented plenty of flash-forwards that showed that Barney and Robin did get married and that Ted obviously ended up with Mother) and because it wasn’t what Robin really wanted or what Ted really needed. But, still, Ted didn’t go for it. Finally, Mosby had matured, had rid himself of the BRG (amusingly, in the episode before “The End of the Aisle,” a flash-forward shows Ted consciously rejecting pulling out a big speech for the Mother on their first date, a decision that pays off big time), and done the right thing.
This was progress. This was nine seasons of maturation fulfilled. This was the death of the Big Romantic Gesture, the sort of thing that only exists in fantasy and fiction and, again, has never actually worked out for our protagonist. After decades of sticking with the BRG method, How I Met Your Mother trumpeted (French horned?) Ted’s continual failure at applying that method.
Elsewhere, the BRG also seemed dead, as Lily and Marshall, who have long been relatively stable albeit a bit wacky, worked through their marital issues (to Rome or not to Rome) in a mature manner – not one rife with big gestures, but one based on respect, discussion, and deciding what was best for their whole family. No one ran through an airport or produced some singular object that would “clarify” what was supposed to happen. The most cutesy thing that actually happened involving Lily and Marshall centered on Ted trying to pull off his own version of Clue for the benefit of, well, whoever (Lily! in the Captain’s bathroom! with a pregnancy test!). Even Barney realized that the best and biggest romantic gesture of all — following an elaborate jail-based rehearsal dinner — was simply to be honest with his bride, and that’s what he promised Robin on their wedding day.
By the time How I Met Your Mother approached its final episode (two, actually, packaged into one hour), it seemed that it – and Ted – had finally abandoned the BRG and was ready to be a grown up man living in the real world (the real world of a television show, of course). He knew what didn’t work for him. He had moved past it. It had paid off with the arrival of the love of his life.
And then everyone’s worst fears came true, the Mother kicked it, and it became clear that the story of How I Met Your Mother wasn’t about meeting anyone’s mother, it was about wearing down bereaved children to accept that their dad wanted to date their “aunt.” Sure, fans of the show have had plenty of time to accept what they’d long feared, and while that doesn’t make it the right choice (or even the best choice) for the show as some think, at least there was some time to amend ourselves to it.
There was no time for the BRG to lay still – once dead, once buried, once moved past – before Ted pulled it back out again, presenting Robin with the damn blue French horn as he wordlessly asked her out again. The problem is perhaps systemic – even Radnor himself doesn’t see the problem with such a gesture and such a prop for it, telling Vulture that, “To me, it’s the most iconic prop for Ted and it’s a symbol of both his romanticism and also his slight insanity. It is a stolen item, but it represents the lengths to which he’ll go to win someone.” So Ted remains glued to the quirky musical instrument as firmly as he is to the notion of the standard rom-com solution for bringing two people together.
Radnor, it must be noted, took the blue French horn home after shooting on the show finally wrapped.
And yet the horn and the locket and all sorts of other props and gestures and insanities will live on, as the BRG, a massive and unwieldy zombie of a romantic trope, is alive and How I Met Your Mother is dead and, no, Ted Mosby hasn’t learned a thing.