From the very first episode of How I Met Your Mother, we assumed that the show would end with Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) all loved up with the titular Mother and their two children. Throughout the nine seasons, we witnessed Ted’s journey to finding everlasting love take several detours and hit several roadblocks along the way. But no matter whom he dated, we knew that anyone who wasn’t the mysterious Mother was merely a stepping stone to his inevitable happily ever after with her. Or did we?
In the finale, “Last Forever,” we learn that, in the present day, the Mother (whose name is actually Tracy and was portrayed by Cristin Milioti) has been dead for six years and Ted is still in love with Robin (Cobie Smulders), with whom he enjoyed an on-and-off romance throughout the years prior.
Understandably, some fans were pissed and felt cheated. For a start, Ted and Robin felt just as overplayed as Ross and Rachel in Friends. Furthermore, Tracy was a popular character that many people preferred to Robin. To comfort angry viewers, an alternate ending where Tracy lived was even included on the DVD.
Still, while the revelation was a surprise to audiences at the time, we should have seen it coming all along. The show’s creators had the divisive outcome planned from the get-go and they threw some hints our way.
The foreshadowing was subtle, but it was there. For example, in the Season 1 episode “Milk,” we discover that Ted’s favorite book is Love in the Time of Cholera, which is about a man and woman who are deeply in love but can’t be together. A few years later, however, the woman’s husband dies and the pair hook up. When Ted and Tracy meet for the first time, he’s holding the book. Suffice to say, he would eventually be able to relate to the story.
Elsewhere, in the Season 5 episode “Twin Beds,” Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) crudely asks Ted if he can have Robin until they’re 40 and he’ll let his buddy have her afterward. Later on, Barney and Robin get married and divorced around that age. And while Barney didn’t pass his ex-wife off to Ted like a pair of used gloves, this throwaway joke between the bros is sort of similar to how events played out.
Moving forward, in the “No Pressure” episode from Season 7, we learn that Lily (Alyson Hannigan) has bet Marshall (Jason Segel) that their two best friends won’t end up together. Afterward, Ted and Robin break up seemingly for good, but Marshall isn’t convinced that their romantic story is over. When Lily tells Marshall to pay up, he says “Not yet,” and that’s the last we hear about it. It’s a telling moment because, in the end, Marshall’s prediction was correct.
Ted wasn’t the only one whose heart belonged to another, though. Tracy found the love of her life before she met Ted. Sadly, he also passed away too soon, but she never stopped loving him. In the Season 9 episode “How Your Mother Met Me,” she shares some heartbreaking wisdom with a friend: “I believe that each of us only gets one. And I got mine already.” That’s when we should have known once and for all that Ted and Tracy weren’t truly soulmates. Tracy knew who her “one” was, which meant that Ted was only ever going to be a stand-in, just as she was for him.
Regardless of what the show’s title suggests, How I Met Your Mother was always about Ted’s love for Robin. He fell head over heels with her five minutes into the inaugural episode and those romantic feelings kept returning throughout the show’s nine seasons. They were still there when he first met Tracy considering that he’d just left Barney and Robin’s wedding because he loved the bride. On top of that, Ted wasn’t grieving Tracy’s loss when he was recounting how he met her to their children — he was asking for their permission to chase after Robin.
The Mother was never the most important chapter of Ted’s story. It took eight seasons before we actually saw a glimpse of her, and she was such an afterthought that their kids actually called him out on it before giving their old man permission to be with his “one.” Maybe that’s not the conclusion people wanted, but it remained true to a story that had been built up for years. It was a surprise that was right in front of us the entire time, and that’s why the How I Met Your Mother finale is actually brilliant.