What if the Mother on 'How I Met Your Mother' were dead?
In case you haven’t noticed already, people are having a lot of feelings about this week's How I Met Your Mother.
The episode, titled “Vesuvius,” revolved around Ted and the titular Mother having dinner at the Farhampton Inn in 2024, where they realize they have told each other all their stories. That is until Ted realizes he hasn’t told her the story “about the lamp” (which, later, she remembers she has in fact heard as well). Most of the rest of “Vesuvius” spends its time on typical How I Met Your Mother silliness, including references to classic episodes like “Arrividerci Fiero,” “Three Days of Snow,” and “The Wedding Bride.”
But as the episode persists, an air of melancholy sets in. At one point, the Mother tells Ted she doesn’t want him to be a person “who just lives in his stories.” Later, Ted mentions that sometimes it’s best to just leave the most serious problems unspoken because they’re too hard to deal with. “Vesuvius” concluds with Robin’s mom (Tracey Ullman) making a surprise appearance at the wedding weekend back in 2014. Ted refers to this as a “surprise ending,” which the Mother questions: “What mother is going to miss her daughter’s wedding?” And then Ted starts crying.
Those last few moments of “Vesuvius” have caused nothing short of a firestorm of emotions and questions around the Internet. How I Met Your Mother has always generated a huge amount of fan discussion and theories, especially for a sitcom (take a look at the subreddit for the last episode alone), but the speculation surrounding “Vesuvius” is on another level. That’s because to many, it seemed to confirm one of the darkest theories surrounding the How I Met Your Mother mythology: that the Mother has been dead the whole time.
This theory has been around for awhile, with fans pointing to various pieces of evidences to support it. For instance, there’s the fact that the Mother is always referred to in past tense. Some felt Alyson Hannigan gave credence to the theory last month, when she tweeted a picture from the show’s final table read, picturing her script surrounded by used tissues.
Jason Segel discussed the theory as far back at 2010. This was in the same GQ interview where he basically insulted the show by saying the most complex storyline he would get to do would probably be something like eating a bunch of cake that wasn’t his (In fact, it’s brought up in “Vesuvius” that his character actually did eat a bunch of cake that wasn’t his, may as a nod to Segel’s complaints.)
The death theory really started to gain traction following an episode that aired last year called “The Time Travelers.” At one point in the episode, Ted runs to the Mother’s door during a fantasy sequence and tells her:
"Exactly 45 days from now, you and I are going to meet. We're going to fall in love and we're going to get married, and we're going to have two kids. We're going to love them and each other so much. All that is 45 days away, but I'm here now, I guess, because I want those extra 45 days with you. I want each one of them…I am always going to love you. Until the end of my days and beyond."
People seemed to quiet down about the “Mother has been dead this whole time” theory for a little bit, but post-”Vesuvius,” it can’t be ignored.
Reactions on twitter have spanned the gamut. Some love the idea. Josh Kurp of Uproxx has been championing the theory since he first heard about it. Although he did suggest after last night’s episode that there’s a chance Ted’s mom died before he got married, or that Ted has Alzheimer's, or even that the Mother is a ghost, like many he’s all but ready to confirm that the fate of the Mother is sealed. Others have been slightly fainter with their praise; over at the A.V. Club, Donna Browman gave “Vesuvius” a restrained but marked amount of credit, writing,
“This isn’t a great sitcom episode; it’s not even a great episode of this sitcom. But it contains a seed, something that sticks with you and puts everything around it in a different context for a moment. The story doesn’t end when Ted met the Mother, and the stories that they’ve accumulated since must include some tragedy.”
Of course, there are ton of people that flat out hate the idea. Like many, Time Magazine TV critic James Poniewozik laments that the show would do this especially in light of the fact that “this season has done such an excellent job introducing Cristin Milioti as a believable love interest.” He goes on from there:
“Love stories end, life is bittersweet, and HIMYM has always been willing to confront that… but this feels like a twist for its own sake, rather than one that actually makes sense in the context of the narrative and tone of the eight seasons that preceded the last one… Best case scenario, “Vesuvius” is screwing with us for the sake of some tension in a few episodes and a feel-good ending. Worst case, it’s whacking us with an emotional 2-by-4 that the series (which is told in retrospect, after all), has done nothing to prepare us for.”
Margaret Lyons of Vulture is even harsher. Lyons isn’t alone in her frustration over the show’s last few seasons, nor in her displeasure at the decision to set the last season over the 56 hours making up Barney and Robin’s wedding weekend. But “Vesuvius” crossed the line for her. After it aired, Lyons warned, “Let's also be clear: If the mother dies or turns out to have been dead, I will never forgive this damn show.”
But not everyone seems to be convinced just yet that the Mother is going to die. At Jezebel, Erin Gloria Ryan observes the tonal problems this theory presents, pointing out, “If the whole framing device for the show is a father telling a story to his kids to help them remember their dead mom, then why would Ted's long, 9-season-long story about a dead woman be so focused on, uh, Ted's dating life before he met her?”
Perhaps the most sensible alternative to this theory was spelled out by Erin Strecker at Entertainment Weekly, who stated, “I think the show’s creators want fans to think that perhaps the Mother dies — but in the final episode we’ll find out she had cancer but ended up recovering, or something.”
Unsurprisingly there are many out there who have more elaborate, even far-fetched ideas about this theory. Some have claimed that Ted and Robin will actually get back together in 2030, and Ted has been telling his kids all these stories as a way to introduce them to their new step-mom.
In general, it’s a strange time for the world of How I Met Your Mother. Not only do Bays and Thomas have to contend with fan reactions about the fate of the Mother and the contingent of people who feel the show has proven itself insensitive, they also have to brace themselves for the coming reactions to their HIMYM retread, How I Met Your Dad. The reaction from critics following the announcement that indie darling Greta Gerwig would play the lead in said show has mostly been extremely positive. But it shouldn’t come as a shock that there have been some out there who have cried sellout upon hearing the news too.
Bays and Thomas have a lot riding on the end of How I Met Your Mother, and they should be careful when toying with people’s hearts. After nine seasons on the air, it’s impossible not to admit that HIMYM has been a wildly successful show. If they really think killing off a character who fans have been waiting years to meet, played by an actress who they seem to almost universally love, truly fits with the story they’re trying to tell then more power to them.
But they should beware that the fallout from doing such a thing may be swift and brutal, not to mention extremely vocal. Assuming they want How I Met Your Dad to last nine seasons, too, it would be wise for them to learn from their mistakes. In the age of the Internet, fans huddle around their favorite shows with greater fervor than ever. The discussion becomes more intense, and so does the love.
However, if the reaction to the Mother’s potential death is any indication, that love can be very fickle; there ain’t no fury like a group of diehard fans scorned.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University's Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.