It’s been a rough few weeks for people who have trouble letting go of TV characters.
Killing off major players may be signature moves for shows like “The Walking Dead” or “Game of “Thrones,” but fans of CBS’ “The Good Wife” were shocked — justifiably — when on the March 23 episode Will Gardner (Josh Charles) was shot to death by his own client.
The keening had barely died down before the March 31 finale of CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother” revealed that the woman Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) has been waiting to meet for nine seasons had been dead six years before the show even began.
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And you thought “Lost” played with people’s heads.
The dead-mother scenario, which played out before more than 13 million viewers, the show’s largest audience ever, wasn’t as unexpected as Will’s demise. Speculation that the mother was dead began before Cristin Milioti first appeared in the role last year and peaked in recent weeks as fans and critics parsed dialogue for foreshadowing.
“How I Met Your Mother” creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have long known where this was going, arranging for the actors who play Ted’s kids in 2030 to shoot their finale dialogue at the beginning of Season 2, before they could outgrow their roles.
And maybe the plan would have worked if the show had ended much earlier. But after a ninth season that centered on one weekend and on the wedding of Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and Robin (Cobie Smulders)? That encouraged viewers to fall for Milioti’s Tracy even before Ted did? It felt like the worst kind of manipulation to break up one couple and part another through death just so that Robin and Ted could fulfill what — back in 2005 — may have looked like destiny.
A clear endgame sounds so good. Who hasn’t been burned by a show that set up a mystery whose solution its creators weren’t themselves sure of?
But TV writers have to be willing to move beyond their original visions to find the truth in the worlds they’ve created, which aren’t necessarily the worlds they set out to build.
Killing off Will Gardner made sense for “The Good Wife,” not just because Charles was eager to move on from the show, but because the place he occupied in the life of the show’s central character, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), threatened to grow tiresome. Most of all, it made sense because it was senseless. There is maybe no better showcase of character than how we cope with the things we can never control.
The show must (and will) go on, and we’ll get to see the remaining characters of “The Good Wife” in a new light.
It’s not the same for “How I Met Your Mother,” which, like its often-abbreviated title, went on longer than it should have.
Maybe we worry more than we should about endings, as if the enjoyment of years could be canceled out by a single episode.
It can’t. Or at least it shouldn’t.
But while the writers, not the viewers, own their characters, any long-running show requires a commitment from both sides. Living on in syndication, as “HIMYM” will, it asks us to forget:
•That Barney and Robin, too, once seemed to belong together.
•That “the mother” was a person, not just a placeholder.
•That the kids, who would have been fairly young when their mother died, probably wouldn’t have been tired of hearing about her (or so eager to push their father toward “Aunt Robin”).
•That a show that began by trying to break out of a tired format ended with one of TV’s oldest clichés: the conveniently dead sitcom mom.