When I was compiling this list, most of the entries were on some other lists of top episodes, which is how I narrowed down the candidates from “everything on television ever” to “stuff I can reasonably watch within 4 months of hospitalization.” Gonna be honest, I still overshot and ended up with a ludicrous amount of TV to watch. But, this episode probably is the least critically acclaimed on the list. Not only is this not usually a highly rated show, this episode isn’t even particularly high within rankings of How I Met Your Mother episodes. The critical reviews of this episode average about a B+. Why then do I think this episode is worthy of this spot on the list? Because it’s telling us something that everyone desperately needs to hear.
How I Met Your Mother had some weaknesses as a show, and it definitely dragged at a few points. If the cast hadn’t been amazing, it probably would have died earlier. However, because of the premise of the show, that it’s a dad telling his children a story, they were also able to experiment sometimes with narrative structure in interesting ways. Sometimes they worked. Sometimes they didn’t. This one did, but I honestly don’t know if the show even knew how much it did when they made it.
The overarching theme of the show of How I Met Your Mother is usually secondary to the humor, but it’s still there: You cannot control most of what happens to you in your life, even your own choices, but you can control who you are when things happen to you. And nowhere in the show is this more brilliantly shown than in this episode.
The episode starts by showing the main character, Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor, future voice Bob Saget), leaving his apartment with a yellow umbrella (which the audience knows is a big part of the story of him meeting his wife), stopping at a newsstand, giving cash to a homeless man, and then stopping to wait at a crosswalk before an unseen person touches him on the shoulder. At this point, the narrator, future Ted, takes us back to explain why exactly he did everything the way he did on that walk.
First, he explains that he left the apartment because his roommate and on-again-off-again romantic interest Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) tells him that he needs to clear his head after having difficulties with his solo architect work. He decides to get a bagel. She also tells him to take an umbrella.
Once Ted goes outside, he turns right for a moment, then instead goes left. This is explained as being because his favorite bagel place had given Robin food poisoning, so he goes left to his second-favorite bagel place.
Next, Ted stops at a newsstand to look at a magazine. This magazine is revealed to be a copy of “Muscle Sexxy” which he feels compelled to read because his friend Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) slept with the cover girl due to a misunderstanding. The audience sees that this delays Ted for a minute.
Next, he crosses the street to give money to a homeless person. This is revealed to be because, a few weeks prior, his friend Marshall (Jason Segel) had become addicted to making graphs at his new job, to the point that his wife Lilly (Alyson Hannigan) asked the gang to hold an intervention. After Marshall proved hesitant to change, Ted threw all of Marshall’s graphs out, including the ones he needed for a huge presentation. Ultimately, Ted had to offer to pay a homeless person who had taken the graphs $1 million at a rate of $1 per day.
And that’s what brings Ted to that particular street corner at that exact time. Future Ted then tells his kids that if he hadn’t been there at that time, then they wouldn’t have been born. He says that, if he had known then what all of those circumstances would have led to, there’s something he would have done differently.
The show then breaks into a montage of Ted hugging every person involved in his life, from the homeless man, to his friends, to the bagel place that poisoned his friend, all set perfectly to the song “Glad Girls” by Guided by Voices. It’s then revealed that the hand touching him belongs to the woman who just left him at the altar 4 months prior, Stella.
Part of the human experience is understanding that control is, for the most part, an illusion (this is not to be confused with the Ellen Langer “Illusion of Control“). People will say that choice is an illusion (mostly the Matrix), but that’s never going to be my take on it. You have choice, but you only have choice within a larger series of events that are dependent not only upon random chance, but also upon the choices of others. Sure, you can say “I’m choosing to order pizza,” or “I’m choosing to watch Netflix,” but you had almost nothing to do with those options even being available to you. You’re just pretending that the small control you get over some things compensates for the fact that the majority of the universe will just move indifferent to you. That can be scary sometimes. But, it can be freeing, too.
You only get one life, as far as you know. You may believe there’s more, but you can only be certain of this one. And anything you get out of it, good or bad, contributes to the unique experience of living. When you manage to get something good, take a second to realize that even the bad things in your life contributed to you being in the place to get something good now. They may have hurt, they may have even crippled you in ways that keep you from ever being the person you once were, but they haven’t kept you from ever feeling good again. I’m not saying go hug the homeless guy who mugged you, I’m saying that maybe you can let go of all of those bad things. They can’t be changed, they can’t be undone, but they can be learned from and appreciated as part of existence, for your own sake. It doesn’t change that bad things happened, but you don’t have to let them change you for the worse. And, hopefully, you can learn this lesson in montage form.
Here’s the Montage:
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Here’s the Episode: