It finally happened. Last night, after several seasons of back-and-forth and missed opportunities, Robin and Barney finally got engaged on How I Met Your Mother. The engagement was the result of an elaborate play by Barney that involved making Robin jealous by pretending to date her coworker, Patrice. It was wickedly convoluted in a way that only Barney could dream up, and in many ways, it was a fitting way for him to propose marriage. But it still rubbed me the wrong way, and not for the reasons that you might expect.
Look, I’m willing to give the show credit where credit is due. Having Robin take a gamble by chasing after Barney one last time introduced a wide power differential into their relationship, but the show did a masterful job of mitigating that concern by having Barney take a huge gamble himself, putting the entirety of their decision to be together in Robin’s hands. So I don’t think the proposal suffered from the problem of giving one party in the relationship more power than the other. No, my discomfort with the engagement as it played out was that the final step of Barney’s “play,” Step 16 (“Hope she says yes”), didn’t actually address any of Robin’s concerns.
Being willing to give up power in a relationship is not the same thing as being honest and forthcoming. Robin expressed concern that Barney deceived and manipulated her, and as far as we know, there’s nothing indicating that Barney won’t do it again. Neil Patrick Harris’ weird acting choices in that scene compounded the problem. He played the scene with a smug smile on his face, even while Robin was yelling about having been lied to, which made Step 16 come across like just another play. Until Barney was actually on one knee, I didn’t see any of the tentativeness or worry that he was supposed to be experiencing;.
Now, it’s entirely possible that the show will address Robin’s concerns at some point down the line. In fact, that might be what the flashforward from a previous episode with Robin possibly having cold feet at her wedding was hinting at. But it doesn’t change the fact that this engagement was presented as a resolution of sorts. Maybe HIMYM does want to explore a relationship that gets torn up from the inside by fears of dishonesty. But it shouldn’t pretend that everything’s hunky-dory only to say “Fooled ya!” when Robin and Barney start distrusting each other five episodes later. While HIMYM is the master of the bait-and-switch, this technique is usually employed to get the audience to reconsider their assumptions about how a story is told. Pulling an emotional bait-and-switch without a clear “A-ha!” moment is not the show’s stock-in-trade, and it would be indicative of a much more cynical, manipulative work of fiction.
In short, this proposal frustrated me because it didn’t address Robin’s concerns in the moment, and I don’t think the show can satisfactorily fix that problem down the road, because that would mean reneging on last night’s episode’s happy ending. To use a Ted-like architecture metaphor, relationships are built on the twin pillars of equality and honesty. The writers did a wonderful job erecting the former, but they only pretended to erect the latter.