How I Met Your Mother: “Legendaddy”

How I Met Your Mother: "Legendaddy" - John Lithgow, Neil Patrick Harris
As we all learned in English 101, “plot” is what a story is about, and “theme” is what a story is about. The plot of How I Met Your Mother – a man tells the story of meeting his wife, with plenty of detours – has never been as important as the theme – a group of mid-twenty-somethings grow into the adulthood that makes marriage and parenthood possible. What drives the show is the notion that this process never really ends; there’s no finish line clearly marked “GROWN-UP,” no certificate you get when all your training is complete. There will always be gaps to fill in, some of them more significant than others.
Barney has a bevy of adulthood gaps, and the inability to wield a screwdriver is the least of them. He’s been making progress all season long towards meeting, and coming to terms with, the father that abandoned him as a child. Finally meeting the man isn’t the end of that process, of course. But the events of “Legendaddy” added up to a solid next step for Barney (and, unsurprisingly, an impressive outing for Neil Patrick Harris).

After so many halting steps – concocting a fake version of Jerome to his friends, petulantly competing with his adolescent half-brother for dad’s affection – his outburst in the driveway felt totally earned. Most impressive was the show’s refusal to comment on that first small gesture of reconciliation – Jerome teaching Barney how to use the screwdriver. A lesser sitcom takes care to show that the healing has begun, but here we’re left not so sure. Instead, Barney just shuffles away in pain. Still, he’s matured as a result of the confrontation, just a crack more open emotionally at the end of the episode than at the beginning. He may never be able to forgive his father’s mistakes, but he’s prepared to learn from them.I also appreciated the way Marshall stepped up to bring Barney’s issues into perspective. Marvin Eriksen’s death continues to inform this mid-to-late stretch of the season, which has often focused on the more painful hurdles on the way to adulthood. Marshall has absorbed the lessons of his loss, and it’s given him the wisdom to penetrate Barney’s defenses in a way that less-equipped friends couldn’t.In a vintage HIMYM B-story, Barney’s tool impotence (“The only one I know how to use is attached to me, and I am not going to try putting it in the TV… again.”) leads the gang to start riffing on their own knowledge gaps. It’s true that even the most well-adjusted twenty- and thirty-somethings have, for whatever reason, failed to pick up a rudimentary skill or two, and this is the sort of fun yet recognizable slice of life that HIMYM has made a reputation of capturing. It started off pretty tepidly (and once again poor Robin got saddled with the recurring-joke portion, probably because Cobie Smulders plays cocky-laugh-fading-into-slowly-dawning-embarrassment so well).

By the time Lily was flinging beer bottles headlong across the apartment, though, I was laughing, and the story paid off unexpectedly when Marshall called the gang out for not teasing his own shortcomings. Since his dad died, they’ve been giving him a broad amnesty from mockery, and he’s sick of being treated with kid gloves. I laughed progressively harder at his increasingly inane attempts to invite a proper chops-busting, and walking in while cradling the possum was the perfect kicker.

But the episode clearly belonged to Harris and guest star John Lithgow as the elder Stinson. We’ve seen Harris’s fine emotional range before, but it’s a testament to his work creating the character of Barney Stinson that he can hit so many notes so honestly in the span of one episode. The quiet moment on Ted’s balcony, after Marshall disarms him with a remembrance of his own father, for example. And the way he sells the gag of pounding the backboard with the screwdriver, lightening without undercutting the tension of that scene.

Lithgow, for his part, played a much softer-spoken role than I can recall ever seeing him in, which lent an extra effectiveness to his frailty and ineffectual pain in his final scene. Jerome Stinson took far too long to start the transition into adulthood – he didn’t address his knowledge gap of how to be a husband and father until late in life, and he’ll never fully repair the damage wrought by that delay. How much he can mitigate it remains to be seen. Some markers on the road of maturation are just too costly to skip.

Other notes:

  • Ted’s gap was the least plausible – he’s never once in 31 years heard anyone say “chameleon” out loud? I would’ve bought that he knew the right way to say it, but was nevertheless unable to shake his original phonetic reading.
  • Only slightly more believable was Robin’s insistence that the North Pole isn’t a real place, and this loses credibility when you consider that she’s from a country that literally extends into the Arctic Circle. (Not believing in reindeer is okay, since when do you really hear about them outside of Christmas carols?)
  • Oh, and Robin doesn’t know that John Kennedy and Jack Kennedy are the same guy, but, again, chalk that up to Canadianity.
  • Marshall can’t wink, can’t swallow pills, adds too much water to his oatmeal, always misses a belt loop, and is far too old to ask to see the cockpit on airplanes. Jason Segel’s lazy-eye winking makes this whole gag worth it.
  • “And hey, congratulate me, because I’m the new Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. Expelliarmus!” (Hat tip to Anna Brennan for confirming the spelling of that wizardly declaration; this avowed muggle couldn’t have transcribed it alone.)
  • “This is going to be the second-most fun I’ve had on an Asian leg.”
  • “First of all, Robin… my dad could beat up your dad.”
  • The Bush Dynasty. I have to think someone at Standards & Practices at least winced at that.
  • “I switched lanes years ago.” Blank stare. “I should explain: I’m a driving instructor.”
  • “I’m literally eleven inches from you.”
  • “Well I do love it. It’s doing a nice job covering up that chair.”
  • “I’m not an idiot. Reindeer are obviously faa…reee…freeeef?”
  • “Lily, we are living with a possum! Rex is violent, and he hates us!”
  • “If you guys really want me to get over the worst tragedy of my life, I’m begging you, tear me a new one. But not the way Rex tried to in my sleep last night.”
  • I always enjoy seeing the Intervention banner, if only for the reminder of one of the show’s all-time funniest episodes.

Originally published at The Vast Wasteland, March 21, 2011.

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