We live in an age of serialized television, across the genre board, which means that the answer to "Where should I start watching this show?" is almost always "right at the beginning." And had you never seen an episode of How I Met Your Mother before, certainly I wouldn't encourage you to begin your journey at the Season 4 finale. BUT with the end of the series in sight, and ardent, unnecessary reflection the name of the game... what better time to revisit a best-in-class episode?
"The Leap," which aired May 18, 2009, is perhaps not the finest 21 minutes HIMYM has ever done (except for maybe the Stella-focused "Ten Sessions"?). But in its lean, understated way, it's sort of a perfect encapsulation of all the things we love about the show. Romance, hard lessons, just a bit of physical trauma — "The Leap" is a HIMYM DNA sample.
About to turn 31, Ted works his ass off to land a high-profile architecture assignment. After a year of pining for her, Barney is finally ready to tell Robin exactly how he feels… that is until she tells him first, and confuses his feelings. Also, Marshall wants to jump off the roof and onto a sweet hot tub-ready patio across the alley. (Hence “The Leap.”)
Ted fails to land the gig, forcing him to re-evaluate just what he likes about architecture... which leads him (soon) to become a professor instead. After a spirited back-and-forth, Barney and Robin concede that they really do like each other and share a passionate kiss. Marshall leads his wife and friends in jumping off the roof together.
WHY DOES IT WORK?
It’s sort of a low-key season finale when compared to others in which Ted won over Robin, Marshall and Lily got married, and Barney was hit by a bus… but dammit if it doesn’t just work, every element coming together to tell a simple but effective story about courage.
Barney and Robin's leap is about having the courage to give in, in this case to these feelings they've shared for a solid year. A different kind of leap (and one that will be reset a few episodes into the next season) but no less significant a character moment, and also one of their most authentic pairings. HIMYM never did Barney and Robin better than... well, before they actually put them together.
Ted, to this point in the series, has defined himself by two things: his romanticism, and his career in architecture. By season’s end he’s not only been dumped at the altar, but fired and passed over for a lucrative job. So, no, staring down the barrel of 31, Ted’s not really in a great place!
It's Lily who manages to cut through all the bullshit and tell Ted what's up, (and in a way that incorporates the episode title!):
“Do you really want to come back from this?” “I have to be an architect. That’s the plan.” “Ted, you can’t design your life like a building. Listen to what the world is telling you to do… and take the leap."
I don't know — maybe that's cheesy, and pat. But I think it's a message too often lost in our goal-oriented society. Why kill yourself fighting for something that's not making you happy? Why devote yourself to loving something (or someone, Robin) that won't love you back? As Ted himself points out moments later, life is going to knock you down...
That was the year I got left at the altar. The year I got beat up by a crazy bartender. The year I got fired. The year I got beat up by a goat…
...but sometimes rather than getting up to fight again, the better choice is changing tactics entirely. FLIPPING THE SCRIPT.
What makes "The Leap" work, more than anything, is the way it seems to recognize — even when future episodes will contradict this — how Ted's idealism is as much a hinderance as it is his defining characteristic. You can fight hard for things, stay the course, and that's noble to a point. But a willingness to try a different road... that's courage. And that's living.
(I'm treating HIMYM like a self-help tome and not a sometimes-disappointing half hour of television, I know, but that's sort of my point — that at its best, this show managed to articulate some pretty weighty philosophy while never forgetting the power of a good goat fight.)
DOES IT FEATURE ONE OF THOSE PERFECT EPISODE-ENDING INDIE BALLADS?
Of course it does! Here’s AC Newman’s “Prophets,” which plays over the cold open and as the Gang takes the leap onto their neighbor’s patio:
You can find lyrics here, most of which don't make any sense to me, but as music alone I think "Prophets" readily captures the tone we associate with HIMYM: reflective yet hopeful, excited at the possibility of what's to come.
IS IT ON NETFLIX?
Of course it is! Fire up "The Leap" and tell me you don't feel motivated to stop floating and start living. (After spending 21 minutes on your iPad.)