When ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Counted Down to Tragedy by Playing a Game
‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“This is bad news; this is like a black cat walked through my uterus.”
How I Met Your Mother isn’t a show that tried to skirt around doing things out of the box. This is a sitcom with an entire premise that’s structurally and stylistically ambitious, after all. With the whole series being a game of cloak and dagger with the audience, it’s not surprising that particular episodes have featured standout deviations from the norm, especially when the series would run for nine years and over 200 episodes. In that span they’d find the time to play with bifurcated storylines, musical numbers, endlessly experimenting with timelines and chronology, bottle episodes, executing some of the most intricate callbacks and running gags I can think of, and even an episode that’s told entirely in rhyme. In spite of the quality of all of those atypical installments, the season six episode, “Bad News” stands out in a whole other way due to the emotional weight that’s anchored to it.
The impetus behind “Bad News” is that series creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, wanted one of their characters to experience loss, as well as the ensuing grieving process. Six seasons in, the show had done a meticulous job at showing twentysomethings growing up, with death being one of their lingering unchecked boxes. With the maturity and growth that these characters had gone though, it finally felt appropriate to pull such a trigger without it feeling manipulative and unearned.
Accordingly, Bays and Thomas whole thing here is that bad news so often comes when you least expect it, and can completely sideline you. “These kind of moments happen when you don’t expect them. We wanted to shock the audience the way the characters were shocked.” As a result, they thought it would make sense to tell the story of bad news by having it being this looming shadow slowly closing in our characters. This idea is carried through by objects and dialogue slowly counting down, from the number fifty, all the way down to one (and then moving to the morbid, “time expired” on a parking meter). It’s such a lengthy exercise (as opposed to say, going from twenty-five to one) that inherently the viewer will clue into these constant numbers at some point, recognize that something is going on, and then follow along with bated breath accordingly. If not, even the episode’s title, “Bad News,” acts as a foreboding omen. It wants you be aware. The first number from the countdown is even present as soon as the episode opens, with the first “countdown” happening as early as nineteen seconds in.
It’s an inspired idea, and admittedly Bays and Thomas got it from the 1988 film, Drowning by Numbers, but to cram half of that into 22 minutes of television is even more impressive. How I Met Your Mother has received a number of awards and accolades through the years for their technical acumen, such as cinematography, but it’s a true shame that the production design didn’t receive special acknowledgement here because the whole thing must have been a beast to take on (here’s the countdown once more, but in video form). Granted, this isn’t the first sitcom to indulge in background easter eggs to fuel a secondary story. There’s even an early episode of Community that has a character helping deliver a baby through several story beats, all entirely in the background and ancillary to the main story. This might be the example that carries the heaviest emotional resonance with such an endeavor though.
To further this concept even more, the victim of the bad news, Marshall, wasn’t even aware of what the tragic information would be. The script that they rehearsed with had the big news being that Lily was pregnant, with it being understood that this was merely a placeholder scene. Not until the scene was actually filming was the real dialogue revealed, and even then, only to Alyson Hannigan. Segel is oblivious to the news that was going to hit him until it actually hit him on camera, for the first time. It’s a risky strategy, but one that clearly paid off. Only one take of the scene was shot, and the one you’re seeing is Segel’s genuine reaction to hearing that bombshell for the first time, as well as his impromptu response. So much effort was taken to authentically recreate the experience of getting bad news, and like many of coming of age experiences that How I Met Your Mother put the audience through, this one too feels legit.
“Bad News” even playfully edges close to the answer the whole episode, until life continues to intervene. Right in the first act Marshall is eager to call his dad to share with him his and Lily’s fertility news, until he doesn’t. Later on, Marshall’s dad tries to reach him, only Marshall ignores the call. The episode spends some time establishing that Marshall and his father have a relationship predicated on good news, making the circumstances of this situation all the more poignant. These feel like nothing at the time, but just like in real life, after the news drops, these final almost-moments with the departed resonate and mean ever more as a result. Something impossibly mundane becomes a lasting memory. It’s even more bittersweet that this tragedy is paired with Marshall exuberant over the fact that he didn’t receive bad news over his sperm results. The universe is playing with us.
Overall, “Bad News” remains a contentious episode amongst the How I Met Your Mother community. It’s unanimous that the episode’s emotional ending connects, and it’s one of the sadder moments throughout the series. But it’s the complicated outfit that the episode wears that continues to irk audiences. It just goes to show you that sometimes people prefer simplicity, especially when emotions are involved, and while there’s no disputing that “Bad News” is a strong achievement of production, it seems like some people would have been happier just seeing an episode about Marshall and his dad. Then again, that’s kind of what bad news is all about. You can’t control it. You can’t decide how it presents itself to you. In that regard, the episode functions even better as a fundamental, inevitable slice of life.