Not All Endings Are Created Equal: Dexter, HIMYM, and the Road to the Series Finale

By Cory Barker

Nov 01, 2012

Ending a long-running television show has to be unbelievably hard. Making any television is tough enough on its own, but once a series nears the end, writers and producers face all sorts of challenges, from picking what to focus on to making sure diehard fans are satisfied (or at least pretending that they care what fans think in the press and on social media).

But when we get into the discussion of what makes a great series finale, one of the things often pushed aside is the fact that, like shows, not all conclusions are not equal. There is a big difference between wrapping up a plot-heavy, mystery-laden show and concluding a story that's more character-focused. And oftentimes, choices shows make much earlier in their run end up defining (or hampering) how they come to an end.

While there are a number of long-running series coming to an end this season—The Office, Gossip Girl, Fringe, and 30 Rock most notably—the two that are taking the most interesting approaches to the endgame won’t (or won't necessarily) be done in May. We know that Dexter has another (final) season after the current one and despite various protestations from the cast, there's still a chance that CBS will try to keep How I Met Your Mother around for one more season in 2013-2014, even though the producers are "assuming" this is the end, and writing to the end. Regardless, both series are in the midst of concluding. More so than any other shows near the end, HIMYM and Dexte represent how the fundamental structure of a show—and a creative team’s willingness to tinker with said structure—shapes the conclusion.

How I Met Your Mother’s Misguided Stubbornness

You have probably heard from someone that How I Met Your Mother, now in its eighth season, is pretty much a shell of its former self. The jokes are still there on occasion, but the show’s primary strength—the ability to build to and then hit truly powerful emotional beats—is all but gone. In that way, the later seasons of the show remind me of the later season of Friends (an easy comparison, but an apt one as well): sort of empty. All the pieces are there, but the impact is nullified. But HIMYM’s problems go beyond that, and as you might imagine, date back much further than the current season.

For whatever reason, showrunners Carter Bays and Craig Thomas steadfastly believe that it's crucial that the "Who's the mother?" mystery remains a dominant part of the narrative, and to a lesser extent, they think that screwing with the audience is a fundamental part of the HIMYM viewing experience. Ted still hasn't met the mother and the show’s other still-developing relationship, Barney and Robin's, is trapped in narrative hijinks. While both the identity of the mother and plot tomfoolery have been essential to the show from the beginning, the longer things have gone on, the more strained those elements have become. The search for the mother has lost its luster and trapped Ted in a problematic holding pattern, while Barney and Robin’s relationship has gone from truly compelling to convoluted and ineffectual.

The counter to this frustration is that HIMYM can still be enjoyed as a more conventional “hang-out” sitcom that produces pleasure simply due to our affection for the characters. I used to support this viewpoint. But the show’s unwillingness to move past certain inevitabilities and its desire to keep winking toward “the future” has warped the characters to such a degree that it’s getting hard to care about them or their relationships. It’s not the show's focus on the search for the mother that bugs me, it’s that it has positioned the search as Ted’s biggest—and sometimes only—goal, so when he’s not looking (or even when he is), we know that it doesn’t really mean anything other than a surface connection to “the journey.”

And the biggest problem with all of this is that I sort of see where Bays and Thomas are coming from. The twisty-turny narrative nonsense and keeping the mother secret are defining parts of the show’s formula. Removing those removes a core of the show, in theory. It's a similar sort of argument to the one Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse made during the final season of Lost. Answers aren’t as interesting as questions and all that. But whereas Lost was a show that most fans wanted to be about the mystery and the producers claimed was actually about the characters (whether you believe that or not), How I Met Your Mother has always felt like a great character show that the producers really want to keep dazzling up with gimmicks.

So, for HIMYM and its stewards, removing certain essential parts of the show is not really an option, and unfortunately, I think that's the wrong decision. The show is stuck, and will be stuck until it stops pretending that most viewers care about the identity of the mother above all else. And while the Barney-Robin story is less problematic, that pairing has been damaged since the show aborted it the first time around. Despite all the good intentions, HIMYM feels like it is simply padding time until the end when all the “important” revelations can come out. The show is winding down instead of wrapping up, almost solely because it is held hostage by a framework that it actually has the power to run away from.

Dexter’s Smart Simplicity

Conversely, Dexter has gone from turning in one of the worst seasons of television last year to building up one of the best this year. Few shows have creatively revitalized themselves this late in the game, and Dexter’s improvements are especially impressive considering it didn’t really have a commercial onus to change a thing, what with last season’s strong ratings. Dexter’s success in Season 7 is the byproduct of its fundamental structure, but also its willingness to do what How I Met Your Mother is not: stop screwing around.

Unlike HIMYM, Dexter has never really been about mystery. The show’s dedication to framing the narrative through the lead character’s eyes has sometimes resulted in nice surprises (most notably when Trinity dispatched of Rita at the end of Season 4), but for the most part, Dexter is a straightforward, procedural show with two (and sometimes more, depending on the big villain of a season) compelling performances at the center.

The show’s formulaic nature has been a detriment from the very beginning. Even the “good” seasons were hampered by some fairly dreadful stories (typically involving LaGuerta), and the same can be said for this current one. Still, the reason those “good” seasons were good is that they featured compelling characters and great performances that were pushed to the forefront—or at least they pushed the silly stuff far enough to the side.

So whereas HIMYM’s essential qualities helped make it an innovator at the beginning and a disappointing slog at the end, Dexter’s inherently basic narrative structure has allowed this season’s transition from mediocrity to excellence to be pretty simple. HIMYM’s plot gets in the way, whereas Dexter’s plot can simply move aside for the important stuff. Which, in this case, is the tremendous, compelling relationship between Dexter and Deb.

Much like Ted finding the mother, Deb learning about Dexter's extracurricular activities has been the show's primary untold story. The big difference between the two series is that Dexter’s team recognized (or they at least felt empowered by Dexter's set end-date, something HIMYM still doesn’t have) that if the show owes the fans one story before it concludes, it’s Deb learning the truth about Dexter. More importantly, they understand that it’s not Deb just finding out that matters; it’s her reaction and the way her newfound knowledge re-shapes her relationship with her brother.

Somewhat surprisingly, Dexter has, at least through the first five episodes of Season 7, lived up to the expectations of the “Deb finds out” thread. Every week, the show has examined tangible and logical parts of the story in great detail, and there's been an intuitive progression to Deb’s thoughts on Dexter’s lifestyle that I would have never anticipated from a show that can be quite stupid. And perhaps most importantly, the show is treating Deb’s newfound knowledge as it deserves to be treated: like the biggest thing to ever happen. There are no cute misdirects or problematic evasive maneuvers. This is an honest exploration of the show’s most important relationship—and the show is all the more powerful for it (although the amazing performances certainly don't hurt). Dexter feels like it’s legitimately wrapping up, in a good way.

There’s no question that How I Met Your Mother and Dexter are very different shows and some of those prominent differences are playing sizable roles in their divergent journeys to the end. HIMYM’s fundamental reliance on the mother mystery and its structural playfulness—not the mention the fact that it's a sitcom—are arguably harder to manage in a final chapter than Dexter’s more simplistic character-based procedural framework. So maybe, in some ways, HIMYM is at a disadvantage.

But what I see as the key distinction the way both shows have chosen to engage (or not engage) with their respective series arcs. One keeps holding on to its essential nature as a way to avoid truly exploring the big story in a satisfying fashion, while the other has pretty seamlessly integrated the big story into its essential form. And that’s why How I Met Your Mother will likely limp to the finish line and why Dexter will probably have its best season in year seven.


– How do you think Dexter and HIMYM are doing, respectively, as they near the ends?

– What are the most important things for each show to do in order to give fans a satisfying season finale?

– Series finales are contentious by their very nature; what elements do you think of as "series finale essentials"? Closure for all the major characters? Answers to any and all outstanding questions?

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  • sanrac16 Nov 06, 2012

    this is a really great article, and i think it highlights what is so great and also so problematic about television (particularly 24-episodes worth of a season, as is the case with himym).

    can i tell a story that perhaps nobody will read? (sure i can - and i'm going to do so)

    i was introduced to both of these shows by the same person. my first himym episode was in season 3, "ten sessions." in hindsight, it was the perfect episode to be introduced to the series - in particular because it showcased so many of the wonderful aspects of the show, none more important than ted's fantastical, heightened romanticism in the form of his two minute date with stella. ted is such a compelling character in that episode because he is whimsical yet proactive in his engagement with stella as an equal; he's romantic yet light and realistic. ted's short date with stella is the grown-up equivalent of the blue french horn. it took the best of the sappiness in robin's gift and coupled it with three season's worth of maturity and growth.

    that ted is mostly gone now. everyone knows this. it's depressing, and i could write more about how/why. but we've got it. i miss that ted, you guys.

    with dexter, my first episode was "the british invasion," which was also the perfect episode by which to be introduced to everyone's favorite serial killer. lila was bat-shit crazy. she was the best villain outside trinity, in my opinion, because she touched dexter. i don't mean in the biblical sense, although i know she did (frequently). she was a villain who actually moved inside dexter's orbit in a way that felt organic and terrifying. we SHOULD be terrified by the villains in dexter more so than we are terrified of our actual hero. but i have only ever been terrified of lila and trinity in a way that rivaled my fear of dexter himself.

    and like ted in "ten sessions," in "the british invasion" dexter was the best of what an anti-hero should be - at least, he was the best of what this show can depict of an anti-hero. he saved cody and astrid (eyeroll, right?) and his eventual killing of lila was so well-earned. it felt like we were able to sigh with great relief when he closed her eyes for her and slipped away. he was smart. he was cold. he was frightening there, but it was all balanced. it was nuanced. he cared for lila, even as he murdered her. and he cared for doakes, even though he caused doakes' murder.

    it was the best, you know? and then, i don't know, trinity comes, makes everything amazing, and then destroys dexter forever. deb + dexter = <34eva or something? ugh.

    nobody is reading this...

  • TQB Nov 09, 2012

    I did read it. OK not the Dexter parts because I don't watch Dexter. But you're exactly right about Ted. He's just not that guy anymore, and that's why I don't care about him.

  • Snatzer Nov 06, 2012

    Thanks for the article, to answer your questions:

    Point 1: I also completely agree on HIMYM. Who cares who the mother is, like 3-4 seasons ago the last people who still cared stopped caring. I still watch it, but I feel so sorry for the actors (who are very talented). It will be good when it finishes and the actors move on to other shows/movies. I'm really dissapointed in the writers. Dexter is doing great, period.

    Point 2: HIMYM should give its characters the fun back again and tell some great stories and jokes. Like getting completely wasted on alcohol and get in trouble and do silly stuff. Dexter will have a great season finally as always. I hope Dex and Hanna go on a massive killing spree. He is a serial killer, so finally give in to it and go "Natural Born Killers"...Otherwise the living happily ever after fairytale...but knowing the series they will probably end the series with letting Dex loose in the wild. Go all undercover and Hannibal the rest of his life. Still they have been very succesfull in letting Dex continue his usual life and code through 7!!!! series.

    Point 3: Series Finales should probably give some closure for sub characters, but leave a lot of room for the main character(s) to develop into a feature film.

  • sanrac16 Nov 06, 2012

    i think that letting them get "completely wasted on alcohol and get in trouble and do silly stuff" might further exacerbate the issue of "the show's unwillingness to move past certain inevitabilities..."

    lily and marshall are parents now. the writers don't seem to have too many ideas as to how to let lily and marshall be lily and marshall and also be parents. they can be both. they do not need to be one or the other, and so while i agree that they have become stereotypical sitcom parents, they also can't just swing to the other side of the pendulum and drink to excess. i mean, parents do that. don't get me wrong. but lily and marshall are never going to be those kind of parents, and you can't convince me otherwise.

  • TQB Nov 03, 2012

    I agree about HIMYM. Going into Ted's last two relationships (Zoey and Victoria), the voiceover has told us they aren't the mother. This made watching those relationships a total waste of time. Why would I invest in them if I am constantly reminded that it isn't going to work out? It's like when the professor tells you "this won't be on the exam." You stop taking notes.

    Ted's character has also devolved to be totally one dimensional, and the why of that is simple: the real Ted would be absolutely miserable at this point. 8 years ago he decided he was ready to settle down and while we've seen Barney do a complete character reversal, it's not like Ted at some point reconsidered and said "actually, I think I just want to keep playin' the field" and embraced his single status. I have friends like Ted. They are in therapy.

  • Gold_Ruby Nov 03, 2012

    I completely agree with you on HIMYM. The fact that they brought back Victoria and has done absolutely nothing with her shows that the creators are running out of stories to tell. By the greater occurrences of filler episodes, I'm starting to get the feeling that they too are antsy to wrap the show up. Maybe there is a god and he will let one of the formerly best comedies of the past couple years finally end.

  • CharmedOneP391 Nov 02, 2012

    I loved season 7 of HIMYM and I'm currently so-so about Season 8. I hope it can pick it up if this is the final season, but I'd watch no matter what.

    I'm LOVING Season 7 of Dexter. It's the best season ever in my opinion. Dex and Deb's relationship this season has elevated the entire show to a different level than ever before. (and Yvonne Strahovski being on my screen only amps the show up more)

    I'd watch either show no matter what, but HIMYM isn't doing so great right NOW, where as Dexter has never been better.

    I hope Season 8 of Dexter continues the current greatness, and doesn't follow up it's great 7th season like HIMYM did with it's 7th season.

  • mrjimmyjames Nov 02, 2012

    Completely disagree on HIMYM, Tim. As of now the show is at its creative height due to its willingness to keep the audience in the dark and gradually reveal things over time. Without this element the show loses much of its plot and becomes about nothing. Not to mention its more popular now than it has ever been (that's why CBS wants to keep it around).

  • CoryBarker1 Nov 02, 2012

    I'm sure Tim appreciates the constructive feedback, but he didn't write this.

  • sanrac16 Nov 06, 2012

    also, shows about nothing are never successful (stupid seinfeld)

  • DavidJackson8 Nov 02, 2012

    Dexter -- I am loving this current season. However, I don't think I'll be able to say I'll like it better than the first two seasons of the show, and probably season three and four as well. Back then, Dexter was easily my favorite show on television. It was probably the first show that made me appreciate serial dramas on television -- up until then, I had watched almost exclusively sitcoms, cartoons, and procedurals like CSI and/or Law and Order. It was also the first show that made me really appreciate acting, directing, and cinematography. I've re-watched the first few seasons of Dexter five or so times since then, and it's not just nostalgia... those first few seasons were so SO SOOOO good. Season five fell off a bit, but I didn't hate it as much as some others. But season six was horrible. It had its moments and there were a few things I could appreciate... but the season as a whole was pretty crap. This season, I think for everybody, has been a whole lot better. As for the way the show ends, I have no expectations or even any hopes for it, except that I hope it's great, hehe. Although, I do hope that Quinn and LaGuerta are killed off by then.

  • DavidJackson8 Nov 02, 2012

    HIMYM -- I stopped watching three episodes in to this current season. I didn't like season 6 much and I didn't like season 7 much, but I decided to not give it up. Unfortunately, this season started off so poorly for me that I couldn't stand watching any more of it. My quitting had nothing to do with the show's mystery about the mother: I haven't cared about who the mother is since season 1, and even then I didn't care much. I just couldn't bring myself to care about what amounts to as an "imaginary" character. I quit, however, because the jokes weren't funny anymore and I stopped caring about the five leads. The jokes have become either too recycled (jokes they've been doing every season) or too unoriginal (jokes almost every sitcom about relationships make). As for the characters, I started finding Ted and Robin almost excruciatingly annoying; Marshall and Lily became completely boring; and Barney was always interesting to me as the funniest character the show... so when the writers' jokes faltered and Barney started having as many relationship problems as Ted, I lost all interest in him, as well.

    Even though I've quit, I still plan on watching the series finale whether it's this season or next. It's odd in a way because while I didn't and don't necessarily care who the mother actually is, it's almost as if not finding the jokes funny anymore and losing interest in the main characters has left me only with who the mother is. So while that revelation isn't nearly enough to keep me watching, it is enough to make me want to watch the series finale of a show I quit on.

    As for the way the show ends, I expect the mother to be revealed with about 5 minutes left in the season finale. After the revelation, I think the show will go with a montage over a slightly extended version of the main theme song showing clips or "photos" of some of the things that happen between Ted meeting his kids' mother and Ted telling his kids to sit down and listen to a story. It's a bit lame and sort of an obvious way to end the show, but I won't be opposed to it either.

  • Swinglabacase Nov 02, 2012

    HIMYM has, for a long time, stopped being about the initial premise and become a "show about nothing" as George Costanza would say. Essentially, the show has mostly become a clone of "Seinfeld" where we witness the journey of the likable characters. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. The show had great moments. A satisfying finale would require that the mother is revealed earlier and that we see the process of "dating along the way to the wedding" and end on that. If they reveal the mother only in the last episode it will leave a sour aftertaste of cheapness.

    More I think about Dexter's seasons more it becomes clear that, even tho Dexter is the main character, the whole story is about Debra's journey. It's the story of the daughter of a policeman who has joined the force and who's adopted brother is a serial killer (while a blood splatter expert in the same precinct). She is the only character who has truly evolved throughout the seasons. Everyone else, even Dexter, are exactly the same. Dexter had a great opportunity to boot a change with the events of last season but the writers/producers have missed the boat (intentionally or not) and have produced a major waste of time and talent (E.J. Olmost). I don't see how it could happen this season... So, tho it might not be seen as a "satisfying season finale" by everyone, the only logical solution here is that Dexter has to die at the end; or it will leave a sour aftertaste of a cheap unfinished story. But, with another "finale season" added, anything can happen.

    Series finale essentials? Answers the major outstanding questions or mysteries.

  • CoryBarker1 Nov 02, 2012

    I actually agree about the show being about Deb more than Dexter. That's what happens when the lead character rarely ever changes.

  • JT_Kirk Nov 02, 2012

    Excellent analysis of why HIMYM is in real trouble. I still believe they have over-written the perfection of the mother and now cannot find someone to cast that'll fit the impossible role. They overplayed their hand and now the show is impossible to watch without that stuff looming over it and dragging these characters down. And thinking about it as a piece of the Ted + Mother story really makes it sad, Ted is telling his kids more and more about totally pointless antics and nonsense.

  • Glenn9999 Nov 02, 2012

    In watching the show I've had to explain why the show is called "How I Met Your Mother". In that sense, the show title really makes no sense, and that's been pointed out several times in several places by people either directly saying it or having to ask why the show is called that. Again, I don't know that very many people really ever cared about who Moseby ends up with, but cares more about the journey there and whether he "wins" out of it or not (and all of his long-term whatevers have been with wonderful women, except for Victoria 2.0, or is it 3.0?)

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