I’m torn over where "The Ashtray" should rank among How I Met Your Mother’s Season 8 episodes so far. The episode was funny, multi-layered and even brought back a few old HIMYM friends. But it also confirmed that the show has put on the brakes to buy time before we hit the season finale, and the humor didn't quite live up to that of the past two episodes (Robin Daggers and Ted’s crazy girlfriend).
"The Ashtray" kicked off with Ted noticing he had a message on his answering machine (and, yes, Marshall agrees with you that it’s weird that Ted still has an answering machine) from The Captain. The character, played by Kyle MacLachlan, is the ex-husband of Zoey—the girl that Ted fell in love with, dated, and almost threw away his architecture career for. I found it interesting that Ted referred to Zoey as the woman “who I ended up befriending” in his voiceover. Don’t Ted’s kids already know more about Zoey and her relationship with their father than they ever should?
Ted and the gang proceeded to try to recap for Marshall the last time they saw The Captain, with Ted, Robin, and Lily each telling progressively more complete versions of the story.
Ted, Robin, and Lily were at an art gallery that Lily had seen advertised, when the group ran into The Captain. Ted described The Captain as being very rude, recalling that he kept finishing Ted’s sentences. After The Captain introduced his art consultant to the group, he invited them upstairs to see a new piece of art he'd recently acquired. When Ted mentioned his relationship with Zoey, The Captain pulled a harpoon gun on him. Luckily Ted talked him down, and The Captain took Robin and Lily to his bedroom to see the aforementioned painting. While they were gone, Ted noticed a picture of Becky, Robin’s former coworker and current BOATS BOATS BOATS spokesgirl, on The Captain’s desk. Ted who was once again seeing Becky, realized that he and The Captain were once again competing for the same woman. In the present day, Ted returned The Captain's call to find out that his former nemesis only wanted Robin’s phone number.
Robin pointed out that before Ted met up with her and Lily, he'd “shared a big, fat sandwich” with Becky, which on HIMYM translates to “he was really, really high.” As it turned out, The Captain wasn’t being rude to Ted, he was simply completing Ted’s sentences because Ted was baked and kept freezing up. Ted also screamed like a little girl whenever he saw The Captain, and said out loud what was supposed to be an internal monologue about The Captain being angry because Ted was “sticking it” to Zoey. But it turned out that The Captain had a romantic interest in Robin, extending the invite to his apartment to her while seductively applying chapstick. And that harpoon gun? Just The Captain with a remote control trying to record The Real Housewives. According to Robin, she let The Captain down gently and told him to call her in a year and a half. With that year and a half now up, Robin called The Captain to tell him she's engaged, only to realize that The Captain was actually looking for Lily.
In reality, Ted wasn’t the only one who'd made a fool of himself at the art gallery, as Robin had shown up pretty sloshed herself. In addition to trying to preventing her friends from embarrassing themselves further, Lily talked up an elephant painting at the gallery to The Captain, but was dismissed by his art consultant. Despite that, The Captain still invited her upstairs to check out a new painting in his bedroom. Lily followed and once again expressed her fondness for the elephant painting. The Captain rudely replied that Lily was just a kindergarten teacher, so what would she know about art? At this moment, a very drunk Robin stumbled into The Captain’s bedroom, kissed him, and immediately fell asleep. Under the law of Aldrin Justice, Lily stole an expensive ashtray from The Captain’s apartment and assumed that he was calling her to get it back.
The episode’s three-tiered approach to this story accomplished a few things. For one, it showed that HIMYM hasn’t lost its knack for finding new and creative ways to tell a pretty straightforward story. The series is quite skilled at stretching a quick story to fill an entire episode (like the time Ted and Marshall got high and thought they were lost at Groove Palooza). But the bigger impact of the story was that it forced Lily to face the feelings of failure she's been dealing with this season. We first learned that Lily wasn’t content with just being a mom when she and Ted were having a heart-to-heart on the apartment’s roof in "Band or DJ?"; in "The Ashtray," The Captain’s dismissal of Lily’s opinion of art once again reminded her that “somewhere along the line, I forgot to pursue my dream.” Lily has Marshall and Marvin and her friends, but she never became the great painter she once dreamed she'd be. Marshall tried to console Lily by telling her that she still had her best days ahead of her and that she could quit her job and reclaim her dream. Lily refused to buy Marshall’s plan and decided to return the ashtray.
To Lily’s surprise, The Captain hadn’t even realized the ashtray was missing; the reason he'd invited her over was to show her that he'd bought the elephant painting she'd recommended. In the months following the purchase, the artist had become famous, and The Captain had sold the painting for $4 million. Lily had been right about it, and now The Captain wanted her to become his art consultant.
And just like that, Lily’s existential crisis was solved. So... yay? I’m sorry, but I can’t buy the easy resolution to this one. I think it’s partially because HIMYM has presented many different versions of Lily and Marshall this season. One week they’re caricatures of themselves; the next, Lily is doubting her entire life. Lily knowingly chose this life over the artist’s life she once dreamed about, openly admitting that going to San Francisco and leaving Marshall was a mistake. This storyline not only bores me but it seems completely unrealistic eight years into the series.
It looks like we’ll get to see the resolution of Ted's relationship with Crazy Jeanette next week. I guess she took the night off from stalking Ted in this week’s episode?
– Ted, Marshall, and Barney struggling to decipher the tone of The Captain’s message was a great callback to Marshall demonstrating the durability of The Captain’s face when trying to determine whether he was friend or foe.
– The arcade game that Marshall was storing in Ted’s apartment in "Bad Crazy" was still there in this episode.
– It's interesting that Barney stated, “If you have a crazy story, I was there. It’s a law of the universe,” in an episode that mentioned Zoey; Barney was the Blitz during the Thanksgiving gathering when Zoey and the gang became friends, which means he missed out on a bunch of crazy stories.
– “She’s Boats Boats Boats and he’s The Captain. That’s sweet. I’m happy for those two,” Marshall said after Ted informed him that Becky was The Captain’s new love. Knowing that Ted went back to dating Becky really demonstrates how random his love life has been these past few years.
– While having an argument with himself, Barney slapped his own face. Too bad that doesn’t count toward the Slap Bet.
– Robin explaining her encounter with The Captain to Barney: “Nothing happened.” Barney: “Aw, that means hand stuff...”
– I’m pretty sure the last time we saw Lily carry out Aldrin Justice, she was stealing Hammond Druthers’ baseball. Druthers was Ted’s architect boss, played by Bryan Cranston. I’m pretty sure Heisenberg wouldn’t go for that these days.
– While Ted, Lily, and Robin swore that Barney wasn’t around on the night they ran into The Captain, they allowed him to think he was actually there in disguise, executing a play called the Archduke of Grand Fenwick. Or at least they thought they were letting him play along; The Captain mentioning that his art consultant “was off with some archduke she met at the party” kind of changed the veracity of Barney’s story.