Blood Soaked Through: Downton and the lie of British Nostalgia

Okay, hold your loved ones tight Wee Readers, it’s time for anecdote. When my grandmother was a little girl she went to a posh girl’s school, because of her high IQ. But it’s important to note that though she was not posh, at all back then, many of her classmates were. In fact, they were the posh of the posh, they were the upper-class. The kind of people that take their children on fox hunts.

Now sometimes when these posh of the posh girls would come back from their summer holidays, it would be noticed that they had dried blood behind their ears, or sometimes still smeared across their faces. My god, I hear you saying, what had happened to these poor children during their summer holidays? Aha, say I – but I’ve already given you the answer already. You see, when a young person – and we are talking young here, these were children – participates in their first fox hunt, when the fox is caught its blood is smeared over the child’s face and worst of all, if you can belive it, they’re not allowed to wash it off. It has to be left to dry and flake off by itself.

A disgusting, foul smelling thing that no longer feels like it should belong in our modern world – speaking of which….

Let’s talk about Downton Abbey.

For those lucky few not in the know, Downtown Abbey was a historical drama set just after the sinking of the titanic, written by Julian Fellows, that ran from 2010 to 2015, and later received a follow up film in 2019, with a sequel planned for 2022. The series started off with a strong first season, with good dialogue and intriguing plot twists ripped right from real stories of the time, but gradually declined in quality. Season two while not the worst the series would ever produce, was mainly pulled along by the natural intrigue of WWI, and seasons three-six coasted on soap-opera like shockers, when they weren’t just repeating their own stories over and over again. I think even fans of the show would agree, that this was not a well written series.

But what I find sad is that it didn’t really have to be, as I said before the first season was actually decent up to a point, and even the later seasons had glimmers of something. Story threads that could have gone somewhere, characters that were occasionally likable. The setting at least should have provided it with many interesting turns for the story. But nothing ever came of it; and I always wondered why, and then I watched the film and suddenly everything was so bright and clear. Oh, not because it was a good film, or in the least entertaining, it’s not, it’s trash from start to finish – in fact in some ways it’s actually much worse than the tv show; because as a film the expectations for it are automatically much higher. You were given a film to play with Julian Fellows, kindly please do something with it other than meander around for two hours. I mean the closest thing we got to a main story, was the servant subplot where they kidnapped the visiting royal staff so they could serve the King and Queen instead. This is not what I wanted from the writer of Lady Sybil’s death scene.

No what made everything so much clearer to me is because the writing was so bad, any form of subtlety with the underlying message of Downton, in a sense the reason the whole phenomena was started, had been dropped. And what is that message you might ask, well my dear wee reader, it’s the warm feeling of nostalgia you might have looking back on a happy time in your childhood, or in fact any time before this whole Covid mess began. But Downton doesn’t want you feeling that way about things that actually matter to your life; no Downton has its priorities right – it wants you feeling that way about the past, sure, but the distant past. The past where the upper class ruled benignly over counties, that really needed them to survive. Where Masters and servants coexisted in a wonderful symbiotic relationship, and were basically family.

Of course, such a time never existed but that won’t stop Downton from spinning its enchanted tale of the place. Weren’t things just so much better? The poor happier and more content – the decent ones anyway – and the rich finally allowed to show just how regal and elegant they could be?

Don’t you wish you could live back then? That today’s world could be more like that?

And now we’ve found the trap.

Everything in Downton, every plot thread, every character you may love or hate is used for this purpose. Don’t belive me, let’s take a look.

Lady Mary

I think even fans of Lady Mary can admit that she was a bit of a b word, she was intentionally written that way so that when she met the middle-class heir, and her ice queen tendencies would begin to unthaw, we could see the real, feeling person hidden underneath. Or at least I assume that was the intention, honestly to me the happier Mary grew with her situation the less her actress seemed to care about her performance. But regardless I’m getting off track.

The point of Mary as a character is to highlight how the rich suffer, nothing less and nothing more. That is not to say that as a woman in the early 20th century Mary does not suffer – indeed the main plot of the show is kicked off by the fact that due to a specific law in Britain at the time, Mary as a woman cannot inherit either her father’s estate or her mother’s inheritance. But when we look at her life through the lens of the time in which she lived, rather than are own, we might discover that Mary’s troubles are not in fact the great hardships, or soap opera-esc drama the narrative encourages us to see them as.

Yes, in comparison with some women today, Mary has significantly less rights and power in her situation – but she is still the eldest (and favored) daughter of the earl of Grantham. She lives a luxurious life waited on by an entire army of servants. I know all this by fact, and yet when I re-watched season one I felt genuine pity for Lady Mary, nay a genuine desire to see her succeed and obtain Downton Abbey for her own. And then I had to stop and think… why? What actually made Mary more deserving of Downton and all its wealth, than Mathew or any other inbred twit that came to claim it?

Because she’s an Earl’s daughter?

Because she’s a woman?

That can’t be it, if real feminism has taught us anything it’s that a person’s worth, or their abilities cannot truly be judged by their gender. And yet through the cunning manipulation of the basic form of feminism – i.e., woman is kept from something that she would have automatically received had she been born with a Y chromosome – Fellows manages to make the audience root for a character who is at their very core, a terrible human being.

Which is the point, the Crawleys shouldn’t have to change to win the plebian audience’s approval, the audience must change their mind.

But then again, she’s not by far the most manipulatively written character of this kind on the show. For instance, I can legitimately say that she’s a terrible person and probably not get much push back down in the comments. Which is in slight contrast to our next piece on the board.

Lady Edith

Like her sister before her Lady Edith is the embodiment of the plight of the wealthy, or at least the wealthy young woman. While there are some ‘feminist’ leanings to her character, like her running a magazine, and her journalist carrier – for the most part Fellows gains the audience sympathy, not by leaning into any outer social justice cause, but just by shitting on her. From the first moment she appears on screen, in actual mourning for her dead cousin – Lady Edith is treated like garbage by almost every member of her family, with only Lady Sybil showing any sympathy. Which is its own problem, but I’ll get into that later.

She’s left at the alter by her elderly fiancé, conceives a child out of wedlock and is forced to hide it, and has her long awaited happily ever after yanked away not one episode from the final by her spiteful sister, Mary. Who then goes onto have her own literal fairy-tale wedding in the very next episode – I know, I know I shouldn’t be getting hung up on that, but it’s just so annoying.

The trick here is that unlike Mary, her suffering is not merely seen by the audience’s modern perspective – Edith is suffering no matter what value system you subscribe to. It sucks that she can’t come right out and say this is my daughter, it sucks that she’s left at the altar, it sucks that her family talks about her like she’s a hideously deformed beast, despite the fact that by most people’s standards she’s still very pretty.

So, it’s very easy and very understandable to feel pity for Edith Crawley, and yet we mustn’t forget as the show clearly wants us to, that Edith’s troubles are not the height of tragedy the post WWI world had to offer. Indeed, that’s true even on the show itself. Yes, it sucks that she had to hide her daughter but unlike say someone like Housemaid Ethel, she gets to keep her child – after some chicanery with the Drewe farm.

And speaking of the Drewe Family, can we just stop for a second, and speak about how absolutely terribly they were treated by the Crawleys and Edith in particular. They take in this child, raise it like their own for the first – I don’t know how time works on Downton, people don’t age normally, but let’s say – year of their life, with the wife completely ignorant of any connection the child might have to the Crawleys of Downton Abbey. All the while Lady Edith seems to have taken a random liking to the girl, and keeps popping in, gradually eroding more and more of the Drewe Family’s privacy. Eventually it all comes out, and the little orphan girl turns out to be Lady Edith’s love child; so, when she’s snatched away by her birth mother, not only do the Drew’s have no legal claim to this child that they have loved and cared for her entire life, but after an unfortunate incident where Mrs. Drewe tries to take the baby back, now they’ve even lost their farm, and their livelihood.

I suppose it just goes to show, that just because Lady Edith’s own suffering is genuine, doesn’t mean she’s not capable of inflicting it on others.

It’s so bad that even Robert Crawley, high lord of all of the Downton world, has to comment on how badly the poor Drewes have been treated. I mean he does nothing to fix it, but he gets to mention it, thus making him seem somewhat more reasonable than the women in his family. Speaking of which…

Robert

When you think of Downtown Abbey and Creator’s pets – that is a character who the writer clearly adores, but the audience (or at least the majority of them) cannot stand – you may think casually of Lady Mary. Who is allowed to continue being a bitch throughout the majority of the show. But I would like to draw your eye to an individual even more deserving of such a title…one, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham.

Robert is a spoilt autocrat, content in his power and his place in the world as it was – this is how season 1, with its superior writing, tricks us into liking him. Of course, Robert seems more reasonable than his stuck-up daughters, his thoughtless wife, and his (wonderfully) bitchy mother, he’s getting his way. And it is only in season three and four, when his mistakes, and character flaws become more relevant to the main story, in which the audience is finally allowed to see Robert for who he has always been. A spoilt little boy, playing at being the great lord of the castle. He is the kind of man so focused on showering his new heir and surrogate son with praise that he doesn’t even realise that he’s reduced his daughter to tears. He’s the kind of lord who will kiss his widowed maid, in a sense forcing her to resign and loose her position. He’s the kind of creature so focused on being right, and looking like the great lord, that he will ignore the advice of a trusted physician just because he’s not fashionable.

But wait I hear you say, Wee Lassie, in season three and four he’s punished for his mistakes. He loses his daughter; he loses half the power to run his own estate. And to that I say look closer, yes, on the surface he does seem to be punished for his mistakes, and his crimes, but when you really think about it, he suffers much less than he really should. He lost his wife’s fortune in bad, nay stupid investments, and when he’s saved by Mathew’s inheritance; he expects things to go back to the way they were before. So, when Mathew proposes making Downton self-sustaining, this comes as a shock and he throws a fit, several fits in fact. Still, Mathew and later Tom and Mary are persistent and Downton is saved. If we were in the realm of reality, Downton would not have been saved, there would be no last-minute inheritance from Mathew’s dead fiancé’s dead father (yes, it’s as melodramatic and daft as it sounds), and Robert would have to live with the consequences of his action.

But we’re not in reality anymore, we’ve stepped through the door to the Downton Zone, where everything and everyone bends just a little to accommodate Robert Crawley’s wishes. Still don’t belive me? Think back to Lady Sybil’s death; caused undeniably by Robert and that fancy Doctor ignoring the signs of pre-eclampsia in Sybil. A fact that he’s called out on by his wife in the end of the episode, and it almost ruins their marriage. Until of course Maggie Smith steps in and forces the local doctor – who had caught the signs but had been ignored – to lie and tell Robert and Cora there really was no hope. The world bends around him, so that Robert doesn’t have to bear that guilt anymore. But my point is, if Robert’s actions are to actually mean something, then he has to bear the guilt of them. He has to bear, until his own dying day; the fact that he killed his daughter.

But that would never happen, not to Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham.

Not to Julien Fellows’ aristocratic hero of the upper-class.

Please, consequences are for the poor.

Which leads us to…

Tom

Tom Branson, oh poor Tom Branson. It’s clear when he first appeared on our screens all the way back in 2010 that he was always intended as the love interest for Lady Sybil. Which is why when Fellows came back with season two, the lack of focus on the relationship, or at least the pre relationship between the socialist chauffer and the spirited youngest daughter of the earl of Grantham, seemed so strange. But looking back on it now, with the film fresh in my mind, it no longer does.

An actual in-depth romance would have to actually acknowledge the class discrepancies between the pair. Perhaps even confront Sybil’s unchallenged assumptions and prejudices; a process that would last longer than a single scene, and effect the rest of both the characters’ lives. But fuck that, clearly, it’s much more important to give that screen time over to the imprisoned Bates, despite the fact that he is doing absolutely nothing interesting at all. And I am thoroughly convinced that Bates got that screen time because, unlike early Branson, not only upholds the status quo that keeps the Crawley’s on top, he revels in it.

The fact that this clearly already planned Romance was shoved into the end of season two reveals Tom Branson’s second role in the narrative, and one that Fellows clearly finds way more important than his brief stint as Lady Sybil’s husband. That is, Tome Branson the reformed Marxist. That is much more than he is a love interest, Tom Branson is the character set to have his political beliefs proven misguided, torn down, and rebuilt in a way that the writer finds much more agreeable. If this were a more leftist – or at the very least neutrally written – show this role would probably have been filled by one of the Crawley Sisters, but then again that’s not Downton. Now I’m not saying that Marxism and socialism don’t have their flaws, they do, just like every other political belief system on earth. But when you have your socialist character go off to America sometime in season five, I think – and come back claiming that the fair treatment of the American Worker has left him with a better feeling towards Capitalism as a whole, it’s clear that you’re not going to get a nuanced critique of socialism in this show.

And speaking of non-nuanced characters…

Lady Sybil

I’m going to say something controversial here – so I’d just like to remind the reader that I don’t actually hate lady Sybil, there’s nothing there to hate, and that’s the problem. Because lady Sybil, or at least how she is presented in the show, is insidious

Okay put down those pitchforks, let me explain myself. What do you think of when you picture Lady Sybil as a character? No, not her death or the fact that she ran away with the chauffer – those are things she did. I’m talking about her innate character, who she was as a person – that’s right, she was nice and cared for the less fortunate. Certainly not bad traits to have as a character by any account, but it’s interesting to note that unlike her sisters – who began the story as Bitch one and Bitch two – Sybil doesn’t have anywhere to go from there. She remains nice and concerned for the less fortunate right up until the day she died, but those two attributes were never expanded upon.

And what’s strange is if they had been, then Sybil could have been one of the most interesting characters on the show. In fact, the beginning of season two even looks like it’s going that way – with Sybil unfulfilled in her life and deciding to train to be a nurse. But the fact is, we never see that training – she just goes off one day to her nurse school, and the next time we see her, boom she’s a nurse and working with Doctor Clarkson. Imagine for a moment a version of Downton Abbey that let us see that transition, that showed us Lady Sybil’s struggles with the hard manual labor that was now required of her, or her difficulties relating to the other nursing students because of the differences in their class. Imation a Lady Sybil that grows from this, that realises that her privileged upbringing has not only left her unfulfilled, but woefully ignorant of the suffering others.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just the socialist in me, but wouldn’t that be a much more interesting story line, then oh no she ran away with the Chauffer.

And speaking of the Chauffer, as I mentioned in Branson’s own segment wouldn’t it have been much more interesting to show actual romance blooming between them – rather than just the claims of love from Branson’s side, and then suddenly after the war is over, they decide to elope. That’s not a story that’s an afterthought. But then again, falling in love and conducting a secret romance with a man who was not only of a lower social standing than her, but her actual servant, would require Sybil to show that she needed growth as a character. Closest we come to is a brief scene when Sybil shows how ignorant she is to what the British Government have put the Irish through, with the truly atrocious line of:

‘I know we weren’t our best in Ireland.’

Which could have been interesting, but again we never follow up on it so nothing really happens. And Sybil can remain just good, no need of a noticeable change in her demeaner, no need to face hard truths of her world. Just nice Sybil, who was a good person, who everybody loved and wasn’t it so sad that she died.

Now I know what you’re thinking, sure Wee Lassie, that sounds like a kind of dull character but where does the insidious part come in? Well, think of it, Wee Reader, think of a character who wasn’t just been born into wealth but the kind of upper-class near royalty elite that derived their power from the continuous degradation of the lower classes. Now think of that character, true they are innately kind, but even an innately kind person raised in that world would take on some uncomfortable beliefs. And yet we’re never really shown that in Lady Sybil, she’s not even mildly unpleasant, which is really kind of weird, especially when you consider how her sisters first started.

But then again as with most creative decisions we can trace this back to the underlining message that governs all of Downton Abbey. That is, that the system of the elites ruling and lording over all is not inherently broken and based on a warped sense of superiority. No, the system itself isn’t broken, it’s just that the good elites are no longer in charge. Perhaps Lady Sybil herself would find this idea abominable, but that’s the story her character helps to preserve. The fair elite, the kind Millionaire, the good king – all fictions, all completely unable to be true in the system in which they were created.

Well, I hear you say, that was certainly an impassioned argument against the dangers of inborn power structures, and British nostalgia for them – but that little story at the beginning about the girls with their faces painted with blood…what was that? And how did it have anything to do with the rest of the post? And I say – why thank you, I was hoping someone would bring that back up again. That story was to help with a little trick I use when watching these kinds of shows. Because Downton is certainly not alone in its nostalgia for this kind of world, it’s just one of the most obvious because it’s so badly written. Particularly by the time the film came out.

But other shows with a similar thesis can often sneak under the radar, with deceptive tricks like better writing, deeper characters, and actual plot. Think of shows like The Crown: which on the surface is showing some of the darker more messier elements of the royal family – my favourite episode is the one when old Uncle David is shown to be a Nazi sympathiser – but at its deepest core, it’s arguing that the Royal Family are not only still relevant, but needed, in British society.

Which in 2021, is not true – they don’t even really rule us anymore, not officially anyway, which to my mind is kind of the only point to royalty. I mean they’re a mode of Governance, if they no longer Govern then why are they still here?

But regardless, it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to tell people to just not watch shows like the Crown – I even get the appeal of Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith is a blast, and the soap opera storylines do pull you in. But the fact still remains that they have terrible messages about the way the world should be run – and thus I recommend that the next time you find yourself watching one of these shows, for whatever reason, remember that odds are likely these people have gone fox hunting some time in their life. Which if you will recall means that they’ve not only had their faces painted in blood, but left it on long enough for it to dry and flake off.

I’m not saying do it all of the time, just some – and you’ll find suddenly they don’t seem so regal anymore.

It’s just a thought.

If you’ve enjoyed this long-winded rant on the deeply broken basis for Western society masquerading as a rant about a terrible period drama, why not follow the wee blog if you haven’t already. Also check me out on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook, and Goodreads. Also don’t forget to click the button down below to support this blog on Kofi. And remember to sign up for the Wee Mailing list before November 12th to find out the 12 video essays I found the most fascinating/distracting during this terrible time on earth. I usually try to have the mailing list posts have something connecting them to the main blog post they’re advertised on, but I was just so sick of Downton Abbey by the time I finished this article, that I just couldn’t anymore. So enjoy this list instead. Until next time Wee Readers stay safe, stay vigilant and have a very bonny day.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

The Devil’s in the Barnacle – the deceptive power of the narrative voice in How I met your Mother

What Ho Wee Readers – well it’s been a rough couple of years hasn’t it, but I feel like we’re reach end of the tunnel. Soon the only mask any of us will be forced to look at is that stupid one we wear each Halloween.  But until that day, I think it’s important to focus on the positive – and while the lockdowns across the world have had many, many downsides – one of the upsides for those of us whose situation wasn’t threatened by it, was the extra time the lockdown offered to go on a streaming binge.  To finally watch through all those shows you’d liked in passing, but never had the time to fully commit to before. Well, you’re stuck in your house trying not to dwell on the apocalypse we’re all currently living through – what else you gonna do? Wow, that was a long and rather bitter way to introduce our current topic; I apologies wee readers, I don’t know where that came from.

Anyway, long story short – this lockdown I binged watched ‘How I Met your Mother’. For those of you not in the know, ‘How I met your mother’ was a sitcom that ran from 2005 to 2014, staring Josh Radnor as Main Character Ted Mosby and Bob Saget as Ted’s older self as he narrates the story of how he met their mother to his two kids. Alongside Ted on his journey to meet the love of his life – which spans a full nine seasons – is Ted’s best friend from college Marshall Eriksen played by Jason Segel; Marshall’s fiancé Lily Aldrin play by Alyson Hannigan (from Buffy fame); new girl Robin Scherbatsky played by Cobie Smulders (before the Avengers) and finally my favorite character (yes, I’m a giant cliché) playboy Barney Stinson played by Neil Patrick Harris.

It is a show that has been accused of being a rip-off of Friends, a criticism that while I think is a little harsh and not quite seeing the whole scope of either show, is at least somewhat correct in some of the minor details. For instance, while I don’t actually think either Lily or Marshall has any similarities to Monica and Chandler, other than being a married couple – which if you’ll stay with me isn’t a similarity, so much as a common form of relationship ; on the other hand, the other three main characters do have some noticeable similarities to the cast of Friends.  Take Ted Mosby our protagonist, who is so similar to Ross Gellar that he might as well have been cloned. Hey look at that, they’re both teachers at a university, and they even have the exact same hairstyle – I smell foul play.  Then we have Robin, who while being slightly more of an original person than Ted, does have some strong shared traits with Rachel – being the newest member of the gang, dating the nerdy sensitive professor, and being career goal oriented – and Monica – her difficult relationship with her parents, her tom boyish nature and her hair colour. At last, and most bizarrely of all we have our boy Barney Stinson who seems to be a weird amalgamation of Chandler’s unknowable corporate life, Joey’s womanizing, and Phoebe’s wild mood swings, hair colour, and abandonment by her father, and reconnection with his second family years later. I made that last one sound a lot similar that it appeared on screen, but I just find it weird that two such different characters like Barney Stinson and Phoebe Buffay have so much in common.

But strange similarities aside what I find the biggest difference between these two sitcoms is the narrative voice. 

What I mean is that when we watch an episode of Friends, no matter how ridiculous the characters may be acting, that is what actually happened in their lives. There’s no hint to the audience that anything we’re being shown is a lie to the characters, or that there’s some stronger narrative force pulling them forward beyond their own dumb decisions. Ross and Rachel sleep together and Rachel becomes pregnant; yes, the people watching might think that that was done to get a good story, or heighten the drama between the on-and-off-again-couple, but to the characters that was just something that happened in their lives. The same cannot be said about ‘How I met your Mother’. Because in the end ‘How I met your mother’ is not actually show about a group of friends figuring their lives out in New York, it’s the show about Ted Mosby telling his kids how he figured his life out.

It’s such a simple plot device, and yet it changes the way we view everything about this show. It transforms what would have been a still decently funny show, with suspiciously strong similarities to Friends, into something much more interesting, and indeed memorable. For that framing device, that ever present narrative voice, provides a second barrier between the realty of the audience and the reality of the characters. To take a famous example, just because we see one of the characters get high from a sandwich instead of weed; doesn’t mean that in the universe of How I met your Mother, sandwiches are a narcotic.  It’s not like Friends where when we look at the screen all we see is the reality of that fictional universe. There are two realities of the Himym universe: the one the audience sees (the memories of older Ted); and the one the characters actually experienced (the true reality of the Himym universe).

Of course, this observation is nothing particularly new – the narrative voice of older Ted often admits when he changes things, or outright forgets facts and even the names of the women he dated. One of my favorite instances of this was the episode ‘Bagpipes’; where the sound of the aforementioned pipes replaces the actual sex noises Ted’s upstairs neighbors were making in the true reality. It’s interesting to note that in one episode of Friends Monica and Rachel have a similar problem with their upstairs neighbor, but there’s no hint of the show trying to hide what those noises actually are.  Honestly, I think the bagpipes make it funnier. But regardless, all this leads us to the conclusion that the narrative voice cannot be trusted.

And I know what your gonna say, well gee Wee Lassie, that’s a lot words for Ted is an unreliable narrator; whose okay with telling his kids about all the women he slept with over the years, but somehow thinks they need to be shielded from the reality that their father used to smoke pot. I say to that, wow, that was a specific thing to say that I entirely agree with. But beyond that, my actual point is that Ted as the unreliable narrator goes beyond the parts of the story where he obviously slips up or forgets something. It goes beyond what the audience can clearly recognize as the lie. Yes, for those of you in the deep know, I am going – very briefly – into that theory.

I refer of course to the fan theory started on Reddit that Older Ted portrays Barney as a serial womanize, and let’s face it, a bit of a douche – so that when he reveals that he wants to pursue his friend’s ex-wife romantically, his kids will be all on bored. There is some legitimacy to this theory – beyond viewers wanting to enjoy a problematic character with a morally clean conscience. In fact, Neil Patrick Harris (Barney’s actor) subscribes to it himself; citing episodes like “The Bad Patch” – where Barney and Robin are unhappy in their relationship and so let themselves go. This includes Robin losing large chunks of her hair and teeth and Barney gain 75lb. However, voiceover Ted admits to his kids that while Barney and Robin only let themselves go a little bit, this is what it felt like to him. Thus, Harris concludes, there is evidence for Ted’s revisions to his friends lives (I paraphrase of course). I thought my sandwich example was funnier, but you do you Harris, you do you.

However here in 2021 on The Wee Writing Lassie Blog, I would like to make an amendment to this theory. Oh, not that it’s not happening – giving all the evidence, and support from some of the creative talent behind Barney Stinson, it clearly is. But rather why it’s happening. That is, in the theory Ted is deliberately portraying Barney as a jerk, because he wants his kids to support Ted and Robin’s relationship. And yet in that pre-recorded ending, it is the kids themselves who reach this conclusion, and Ted who is shocked by it. Of course, he could just be lying, but giving the romantic framing of the final shot of Ted with the blue French horn – it is unlikely the writers intended for Ted to be quite so intentionally manipulative of his own children. Thus, the reality the audience must accept, is that Ted did intend to tell his kids how he met their mother – as the title suggests – but unconsciously revealed how he’s actually always loved Aunt Robin.

So thus, Ted portraying one of his close friends as such a terrible person, with the intention of pursuing Robin, is simply not plausible in the show’s reality. And yet, you can’t exactly argue that some of the things Ted says about Barney aren’t deliberately intended to make his kids think less of their surrogate uncle. I mean the Playbook alone is horrific if you look past the humour of the series. But that leaves the hanging question, why is Ted doing this, if it indeed has nothing to do with Robin?

Well to that I say, it may have nothing to do with Ted’s feelings for Robin, but it absolutely has everything to do with Ted’s feelings for himself. That is as the kind of man Ted wants both himself and his kids to see him as. A good guy, a terrific friend, a gifted intellectual, whose only flaw if you could really call it a flaw was that in his younger years he always went after the wrong woman. But really that’s a side effect of him being a hopeless romantic, something he himself has to bear, and nothing he dumps on other people time and time again. For any of you even vaguely familiar with the various plots and episodes of How I met your Mother, you may recognize this as complete horseshit. Ted has indeed many flaws – not least among which is that his absurdly specific list of requirements for his perfect woman, makes him treat the many real women he dates through the course of the nine seasons of Himym, terribly. Even managing to dump the same girl twice, both times on her birthday. But I’m not going to focus on the terrible way he treats women – not because there isn’t enough to talk about (there very much is) but because others have done so more thoroughly and better than I’d ever have the time to.

Check out The Take’s video on the subject here.

No, instead as the title might suggest, today we’re going to look at the way he treats his friends – and in particular, Barney Stinson. Ted treats Barney like shit, I mean don’t get me wrong Ted treats most people in his life like complete shit, but unlike the others the narrative passively implies that the audience should see Ted’s mistreatment of Barney as commendable. Or at the very least something that we shouldn’t condemn Ted for.

After all Barney is awful, so why shouldn’t he constantly be put down by the man he views as his best friend? Why shouldn’t he be actively excluded from the friend group when Ted no longer has need of his wingman services (s02e10: Single Stamina – where after four fifths of the group end up paired together, they no longer want to go out [even to get a beer], with the unsubtle implication they only needed to do that because they were single before, actively excluding Barney who is still single from the group. And if this sounds like it goes completely against the previous characterisation of Lilly and Marshall, who have been in a relationship from the beginning and never acted like this before, and Robin who has always enjoyed her independence and excitement in her life even when she’s in a relationship, then you’d be right. This was only a plot device to get Barney [now desperate for someone to hang out with] to invite his gay brother James over and start the real plot but I digress.) Why shouldn’t Ted think of Barney dying as sad only because of all the enjoyment he (Ted) might miss out on watching his wild antics? (s06e18: A Change of Heart – an episode in which Ted also compares Barney to an animal, again after talking about the possibility of his dying).

Of course, – we could make the same argument of all the characters. Besides a few general sweet moments, they do treat and speak to each other rather awfully. It could just be how their dynamic has grown up. Thus, to fully make the argument that Ted treats Barney badly enough, for him to cast his close friend as the cad in his stories to make himself look somewhat more heroic – I would like to highlight three separate occurrences were there were no such excuse. This wasn’t just friends ribbing on each other, this wasn’t just the swing of the conversation or a plot contrivance – at least not completely – these were three instances where Ted treats Barney like complete dogshite.

3. The Exile

In the sixteenth episode of season three, Barney and Robin sleep together. That is, it, Ted and Robin have been broken up for about a year by this time, in fact Ted is deep into a relationship with Stella (the woman who would later leave him at the alter); and Barney and Robin are both single at the time. There’s none of Barney’s usual trickery involved, they were just two people who grew close, and ended up in bed together. And yet the following episode (The Goat: S03e17) treats the action like it was some great crime committed against Ted, with both Barney and Robin consumed with guilt, and later individually confessing to Ted what they did.

Ted of course forgives…Robin, Barney however, yeah not so much. Now before anyone says anything, I don’t actually think Ted deciding that he can no longer be friends with Barney is the bad in this situation. Sure, it was hurtful to Barney, and the reason it happened was both incredibly stupid and more than a little sexist; however, cutting off a friend who you find toxic, or just unpleasant, is not a bad thing by any accounts. Sometimes friendships just don’t work and forcing them could do more harm to both parties involved, than a clean break ever could. But that’s just my oppion. No, my actual issue with this plot point is the execution and the fall out – namely the way Ted ends the friendship comes off remarkably cold and almost cruel. He tells Barney that earlier that day he was packing a box away labelled ‘things I no longer need’, and that maybe Barney belongs in that box. It’s dehumanizing and degrading, to be compared to a thing, particularly a thing that only has value so long as it earns its keep.

Sure, things can be said in anger that we don’t really mean – but the point is Ted isn’t a real person that can hide behind that excuse. He’s a fictional character, more importantly he’s a fictional character that his writers expect the audience to like and sympathize with.  There were other ways to phrase Ted ending his friendship with Barney: ‘I don’t trust you anymore’; ‘I can’t do this anymore’, ‘we’re done’. All still upsetting to Barney, but all ending with a Ted that is still somewhat sympathetic. I say somewhat because the reason for his anger and hurt, is very nebulous considering what a shift in the group dynamic it’s going to cause. Why is Ted so angry? Is he still in love with Robin, then why is he still leading Stella on? And if he’s not in love with Robin, then is it really Barney? Is it him going a step too far in Ted’s eyes? It’s never made entirely clear, which I find very irritating especially considering this nebulous anger has just banished Barney from the group.

Because, in reality that’s what I particularly hate about this storyline – because when Ted drops Barney seemingly everyone else does too.  Ted is not, nor should he ever be the thing that holds the five friends together. And yet Marshall makes note of how he’s losing the high-five calluses in his hands, and misses Barney – implying that without Ted’s approval Barney is no longer allowed to be friends with Marshall, Lily or even newcomer Robin. With the only time (Robin) being seen hanging out with Barney during his separation with Ted is when he explicitly blackmails her to do so.

If ‘How I met your Mother’ were a straight narrative to audience experience like Friends or the Big Bang Theory, then the only thing we could chalk this up to is bad writing. After all, all three of the other members of the group have had plenty of opportunities to grow closer with Barney independent of their shared connection with Ted. Marshall with his work, Robin with her similar interests to the playboy; and while I can’t think of a particularly instance Barney and Lily grew closer before the split, in season 4 she is the first one he confessed his love for Robin to. So, it’s not a leap to presume that their connection was already pretty strong. Therefore, it doesn’t completely make sense for these three characters to drop Barney, just because Ted has. However, it completely makes sense for Ted to presume they have. Ah narrative voice, you’ve saved yet another chunkily written arch – sort of, it’s still a poorly explored idea, that ends with my favorite character getting run over by a bus. (Oh spoilers, just in case that wasn’t obvious). But at least everyone’s in character now.

2. The Locket

I was slightly reluctant to include this one in my ‘Barney-been-done-wrong List’ because Robin is also hurt by this action – but in the end I decided to go through with it, because considering just how much its implied Barney loves Robin, this would probably hurt him twice as much.

First though a little background on one of the character foibles of Ms. Robin Charles Scherbatsky Jr. (Yes, that is her full name). She subconsciously sabotages her relationships. She and her partner will be going along just fine for a while, then she gets spooked (usually about the increase level of intimacy in the relationship) and she will fixate on something she doesn’t like about said partner, and start pulling away. This is spelled out by the characters explicitly during a relationship in a one-off episode; but we actually see a much subtler version of this phenomenon happening over the course of the series. Most noticeably both times she ends up with Barney.

I won’t go into the first time, as that ends for different reasons that don’t feed into my argument at all. So, for simplicity’s sake we’ll jump straight into the second time Robin has a bit of a wobble in regards to her relationship to Barney. She’s decided that she needs to find her grandmother’s locket, that she buried in central park during a visit to New York when she was fourteen – so that it can be her something old on her wedding day. Long rambling story short, she can’t find it; and so, must continue on with the wedding without the presence of her grandma’s locket. Hoping for some strange reason that this doesn’t mean that the universe is telling her not to get married to Barney. Which if that sounds like an excuse to cut and run without examining the deeper reasons behind that impulse, congratulations, you’ve read my mind.

In the end, after a lot of hoo-ha, Ted ends up with the locket – I’d try to explain how, but honestly it doesn’t really make sense. But the important thing is that Ted ends up with the locket and decides to give it to Robin on her Wedding Day, to one of his best friends. The locket that he knows Robin had decided was some kind of arbitrary sign on whether or not she should marry Barney; that for some reason she’s decided the man who finds that locket should be the one she marries. That same locket whose search was the instigator to Ted and Robin’s weird moment the previous season – when they held hands in the rain.  Ted decides to give this locket as a wedding present for Robin, or thinly veiled reason to leave Barney at the alter and run away with Ted, you pick. What I’m saying is that this is Ted trying to break up the wedding.

And that’s not just my own conspiracy, that’s stated in the show itself. Lily tells him time and again, not to give Robin the locket as it will ruin the wedding – going so far as to tackle Ted to the ground. I like Lily, she’s kind of awesome like that. Even Ted’s narrative voice implies that he will ruin the wedding, and possibly everything else, if he gives Robin that locket. And what happens, he gives Robin that locket and she tries it run away from the wedding. And if she hadn’t bumped into ‘the mother’ and received some good solid advice, she might have even gone through with it. Thanks Ted, thanks for all your wonderful help.

1.    The GNB Building

Look everything before this you could explain away through Robin and Ted’s feelings for each other – which do seem to be there in one form or other for most of the nine season long run of the show. Maybe Ted was just so in love with Robin – without knowing it – that he was just too angry when she slept with Barney to think rationally; causing him to lash out and say those terrible, terrible things. And maybe he was just so overwhelmed with his unresolved feelings for Robin, that he ended up bringing the physical embodiment of her relationship insecurities to her wedding to his best friend. It doesn’t mean he’s a bad man, just one that’s kind of stupid when it comes to relationships which is…yeah, kind of in character.

But this…no, there is no excuse for this next one.

Okay, backstory time, let’s take a long breath and say this as quickly as possible so that we can get into the ripping Ted Mosby a new one. Everyone with me, deep breath, and here we go:

So, Barney got Ted a job at GNB as the architect for the bank’s new headquarters; but when the building was cancelled Ted got fired by Barney’s hire ups and found a job teaching instead. However, to make his friend’s dream come true, when the project started back up again, Barney put his own job on the line to make sure they would hire Ted as the architect.

After some chicanery, Ted agreed to come on to the project, realising after all that it was his dream to build a building in New York. However, the plot thickens when Ted meets Zoey, an apparently attractive protester – the only snag in the new love story is that the thing Zoey is protesting now is the destruction of the historical Arcadian hotel, which is being blown up to make way for Ted’s new building. Oh dear, oh and she’s married but never fear Wee Readers, this is How I met your Mother – I’m sure the writers will fix that for Ted soon enough. And what’ll you know, that’s exactly what happens – Zoey breaks up with husband, her and Ted get together, but there’s till the tension of the looming GNB building between them.

However, after a night spent at the fairly horrible Arcadian Hotel, where Zoey opens up to why she’s really trying to save it – I won’t ruin the reason here, you’ll just have to watch the show yourself – Ted decides to take her side in the whole matter. Planning to declare that he thinks the hotel should be a historic landmark to a community that is going to decide whether of not it should be.

So, all ends happy right?

Wait, I hear you say…didn’t Barney put his job on the line so Ted could get this position? And to that I say, thank you wee Reader; you’ve made my segway into the next part so much easier now.

 It’s made clear both to the audience and the friend group that if the GNB building is not built, Barney will be fired. And considering what we know of the company he works for, ‘being fired’ seems likely to be another way of saying ‘being murdered’. Now, of course, I’m not saying that Ted’s actions – if such an outcome had happened – would have been directly responsible for Barney’s death. Of course, that blame would lie at the feet of his actual murderer. But it is interesting to note his reaction when he hears that Barney might lose his job. Unlike say someone like Marshall – who had also been going after the GNB project due to the cruel way he was treated by the company – Ted shows no guilt whatsoever, or even an acknowledgement of the consequences of his actions. Being more annoyed at Barney, and strangely smug in his relationship with Zoey.

He’s putting his best friend’s carrier, livelihood and future physical well-being on the line, not only seemingly on a whim, but for a girl he clearly doesn’t actually love, or for that matter even like most of the time. And yet he does it all with a smile on his face.

It could be easy to blame Zoey for the friction within the group, and indeed the narrative of Ted’s story goes out of its way to place more of the blame for what happens on her shoulders and away from Ted’s. Positioning Zoey and Barney almost like two opposing forces fighting over, if not Ted’s soul, then the chance to achieve his love and affection completely. For him to choose them over everyone else. But as with Barney, it’s important for the viewer to remember whose side of the story we’re hearing. Ted might seem like a great guy, motivated by a desire for love, friendship and the need to do the right thing but that’s simply not true. Because in the end what motivates Ted to choose Barney’s side is not concern for a person who by now could be considered a very close friend, or any perceived flaw in Zoey as a romantic partner, but rather in a desire to see his own dream – that of designing a building in New York city – come true.  That is, when given the chance to choose between the welfare of his friends, or the welfare of a woman he supposedly loves, Ted will always priorities himself above all others.

But of course, that’s nothing new when it comes to sitcom protagonists – thus what I find actually interesting about Ted Mosby is not that he is in fact a terrible person. But rather that on some level he is aware that he is a terrible person. Or at the very least that his actions were not the conduct of the likable guy, bleeding heart romantic, and all around lovable doof that he wants his kids to see him as. But what is he to do then? He can’t have his kids hating him just because of mistakes he made in the past. And he has a purpose with this tale – both intentionally and unintentionally – so he can’t leave too much out either. Thus, Ted does the only thing he can do, given the circumstances, he creates a contrasting jerk. A character in his story that his kids will look at and think, okay so my dad ran away with Victoria on her wedding day, and then dumped her several months later – but at least he’s not Barney Stinson. It’s not about Robin consciously, not really, it was just that someone had to fill the role of the jerk in the group, and it might as well be Barney Stinson. And who cares if he’s probably ruined his kid’s relationship with their surrogate uncle, the important thing here is Ted comes out looking good. Because in the end Ted’s feelings come before all.

If you’ve enjoyed this very long and detailed post on a passing thought, then remember to follow the wee blog if you haven’t already. Also check me out on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Goodreads for all that good stuff. And make sure to sign up for the Wee Mailing List by the 11th of August, to find out the top seven shows I binged watched during the apocalypse (and yes How I Met your Mother is certainly one of them, but what are the other six?). And help support this blog by clicking the button down below and buying me a wee cup of coffee on Ko-fi. So, until next time Wee Readers remember to stay safe, stay awake, and have a very bonny day.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com