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The character carousel stepped aside this week for the sixth episode of How I Met Your Mother Season 7. “Mystery vs. History” packed in laughs, character psychoanalysis and social commentary to boot, not to mention the first “breaking of the fourth wall.”
The show’s best writing comes when the characters aren’t off on their own adventures in order to further their subplots, but mature as part of a more focused overall story, which is the case with Ted’s “no Internet background research” date with bar pickup Janet (“Greek” star Amber Stevens).
The only plot line revolves around Ted insisting to go for the “mystery” and not the “history” with Janet after explaining to his kids how smart phones and social networking had forever altered basic human interaction by 2011. From that jumping point, Barney and Robin are introduced as Ted’s crack team of first-date researchers, which leads to some lovely Annie Hall references, Lily and Marshall mull over wanting to know the sex of their baby and Robin’s new boyfriend/therapist Kevin (Kal Penn) must overcome his analytic tendencies to become part of the gang.
The last couple of weeks, each character has been doing his or her own thing and the writing has tried to string them together: Barney and Nora, Robin and Kevin, Marshall at his job, Lily and unborn baby, Ted doing all manner of different things, etc. These have all been rotated through, requiring some fixed plot device to funnel them into one episode. “Mystery vs. History” avoids that completely while only sacrificing a couple of the subplots introduced in Season 7 thus far. The results make for the season’s best episode to date.
The sex of an unborn baby has long been the fodder of many a comedy and I don’t think any fans of HIMYM doubted for a second that it would become a huge part of Lily and Marshall’s relationship this season. The connection to the mystery vs. history idea made it fit perfectly into this episode and the writers handled it with tact.
As the idea of “finding out” was introduced early on, flashes of the possibly ways for the episode to carry it out went through my mind: the old the dad thinks it’s a boy, mom thinks it’s a girl routine or Marshall and Lily telling each other they don’t want to know but both finding out separately because they can’t help it. The only thing that could not be ignored in order to be faithful to their characters was their inability to deal with secrets, and the episode did just that without making it overblown. Barney ended up being the ridiculous one with his phrase of the week: “I gots ta know!”
More curious was this tacit introduction of Kevin to the group dynamic. If we’re being honest, Kevin spending time with the four of them would not go over without a story of its own. To see him in the MacLaren’s booth in the early going didn’t fit right away, but his participation in the rest of the story proved invaluable. His analysis of the group and each of them individually was dead-on. Obviously the highlight was when Kevin said the only thing he hasn’t seen in physical abuse, which cues the montage of all the best scenes of comic violence in the series set to “Murder Train.”
We normally chalk the group’s antics up to the fact that it’s a sitcom, the most notorious exaggerator of the human condition, but if a “normal” outsider came into that situation, they would see this many issues as well. This angle served as a slight reminder of the “Ducky Tie” episode a few weeks ago, where Ted’s old girlfriend Victoria called out the issues of Ted, Robin and Barney all hanging out with each other despite all the previous group incest. One would think that when Kevin spends more time with them and finds out Robin and Ted also dated, all this will come to a boiling point. You could even see the Barney-Robin chemistry again as the two research Janet, though the episode doesn’t highlight it.
After we learn the truth about Ted’s date, I think the only thing that didn’t work was Ted’s reaction. Although it wouldn’t have made the episode’s point if he handled it perfectly, It seemed unlike him to freak out and blather like an idiot. I think there was a bit of chemistry between them that made it sad when he screwed it up, maybe more so than the writers intended.
Of course the real clincher for this episode came after Ted returned from his date to Lily and Marshall’s place where everyone is in the yellow nursery. The reveal of the baby’s sex has to be on par with some of the show’s best endings ever, a poetic reminder that a sense of fate or destiny sometimes plays into whether you should know the history or let something surprise you. That notion connected this episode to the whole point of the show as established in Season 1’s “Matchmaker” episode: Ted’s never-ending search for destiny to finally decide for him.