'How I Met Your Mother' Series Finale: The Story Behind the Music (Video)
Music supervisor Andy Gowan outlines how a Tom Waits cover and a Walkmen track make Ted's final moments "less about love and more about companionship."
[Warning: Spoilers ahead for the series finale of How I Met Your Mother.]
Of the many noteworthy moments from the series finale of How I Met Your Mother, two in particular not only stand out, but, upon closer examination and after a conversation with music supervisor Andy Gowan, offer insight and possibly peace about the divisive episode.
The episode's two major music moments came within the last minutes of the series. The first is when Ted (Josh Radnor) finally revealed to his two children how he, in fact, met their mother, Tracy McConnell (Cristin Milioti) under their yellow umbrella while waiting for the train after Robin (Cobie Smulders) and Barney's (Neil Patrick Harris) wedding. An acoustic cover of Tom Waits' "Downtown Train" played over their long-awaited first words, as well as a slideshow documenting their short life together.
Released in 1992, the Everything But the Girl cover is a song that Bays had mentioned to Gowan a few times along the way. "We had never tried to use it for the show before – and I'm not sure if that was a conscious choice and he was holding it back for this moment – but he basically put it in the script, and wrote that script with that song in mind," said Gowan.
"I thought it was gorgeous," he continued. "It was so heartbreakingly beautiful; it played both sides of the story so well. When Ted and Tracy are under the umbrella together, they finally meet, and they're struck with this clarity, almost – it played that part with a sweet and romantic feeling. But as that sequence flips, and Ted is narrating about this life they had – the Christmas mornings with the kids, their happy life together – you turn the page and go into the more somber, dark part where they went through a really tough time when she got sick and passed away. I thought the song played that sequence equally as beautiful, just in a different way. A song like that to capture two different sides of the coin in such a way, it was magic."
Gowan added that Waits was "open and happy" about the show using an acoustic cover of his 1985 song, and that the process to secure and place the track was a smooth one.
The same cannot be said for "Heaven" by The Walkmen. (Get comfortable -- it's what Ted would call "a short and concise story.")
Back in November -- long before Gowan had any idea how the show would actually end -- Bays and Thomas told him about a song that they had in mind for the final scene.
"It was an older song, and we wanted to get a more contemporary version of it," says Gowan of the initial song idea, set to be covered by Stephen Malkmus of Pavement. "He's been a very familiar musical voice on the show – we used a couple Pavement songs in season one, we used a cover of his song 'Spit on a Stranger' during a 'Ted and Victoria' scene a few years ago. … He's someone the show has gone back to a few times."
But like his job on every other HIMYM episode, Gowan challenged himself to come up with alternatives. "Keep in mind, I didn't know how it was gonna end, so are we using a love song? Are we using an introspective, contemplative song? It was like I was going down two different paths – exploring the song they mentioned, and also coming up with other ideas … almost like we're taking this song through the litmus test, and see if it survives."
Since the eventual ending was kept under tight wraps, Gowan officially found out about the last-minute twist at the episode's table read in late February: The Mother had died long before Ted began telling his children the lengthy story, which was actually a way to gauge their approval about him asking out their long-divorced Aunt Robin. The series closes with Ted standing outside Robin's apartment and raising the blue French horn from their first date, which took place during the show's pilot.
But as the recording session in March drew closer, doubts about the closing track began to bubble up to the surface. "It was a very dense, lyrical song, and you start to look at the words – I don't think there was necessarily concern, but they were mulling over in their heads of what the sentiment was that they wanted to convey at the end. It started to shift a little bit the closer they got."
The three of them put their heads together at their second wrap party – the intimate gathering held just after the cast finished shooting the series' last scene – and chose to cancel Malkmus' session and abandon that initial song idea.
Down to the wire, Gowan said that Thomas left himself with the footage to nail down that final feeling. "He was trying some stuff against picture, and really finding that the tone they felt was right to convey at the end was a burst of joyful optimism, of energy," he explained. "The idea was, this is Ted kind of making this decision to live again, to come back to life. He's been through a lot, he's been roughed up – life definitely throws a lot of curve balls at you; it doesn't go as planned all the time, but that's life. You can either put your head in the sand and just live in the past, which Ted has a history of doing, or you can choose to embrace life. … I get the sense it's probably less about love and more about companionship, and finding a friend to go through life together."
The title track of The Walkmen's Heaven album, released in May 2012, came to mind. "It was one of my favorite albums of that year, and the first time I heard it, it seemed like it was written for our show – that's Ted talking to his kids!" noted Gowan, quoting the opening lines: Our children will always hear / romantic tales of distant years."
"I tried to use it a few times in season eight, including in the season premiere in which we used the 'The Funeral' by Band of Horses. For whatever reason, it just wasn't the right song for those moments, and now, maybe it's clear that it wasn't right for those moments because it was always meant to be right for this moment." Gowan pitched the song to Bays and Thomas one final time, along with a handful of others options. "We kept playing with other ideas, almost up until the end, and The Walkmen was just the one that resonated with all of us the most."
And while Bays and Thomas' first finale song idea will remain unnamed, it may not all be for naught. After all, Gowan is also the music supervisor for the pilot of spinoff How I Met Your Dad.
What did you think of the music in the HIMYM series finale? Sound off in the comments below.