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Doubt, Alternate Endings and HIMYM

After two Moscow Mules, one of my friends looked me dead in the eyes and told me, “Doubt will make you a lesser being.”

It’s one of those profoundly wise things you can really only say through the gentle haze of drinking, one of those sentences that is so utterly incongruent with the conversation that it sounds like someone else speaking through you. Somehow, just as miraculously as my friend said that, I remembered those words the next day.

We all struggle with doubt in our day to day. It’s the little things, like whether it was worth it to carry a bulky umbrella to work, and the big ones — should I be marrying this guy? Is this job worth giving up my friends and family for?

While we all grapple with doubt to varying degrees, it’s an especially torturous beast in the creative process. How do you know when a painting is “done?” What direction should a film take? How should my characters develop? How should a TV series end?

I bring it up because it was recently Carter Bays, How I Met Your Mother’s co-creator and executive producer, recently shared that the HIMYM team struggled with two endings for the series, only one of which was filmed. (See his tweet below.) I found it interesting since it goes against the theory I wrote about in my last post, that the HIMYM team had an ending in mind from day one and never faltered from that vision. But it also raises other questions, namely: What’s the point of an alternate ending? Why share them at all?

The Argument Against

If doubt makes you a lesser being, then the alternate ending — a pure expression of doubt, of waffling, of hem and hawing — weakens your creation.

In the creative process, it’s conviction that truly shines — it’s David Chase sticking to his Sopranos ending with absolute resolve, it’s Matthew Weiner knowing the ending to Mad Men since the end of Season 4 and teasing us with hints along the way. You don’t need to have an ending in mind from the start — as I wrote about in my last post, I think this put the HIMYM team in a corner more than it helped, as it hindered the story from organic development — but whatever you do, you stick by it.

A work of art is judged on the final product, not the gamut of possibilities explored before reaching a conclusion. So in that respect, to maintain the credibility of your creation, you should keep the cards to yourself, file your thoughts away like an early rough draft.

The Argument in Favor

Alternate endings are tantalizing for obvious reasons — they’re basically the closest we’re going to get to Professor Farnsworth’s “what-if machine,” one of the only times we can openly wonder what could have happened and actually see an answer. Like peeking through the back of a choose-your-own-adventure book, we can see the fate we ourselves chose, but also learn what would have happened if we didn’t open that door, get in that car or go down into the basement.

Doubt is just one side of the coin — curiosity is the other. Seeing down the road of our various choices is something we’re not afforded in reality. Only in the world of pure imagination.

In that respect, the desire to share an alternate ending is natural and reflects the reality of the creative process: that sometimes, it’s hard to choose which way you should take your creation.

Of course, you can’t talk about alternate endings without talking about Clue, which proved they can be wildly successful as both a plot device and a marketing tool. Based on a board game that creates a new story with every play — was it Ms. Scarlet in the conservatory with the candlestick, or Colonel Mustard in the billiards room with the lead pipe? — including multiple outcomes only underscored the spirit of the game itself.

The Only-When-Necessary Argument

As is true with all things, a blanket statement like “never share alternate endings” just isn’t fair.

Consider Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, which had three alternate endings, all of which were wildly different than the theatrical release. But there was one ending in particular that Boyle originally settled on, filmed and planned to release. However, as he explained in the commentary, his ending tested poorly among audiences. The subtext is obvious: In the money-hungry entertainment industry, a poorly-tested ending is going to be changed.

Boyle had an ending to his film that he stuck by, that he still stands by — in his eyes, it is the true ending to the film. So sharing it with fans doesn’t harm it at all. It only helps.

(In a similar vein, if those rumors are true about Showtime execs pressuring the Dexter team into the “Dexter the Lumberjack” story, I’d love to see what showrunner Scott Buck and executive producer Sara Colleton really had in mind for our favorite serial killer.)

What’s the verdict?

Naturally, everyone’s going to have a different view on this. But in HIMYM’s case, I’m against the alternate ending.

HIMYM isn’t Clue, based upon a myriad of outcomes. It had one question, the mother’s identity, which was solved by the beginning of Season 9. While there was indeed a twist at the end that split viewers — Ted’s return to Robin was in my opinion a cheap outcome, but others saw it as a return to his true love — sharing the alternate ending doesn’t speak to creative integrity so much it says, “Hey, let’s placate our fans however we can.” It positions showrunners as people who aren’t in charge of their own creation, but instead as servants to a ravenous fan base.

But hey, whatever sells DVD’s, right?