“The Exploding Meatball Sub” is a deeply frustrating episode of television. It comes off of a string of excellent episodes that have very successfully mixed humor with heavy emotional stakes: Ted has broken up a marriage, Marshall’s father has died and Barney has reconnected with John Lithgow. It’s understandable that the show might want to take a step back and catch its breath with a lightweight episode. And I’m pretty sure “The Exploding Meatball Sub” is meant to be just that kind of palate-cleanser.
The problem is that the central joke of the episode is a meta-joke in which the writers set up complicated plots that seem to be heading into the heavy emotional territory of the last few episodes only to pull back and conclude them with a simple gag. It’s the sort of thing that could work given the right circumstances, but is badly mistimed in this case, as it has the effect of undermining not just the potential emotional impact of the early part of the episode, but also the emotional impact of all the episodes leading up to it. And because the stories in the episode are genuinely interesting, throwing them out in service of a cheap joke can’t help but feel like a waste. In all, instead of seeming clever (which I’m sure is what the writers intended), the episode just plays as a series of missed opportunities.
For example, Ted and Zoey’s relationship has consistently been the least interesting part of the season,* but “The Exploding Meatball Sub” presents a concept that I’d love to see a show explore: two characters who really do care about one another but who are gradually coming to realize that they are just too different to be happy in a relationship together. Unfortunately, this show apparently has no interest in exploring that concept, as it reduces it to a few lines of voice-over and a 30-second montage early in the episode. Ted spends the rest of the episode determined to break things off with Zoey, only to get sidetracked by break-up goggles at the end of the episode. The montage at the end with Zoey yelling at Ted and Ted enjoying it–which mirrors the montage at the beginning–is moderately amusing, but not worth losing a potentially compelling arc for.
(*This is the curse of Ted. Though I do love The Captain.)
Lily and Marshall, meanwhile, get a very complicated plot, which goes something like this:
- Marshall decides to quit his job at GNB.
- Marshall puts on the break-up goggles and has second thoughts.
- Marshall reaffirms his desire to quit.
- Marshall quits.
- Marshall goes to apply for a job with an environmental organization.
- Said organization has no openings, so Marshall agrees to volunteer there.
- Marshall talks to Lily about this.
- Lily tries to act supportive even though it stresses her out.
- Marshall agrees to hold a fundraiser in their apartment.
- Lily confides in Ted that she’s getting more and more stressed out.
- Lily runs away.
- Ted is worried about telling Marshall that his wife has run away.
- Lily returns during the fundraiser having decided not to run away and determined to be honest with Marshall.
I may have missed a plot point in there, but that’s the basic idea. All of this takes place in the course of around seven minutes of airtime. How I Met Your Mother is, of course, renowned for cramming a lot of plot into its episodes, but this particular subplot seems a bit much even for this show. Likewise, some of this is stuff we’ve seen before; as several people on Twitter pointed out, Lily’s arc in this episode is similar to her arc at the end of the first season. I can’t be positive, obviously, but I think this is all part of the meta-joke and is meant as a self-mocking set-up for the abrupt conclusion in which Marshall simply agrees that he should go look for another job without Lily even having to say anything. The over-complicated plot and the reliance on old character arcs (Lily running away, Marshall pining to help the environment) is supposed to be satirical. Unfortunately, the meta-joke doesn’t really work, not least of all because the story (like Ted and Zoey’s) is one I would have actually liked to see play out over an arc, though hopefully with a bit less rehashing of old plot points. Again, it just seems like a waste.
Barney’s story is the most frustrating, however, because it explicitly references the emotional stakes of his arc this season as part of its meta-joke set-up. The first part of the episode feels like a continuation of the preceding episodes, with Barney upset at losing his best friend just like he lost his father all those years ago. It’s a little on the nose–OK, a lot on the nose–but How I Met Your Mother is always a little on the nose; it’s still effective. And when Barney clears off his desk in rage and anguish with Robin standing right next to him, it’s both funny and sad. But of course it’s all part of the meta-joke, and Barney is in fact just upset that Marshall has robbed him of the chance to use a carefully plotted practical joke by quitting. Once again, Barney’s practical joke would make a perfectly good idea for an episode, but doesn’t work here because the episode makes a false promise. It leads us to believe that we will get a serious conclusion to the story, and so we want a serious conclusion to the story. As a result, an exploding sub sandwich–no matter how funny it would be under other circumstances–just seems cheap as an ending to this episode.
This gets at the big problem with the meta-joke, which is that it feels less like a satire of the show than like a mean-spirited gag at the expense of the viewer. Though the plots are somewhat exaggerated, they aren’t exaggerated enough to work as obvious satire, so the viewer has no choice but to take them at face value. The writers then pull the rug out from under them and laugh in their face: “Ha ha, you thought this was a serious episode when it’s actually a silly episode!” Except, of course, that because of the set-up, the episode really does have consequences: Ted really does kind of hate his girlfriend, Marshall really is unemployed and Barney really does have abandonment issues. The episode just refuses to deal with them because it’s too busy laughing at its fans.
- Robin doesn’t get a ton to do here, but she does make up a pretty great little story in the middle of the episode. I don’t actually remember any details, but Cobie Smulders’ delivery is typically excellent.
- The exploding meatball sub could legitimately have been a funny gag in other circumstances. The visual of a meatball sub exploding is pretty inherently humorous.