A Side By Side Look at How I Met Your Mother’s Excellent Use of Flashbacks

By: Michael Abitabilo

Fans of How I Met Your Mother have long appreciated the show’s dedication to continuity. As we have embarked on an eight plus year journey with the show’s five main characters, the show has frequently called back to prior episodes and themes, either to enhance a then current joke or story line, or to close a previously open-ended plot point.

From a production standpoint, the show’s creators have ostensibly done an excellent job of seamlessly depicting (storyline) time travel to reward their longtime viewers with references to events that took place years earlier. When the show has flashed back to an important but previously seen moment in time, it has relied on footage that has already aired to set the stage. (Think “Slap Bet” or “Slutty Pumpkin,” for example). Often, though, the show depicts separate but related events that we are to believe occurred just before, during, or after the scenes which were previously aired. In these instances, the show’s creators have had to recreate prior scenes while shooting new footage in order to make the story flow.

While this week’s episode certainly was not the first to use the flashback mechanism to enhance the current story, it was undoubtedly among the most important to do so, as we finally learned more about the Mother and Ted’s numerous near encounters with her through the years. (As always, Alan Sepinwall nailed it by asking why (a) we had to wait so long this season for these moments to be explored; and (b) why they had to be crammed into one episode, but I digress).

In any event, we decided to break down this week’s episode to determine when the show’s creators were able to use previously aired footage, and when they had to show us just a little bit more, thus necessitating the use of new footage intended to depict earlier events. Below, we present a side-by-side comparison of screen grabs from this week’s episode compared to their calledback counterparts from earlier seasons. As an ode to Photo Hunt ™ – our favorite happy hour game – we will use green circles to demonstrate consistencies and red circles to identify variations or irregularities that indicate newly shot footage. Be sure to click on each of the images below to see them in greater detail.

“How Your Mother Met Me” starts off by taking us all the way back to the same night in September of 2005 that was depicted in Season 1 Episode 1. As the Mother’s friend is seen rushing out of MacLaren’s Pub (on the west side), she brushes past Barney and Ted and we overhear Barney suggesting a game he likes to call, “Haaaaave You Met Ted?” Because the Mother’s friend didn’t appear in S.1 Ep.1, the producers had to re-shoot this scene for Season 9. Aside from the different camera angle, take a look at some of the key differences:

Pic 1

As you can see, MacLaren’s has changed quite a bit over the years. We first notice a long white decoration has been removed from the area just below the fire bell next to the doorway. The red sign on that same wall also appears to have changed as has the space just to the right of that sign. As for the main characters, Barney’s hair was clearly longer and/or poofier in Season 1, while Ted’s sideburns were slightly less pronounced at that time. The producers created reasonable facsimiles of Barney’s suit/tie combination and the snack bowl on the bar, but the bartender is a different person, which might explain the change to Ted’s beer. Lastly, while it can’t be seen in these screen grabs, we will note that while Barney did recreate the hand gesture depicted in the Season 1 image, he broke it much sooner in Season 9 to place his left hand on the bar.

The next callback occurs several minutes later when the show goes all Back to the Future on us and moves forward to St. Patrick’s Day, 2008. Right after the Mother’s friend tells the Mother that the love her life could be waiting on the dance floor waiting for her to bump into him, the show cuts to previously aired footage from Season 3:

Pic 2Same extras in the background. Same bumpee. Same plaid shirt on Ted. Same green suit (and hand) on Barney. Let’s move on.

While the Naked Man scene that followed was a callback in and of itself, it did not involve recreating a previously aired scene (though it did provide context for Mitch’s statement to Ted in Season 4 Episode 9 that the move had worked two out of three times).

Next, the Mother explains how “some super-inconsiderate person had taken her umbrella” from the club the night before, providing an appropriate segue back to Season 3:

Pic 3

Again, nothing has changed here. The placement of the umbrella, garbage cans, and even the debris in the alley confirm that we were watching previously aired footage.

We then learn that the Mother was telling her story to a classmate named Cindy (played by Rachel Bilson) who would later become her roommate and, coincidentally, Ted’s girlfriend. This scene places us back in the classroom depicted at the outset of Season 5 Episode 1. During that episode, Old Ted told us that the Mother was in the room that day, but it wasn’t until this week’s episode we saw proof of that. This scene was re-shot in its entirety.

The first notable distinction between the Season 5 scene and its Season 9 analog is the color of the seats in which the  architecture  economics students were sitting, as well as the color of the wood paneling in the classroom:

 Pic 4

Next, take a look at the work done to recreate the previous shots of Professor Mosby. While the students sitting in the first few rows changed, the producers took care of the easy stuff by ensuring that Ted was wearing a substantially similar outfit and the set was decorated with similar if not identical props. We’ve cropped a wide-angle screen grab from this week’s episode below:

Pic 5

But while the producers get bonus points for nearly duplicating the depiction of Ted’s name on the blackboard – right down to the slightly askew “Y,” we can nonetheless identify a number of differences:

Pic 6

First, take a look at the chair immediately to Ted’s right. In Season 5, the top of the chair was straight, while the Season 9 version was rounded. Other subtle distinctions include the existence and location of various power outlets on the back wall. Also noticeable is the difference in color between the two podiums. In fact, the rounded chair and light-colored wood shown in the image above leaves us wondering whether these distinct moments from the Season 9 episode were shot separately:

Pic 7

Lastly, in what is somewhat of a recurring giveaway, we can see that – like the rest of us – Josh Radnor seems to have filled out a bit in the last few years:

Pic 8

Immediately after the classroom scene, this week’s episode skipped forward to January 2010, when Ted’s relationship with Cindy came to a head. First, we were treated to a re-broadcast of some footage seen in Season 5 Episode 12 in which (skinny) Ted realized he had more in common with Cindy’s roommate than with Cindy herself:

Pic 9

My wife seemed to think Rachel Bilson’s hair was different, but really who can tell these things?

Pic 19

When Cindy and Ted break up, Ted leaves the room. This is where the show had to get creative. Initially, the use of footage from Season 5 continues:

Pic 10

Pic 11

Pic 12

As Ted exits the apartment, the Season 9 storyline resumes. And while the producers did an excellent job recreating the apartment, they made an avoidable mistake by changing the positioning of the oh-so-important yellow umbrella:

Pic 13

Pic 14

At some point, though, someone caught the mistake and made the appropriate correction, restoring order to Season 9:

Pic 15

As we move forward to April 2012, we are led to believe the Mother’s first date with Louis occurred in MacLaren’s on the same night Ted famously scored a woman’s phone number while wearing a green dress outside of the bar. In fact, we learned that the Mother left the bar immediately before Ted entered the bar and presumably passed him on her way out (which raises at least some question as to why she didn’t notice the professor by whom she was clearly intrigued about two years earlier). This scene was recreated with mixed results. First, we notice that as Ted approached Barney and Lily in Season 7, the pair had started to break their hug, creating a nice window for Ted’s entrance. In Season 9, though, Barney and Lily barely left room for the Holy Ghost, blocking our view of Ted:

Pic 16

Similarly, when Ted triumphantly proclaimed, “Now we’re even!” in the Season 9 version, Barney and Lily partially obstructed him by doing this weird hand-holdy thing they avoided altogether in Season 7. Other than replacing the patrons around the main characters, the remaining surroundings were fairly accurate. One notable exception though is the neon sign outside the cube-glass window that miraculously appeared in Season 9:

Pic 17

The final callback in this week’s episode occurred just before we found out that the Mother broke up with Louis just days before she will have met Ted. Before we saw the break up, Old Ted reminded us how it was that the Mother’s band was booked to play Robin’s and Barney’s wedding (which is why she was staying at Louis’s beach house, where she crapped on his heart before checking into the Farhampton Inn). This was a callback to Season 8 Episode 13, during which Ted ran into Cindy and her girlfriend on a train en route to Farhampton: 

Pic 18

This was an easy one. No new footage was necessary which means, more importantly, no further analysis of Rachel Bilson’s hair is required.

By the time the Mother checks in to the Farhampton Inn, her story is just about  up to speed with the rest of the gang’s. (Then again, doesn’t it feel like they all checked in several months ago?). While we are sure to encounter additional flashbacks in the few remaining episodes, it’s unlikely that any will be as important to the show’s central theme as the ones we saw this week.

We hope you enjoyed this breakdown of Season 9’s How Your Mother Met Me. If your discerning eye caught anything we missed, please let us know!

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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and hopes this post becomes legen … wait for it, but don’t wait too long otherwise nobody will care about this episode anymore … dary.