Episode 2.9 - Payoffs
Updated: Jun 17
This week, we are talking about Red Herrings and the awesome payoff you get when you execute them well, so we need to start talking about it right up front. Red herrings, when done correctly, will give you some of the most satisfying payoffs in your stories. They misdirect the audience, giving them a perfect “surprising yet inevitable” outcome that is totally satisfying. Ted opens the episode by saying that, in any long-term relationship there are always new secrets to find out. Some secrets are good secrets, some are not.
Pretty quick, we find out that Robin DOESN’T GO TO MALLS and she would rather not say why. Ted respects her privacy in front of the group but then badgers her about it in private.
Ted’s first round of theories include:
Got arrested in a mall
Got dumped in a mall
Found out she was Canadian in a mall
Trapped under a fake boulder in a mall(we find out pretty fast that this one is Ted’s personal experience)
Mauled in a mall
This is key to a good red herring: You start introducing a lot of options right away. Red herrings are often used in mysteries, and at the beginning of a mystery, everyone is a suspect. Some seem far-fetched (found out she was Canadian), but this is a lot like brainstorming: no bad ideas. Except here, you put all the ideas into the story. You’re letting your characters “brainstorm” possible explanations.
I think it was Agatha Christie who admitted that she usually wrote her first drafts without knowing the culprit, that way there would be clues pointing to literally any/everyone in the story.
Barney then throws us off the scent by giving Ted the idea that this might be Robin’s “Oh” moment: the moment that makes Ted say “Oh…” and end the relationship. Previous “Oh” moments that Barney has experienced:
A woman wants to remain a virgin until marriage
A woman had a significant eating disorder and was in denial about it
A woman is 30
Ted is afraid that the “Oh” moment will be a lot bigger and imagines that Robin might be transgender.
This is the second step to strong red herrings: You introduce a couple of options that are WAY too big for the audience to believe they’re real possibilities. This subtly points your audience back to some of the brainstorming-style possibilities. Robin isn’t transgender, but maybe there’s some truth to that thing about being dumped in a mall…?
Barney suggests that Robin did porn, which seems pretty ridiculous. Lily’s evidence is that Robin can fake an orgasm well, but as the audience member you think “That doesn’t really have anything to do with a mall,” even though Barney’s theory that Robin looked ashamed might hold some weight.
Marshall suggests that Robin might be married. He’s from Minnesota, so his personal experience colors his opinion: a lot of people get married at the Mall of America (and maybe he wants to, too).
The group realizes they don’t know a lot about Robin’s past, except that she talks about someone who got married way too young A LOT. And it kind of sounds like the “friend” did get married in a mall.
Now, you’ve got two competing theories, both of which sound equally ridiculous. Porn in a mall. Married in a mall.
Right here, when a normal person would move on to either dropping this issue or thinking of reasonable explanations, the writers do something else instead.
They distract us.
Since this is a sitcom, they distract us with a big joke. A big promise of laughs, something totally silly. It’s a Slap Bet. If Barney is right, he gets to slap Marshall. If Marshall is right, he gets to slap Barney. The audience is completely invested in this dichotomy: One of them MUST be right, because we want to see some slapping! You’ve forgotten that there’s a very good chance that neither of them are correct.
They really dig into this. Barney is overly dramatic, Marshall is trash-talking, Lily is invested.
Ted latches onto one of these options - he’s much more concerned with the fact that Robin might be married than that she might be a retired porn star. He confronts her and she admits that she’s married. Marshall gets to slap Barney (we get to watch it twice).
But Barney points out that “just because you’re right, doesn’t mean I’m wrong” and he still is holding out hope that Robin did porn in a mall.
Marshall does some research and finds out that Robin was never married. He lends his research some credibility by saying she’s not great at parking, so the audience knows he found Robin Sherbatsky in Canada. It’s not a dead end, it’s another path within the mystery.
Again, though, it’s a distraction. We’re now very invested in finding out why Robin lied about being married. It’s such an outrageous lie to tell. Nobody is still thinking about “why doesn’t Robin go to malls?” anymore.
Ted confronts Robin, she does a fabulous job lying her ass off until Ted asks her husband’s name. In the fight that ensues, Robin reminds the audience that her mall secret is REAL GOOD, but the fight and the absurdity of her lie is still way more interesting right now.
Lily spills the beans to Barney, Barney confronts Marshall, and Lily awards three punitive slaps and Barney slaps Marshall three times and it is glorious.
The episode jumps back up to Robin and Ted arguing when the gang falls into the apartment and Barney announces that he knows Robin’s secret. He says the name “Robin Sparkles” and he sounds really smug, so we are definitely led to believe that he is right: it’s porn.
Barney starts pulling up the video, Robin is panicking, Ted tries to defend her, then Robin tells them to “watch it and be done with it”. Marshall just doesn’t want to get slapped. Past-Robin says some stuff that definitely makes it sound like she did porn, and the beginning of the video is very tropey-porn-ish: schoolgirl outfit, dude in a stache, blonde wig.
Barney slaps Marshall, letting the audience think the bet is over. Robin says, “I wish it was porn, it would be less embarrassing” and presses play on the video again. We have no time to process what it could be instead before it becomes super clear:
She was a teen pop star. And the song is A BOP.
Here’s the thing: the opening scene of this music video doesn’t really make much sense as part of a music video. But by the time you know what’s really up, YOU DO NOT CARE. The reveal is so fantastic, so funny, so full of stuff that you want to relive over and over again that you completely forget about that five-second intro that doesn’t make a ton of sense.
And it’s not like it makes ZERO sense. Music videos, especially in the late 80s/early 90s had theatrical intros or interludes, sometimes they related to the song, sometimes not. She tells us it was a minor hit, which means production value could have been very low. We’ll learn later on that her handlers put her in some pretty precarious positions when it came to sexualized content, and in the real world we know that teen pop stars are often abused and treated like adults way before they should be. (Go read some of the disgusting things said by Britney Spears’ managers and record executives if you don’t believe me)
So the writers did a couple things right that we can copy:
They brainstormed on the page and gave us a handful of reasonable-ish possibilities
They followed those up with two outrageous possibilities that would be funny if true but couldn’t possibly be true
They distracted us immediately, got us invested in other character drama (the slap bet, the lie about the wedding) right away
They fudged reality just a teensy bit right before the reveal, throwing the audience off the scent right until the last second
To wrap up the episode, Lily awards Marshall five slaps to be doled out from here to eternity, and we establish a runner for the next several years. Ted and Robin make up. Marshall slaps Barney and knocks him to the ground. They all watch the video again and again.
This is bonus bit for this episode: The writers/production team did not cut any corners about this video. Costumes, the music, the fake video sets, the jokes in the lyrics. It is technically just a throwaway joke, that Robin did a cheesy music video, and they could have gotten away with filming ten seconds of it and pretending the rest existed, but they didn’t. They did not have to go that hard for us, but they absolutely did it for the viewers.
Writing Prompt: Pick one of the other theories Ted has in this episode (arrested at a mall, dumped at a mall, found out a traumatizing secret at a mall, traumatized via a freak accident at a mall, mauled at a mall) to be Robin’s true secret. Use different red herrings than this episode uses (retired porn star and married in a mall) and plot out a story with the same trajectory as the episode.