(“The One Where Rachel Finds Out,” season one, episode 24, originally aired 5/18/95)
[Welcome to the finale of the first season of Friends! After weeks of emailing our reviews back and forth to each other, Joe and I decided to get together and review the finale in the same room at the same time. The following is a slightly polished transcript version of that momentous event. - SS]
Sonia: Ok, first impression: I have so many issues with this episode. It’s a huge turning point for the show, but as a finale, I think it’s extraordinarily weak. What do you think? The everyday quality of this episode—and yeah, Joey’s storyline—really throws me for a loop.. It’s clear they didn’t really know what to do with Joey, but they needed some sort of subplot as a counterpoint to the Ross/Rachel reveal. But Friends being Friends, the reveal happens entirely through word-of-mouth—which is classic for the show but also visually not that conclusive. For a finale, this is a very non-final feeling episode. I’m sure this is because Friends was super-excited to be going into a second season after their wildly successful debut, but Joe, if I’d been watching this live and was invested in this romance, I would be so pissed off by that ending.
Joe: I remember so much of this episode so clearly that it’s hard to look at it with fresh eyes. I was anticipating Chandler’s spilling the beans, Rachel’s failed airport dash, and the reveal of Julie as Ross’s new girlfriend at the end. The only parts I kind of needed a memory jog for were the Joey parts, which seemed like such a weird throwaway for a season finale.
It seemed incredibly clear to me that, after a season of Ross pining for Rachel, the showrunners were now setting up a period of Rachel pining for Ross, just so they could extend the will-they-or-won’t-they courtship as long as possible. This was back when people still were very much believers in that Moonlighting-style axiom that you should wait to get your love interests together as long as possible (which, as New Girl discussion taught us this past season, is still a thing people believe). Ultimately, Friends pulled the trigger on Ross/Rachel early enough in season two that nobody feels like they bent the formula into breaking, but at this point, imagining watching it for the first time, the seams do show.
Sonia: It’s devastatingly unrewarding, isn’t it? And it’s really, really weird that the climax of their romance in this episode is a… dream sequence? Fantasy state? I don’t really even know what to call it—that scene where Rachel’s on a date with another guy but can’t stop thinking about Ross—to the point that David Schwimmer materializes as dream-Ross, distractingly posing next to loudmouth-random-guy, giving Rachel sexy eyes, and ultimately kissing her. That device didn’t work for me even the first time I saw it as a kid, and it’s never improved. On top of that, as you pointed out while we were watching—Ross in the dream sequence is way more confident and sexy than Ross in real life.
Joe: Here’s where I’m going to stick up for the show a bit. For so much of the season, at least in the Ross/Rachel storylines, we’re entirely within Ross’s perspective. He pines and we see it, but Rachel doesn’t. To Ross, she’s this unknowable person, at least when it comes to her feelings for him. With Ross pretty much off the board for the bulk of the episode, we get put into Rachel’s shoes for once, and that reversal interests me. Now Ross is the unknowable one. Fugue-state Ross is definitely not the Ross we know. He’s the Ross that Rachel imagines could be now that she’s starting to see him Through The Eyes Of Love (Robby Benson last-week-director shout out!). In that way, I think the weakness (“Who is this new sexy kissy Ross?”) becomes a strength.
Sonia: That’s fair. I like the idea that Rachel sees Ross’ potential more than she sees Ross himself in her fantasy. It’s refreshing to get some of this romance from Rachel’s point-of-view—it makes the relationship a lot more believable. I like too that this fantasy connects to her dreams from two episodes ago, in “The One With The Ick Factor,” when she has a dream about him and again, is able to see him as a sexual being. It introduces the idea that Ross himself isn’t really able to see himself as a sexually aggressive man, even though clearly that’s all he wants out of his romantic life.
In the episode’s cold open, Rachel leans over Ross and says something about kissing the baby Ben, and Ross looks at her with these moony cow eyes that are painfully, pathetically gross. There’s something so creepy about his adoration for her, especially when it’s unrequited. Grow up, Ross! Become sexy-kissy fugue-state Ross!
Joe: Yeah, in that way, Julie comes at exactly the right time, before Ross’s mooniness became clinical. Obviously, Julie right now is less a character than an obstacle with a head and a tenuous grip on her carry-on luggage, but at least she’s letting us see a more capable side to Ross. In a way, we’re all Rachel in this episode, aren’t we?
Sonia: You mean, wearing rompers and pantyhose?
Joe: And at long last The Rachel hairstyle, yes! Okay, let’s get to Chandler and Phoebe, who are so peripheral and yet also I think we found them fascinating in this ep, right? Pissy Chan and Loopier Than Usual Phoebes?
Sonia: Yes! These two are both kind of great in this episode. Unfortunately I think this is the beginning of one of Friends issues with Phoebe—which is that as she “lifts right out” of the group, when there’s inter-Friend romantic drama, she’s not quite as pivotal to the plot as she could be. That being said, she does amazing work with Ross’ little picture, both times, and so many of her sly reaction shots and quirky comments land perfectly.
Joe: This episode just reminded how much Lisa Kudrow is the comedic standout of this season. She does kind of stand-apart from the group in dramatic/narrative/structural ways, but she’s the one bold stroke of color when things threaten to get all sitcommy and beige. Watching Kudrow’s face begin to break when she kept hiding behind that head-shot of Ross killed me repeatedly.
Sonia: Chandler’s also got this lovely psychological plot that I enjoyed watching. He’s always kind of a fussy, neurotic guy, covering up his insecurities with sarcasm, but this week he seemed even more biting and acerbic than usual. His temper leads to his indiscretion in dropping that Ross has been in love with Rachel for the whole season, which then leads to his abject contrition. It’s an interestingly complex arc, and I wonder how much of that was Matthew Perry and how much was the writers thinking Chandler through as a character. He’s got every right to be cranky, you know. Joey’s next-door making a woman… send him fruit baskets all night long, and Ross is in love with a girl who’s single and pretty and interesting but is too afraid to do anything about it. Chandler doesn’t have anything nearly so satisfying in his life. It’s a minor point, but I think Chandler is an audience favorite precisely because he’s so pathetic, and in this episode you see a slightly darker version of that. (Plus that vest over denim shirt thing. Wow.)
Joe: Okay, can we also talk about how strange and exotic 1995 considered cunnilingus to be??? Joey’s subplot, that he’s taking part in a fertility study wherein he makes “deposits” regularly, segues into a bit with the girl he’s dating where he’s unable to have sex beyond (at Monica’s suggestion) “be[ing] there for her.” So, okay, obviously oral sex, particularly in that direction, is The Act That Dare Not Speak Its Name. Seinfeld had conditioned us to play coy with terminology, but, like, all those fruit baskets? What kind of men was NYC churning out in the mid-90s that this was such a novel practice for her? And then Joey deciding that he’d regained his prowess at the end, with the implication that, you know, “being there for her” is over now that he can just do his own thing (so to speak) makes him look like a selfish mook. Which, granted, is kind of his character, but it also implies that that’s just what dudes will do.
Sonia: Friends also considered sperm donation to be the most hilarious thing ever. Parts of this episode feel like they were written in the boys’ locker room.
Joe: So do we think this episode was a good place for the show to leave things off for the summer? Not necessarily as a storyline. But obviously it ends a better show than it began. I think the challenge of getting into the lives of six main characters in ways both illuminating and funny was largely met, don’t you?
Sonia: I do, yes. Friends took on a lot of work, trying to get six young people to be interesting and funny and relatable while also incorporating themes about modernity and the particular trials of Generation X. But it has a nimble confidence that gets it through all of this, without slowing down much at all, even in the episodes that we didn’t like as much. In a world where you had to do 24 episodes per season and use network resources, Friends comes off as shockingly deft, and even if this finale isn’t totally satisfying, it’s not confusing. It’s clearly closing to an intermission, with the drama just continuing in a few more months.
The season closes with some of our characters in intriguing positions for the fall, and some of them with nothing much going on at all. Out of all of the characters in season one, we’ve seen Ross and Rachel grow the most—in part due to their attraction to each other, but in part also because they’re both facing challenges of adulthood for the first time. Monica and Chandler are both demonstrably not-that-happy but not in a place where they’re ready to do anything about it. And Joey and Phoebe seem content to just be their freewheeling selves for a while longer. That’s a good two-by-two-by-two for the series writers, moving forward, because it gives them a few different types of plots to work with.
Joe: Yes! The Romantics, the Neurotics, and the Wild Cards. I like that structure a lot, and it’s one the show seems very comfortable with. Obviously, by the time the first season ended, the show was already a sensation. I think The Rembrandts may have already come and gone as one-hit wonders. If nothing else, the Julie cliffhanger stands as evidence of a time when audiences were as rapt for sitcom storylines as they’d ever been. “Must-See TV” didn’t even have to be intoned sarcastically! I guess we’ll see how season two shakes out when we return.
- Back in the dial-up days, pre-social-media, I guess there was NO way to conveniently contact Ross in China to maybe warn him about the beans getting spilled? [JR]
- People Of Color On Friends Watch: Lauren Tom as Julie, of course! Thanks to everyone who pointed this out. [SS]
- “What about the time difference?” “From here to the airport?”
- Let’s also give it up for Corinne Bohrer, a.k.a. Veronica Mars’ mom, as Joey’s grateful girlfriend. [JR]
- Whatever money was left in the soundtrack budget was absolutely splurged to get Madonna’s “Take a Bow” to score Rachel’s doomed meeting with Ross at the airport. [JR]
- “Just keep rubbing your head. That’ll turn back time.”
- The hypothetical stacking game between Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe about Ross and Rachel’s as-yet-fictional relationship is a great bit of business. Monica’s “Why the hell are you dumping my brother?” is a perfect topper. [JR]
- I wonder if Carol still has that ridiculous crystal duck. [SS]
- And we would be remiss if we did not ask: Why does Ross, the largest friend, not simply eat the other five? Sweeps have come and gone. We conclude: He just doesn’t have the guts.
- Thanks for watching and reading with us. We’ll be back mid-October for season two!