“[M]en and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way… so the friendship is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story.”
Ross and Rachel are an interesting match because they don’t work — and, as an audience, we know that going into it, but root for Ross all the same because it’s unrequited love.
Unrequited love is an easy way to score empathy with an audience because we can all relate to it. Plus, it ensures returning viewers as week after week they expect a development in the relationship. Not to mention, it’s comic gold, being that sitcoms are founded on miscommunication.
Unrequited love means a romantic gesture can be misinterpreted, so we laugh and awe, but also yearn.
Ross: She just ran her fingers through my hair
Joey: No, this is running fingers through your hair. (Demonstrates). Now this (lightly touches Ross’ hair)… is a tousle.
–TOW the Blackout (uncut)
Putting Friends First To Make Friends Last
This is the quintessential problem with Ross and Rachel, they’re never friends first. There is always one pursuing the other; there’s always an ulterior motive. Ross helping Rachel get ready/go to the hospital in TOW the Chick and the Duck instead of appearing on the Discovery Channel is because he loves her, not because he’s her friend. Playful? Sure, but it’s not out of friendship.
This lack of friendship is what always made their “struggle” with losing the other seem disingenuous. When Rachel finds out Ross likes her (in Season 1), she plays out a fictitious scenario on the balcony saying, “If we broke up and I lost you–” but the reality is she’s not losing anything.
In flashbacks, Rachel never acknowledges Ross. For lack of a better word, Rachel treats Ross like a Gunther. Not a friend, not a partner, just ambiance; part of the scenery. Ross will say something, “Does it feel weird since I’ve been gone?” And Rachel brushes this off, “Oh, no not really.” This doesn’t stop when they meet up 8(?) years later either.
Take TOW the East German Laundry Detergent. Rachel has no problem showing off her panties to Ross because he’s not a possible sexual partner — he’s a tool to learn how to do laundry. Meanwhile, look at Rachel with Chandler (who she does treat like a friend) in TOW the Boobies. She doesn’t simply get offended that her space has been violated, she gets offended that he has nothing complimentary to say about her breasts.
This is the reaction of one friend to another friend whose privacy has been violated and the “lines” need to be drawn.
Meanwhile, Rachel asking Ross about her panties isn’t showcasing her level of comfort but her level of indifference. Again, the Gunther analogy is apt because Gunther knows all the friends’ dirty laundry (apropos): their finances, their sexual preferences, their schedules, etc. But none of the friends care because what’s it matter? It’s Gunther.
This is the problem with that dynamic, it’s not sustainable.
Ross falls hard in relationships (“remember when he was with Carol and bought her that ridiculously expensive crystal duck”), but that’s not sustainable in a relationship. Ross even knows this — however subconscious it may be:
When you’re friends first — as is the case with Monica and Chandler — there isn’t any attempt to mask your flaws. It’s okay if they know your shallowness, your weakness, your quirks because it won’t affect him/her. And it’s why when Monica and Chandler start dating, their weird quirks are accepted by one another — they knew them going in.
Monica knows Chandler gets weird about relationships and fights; Chandler knows Monica is neurotic and thinks about “where relationships are going” — despite what she says. It’s common knowledge between the two friends. Meanwhile, Rachel has never seen the “bad” side of Ross because he’s always being his “best” self with her; because he’s always pursuing her.
This works in reverse too because when Ross is dating Julie, Rachel’s goal is to get him to dump her. So any “tender” moments between Rachel and Ross are still a form of disguise and manipulation.
It’s why, leading up to their breakup, Rachel is put off by Ross’s controlling behavior and jealousy… because she’s never seen it before. For Rachel, it’s like she’s dating a different person and it’s incredibly off-putting.
Meanwhile, Ross put Rachel on a pedestal and is not without a sense of entitlement to her. In TOW the Prom Video, Rachel kisses Ross — and it’s sweet, sure — but also feels like pity; like it’s owed or something he earned as opposed to being mutually agreed upon. By choosing to date Ross at this moment, Rachel lays an uneven foundation for their relationship because she’s ultimately saying, “You deserve me.”
That’s a problem.
Great (Albeit Unrealistic) Expectations
Ross and Rachel consistently have unrealistic expectations of each other. And all the warning signs are there.
For instance, in the notorious, TOW the List, Rachel gets a peek at the Ross we all already know, but she does not.
Ross has spent their entire “friendship” being the best possible person he can be to curry favor. So much so that Rachel is eager to date Ross because she thinks he’s this incredibly considerate, loyal guy who can do no wrong. Ross is her white knight and Rachel doesn’t think she deserves him; Rachel thinks Ross is too good for her.
So although we all make mental lists of the people we date. What Ross did simultaneously destroyed the visage of a white knight and reinforced Rachel’s feeling that she isn’t good enough for him (because clearly he sees her faults too).
Rachel never hid her faults because she never needed to, but to find out that the “perfect” guy has kept a running tally is humiliating. Because she didn’t have her guard up and Ross did, she gets clobbered.
The image of “Ross” was destroyed and when they break up, Rachel reiterates this sentiment:
No. I can’t. You’re a totally different person to me now. I used to think of you as somebody that would never, ever hurt me. Ever… It doesn’t matter what you say or what you do, Ross. It’s just changed everything. Forever.
-TOW the Morning After
But there is one time where Ross and Rachel actually felt like friends, and it’s affected me because I grew up with the “uncut” episodes, but the TV/Netflix edits actually change the entire context.
The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS
Edited Vs Uncut Episodes
This is a little bit of a digression, but it’s worth mentioning. The uncut episodes are rarely better. There’s a reason people operate within limitations, it makes them more creative. They can’t do what they want, so they find workarounds.
In the uncut episodes of Friends, occasionally there’s a good joke or two, i.e. TOW the Cheap Wedding Dress features a good button joke where Ross and Joey decide to get dinner even after their date (Kristin) leaves:
Waitress: Geller for two?
Ross: You hungry?
Joey: Does a bear shit in the woods?
But most of the time, the joke is throwaway that doesn’t add any value, like in TOW all the Kissing.
Phoebe: I am gonna pack, I am gonna pack my ass off.
Ross: Well, I’m going to grab a coffee because my ass is already packed.
(Aside: I’m not sure this is supposed to be a pooping joke, since coffee speeds that process along or he’s literally just seguing. In either case, no value.)
However, in the TOW Phoebe Hates PBS, Ross and Rachel have actually reached a point where they’re just friends — whereas the uncut episodes spoil that.
In this episode Ross is finally contacted by Emily (his estranged wife) and she tells him that she’ll move to New York and work on their marriage if Ross agrees to never see Rachel again. Ross, in a panic, turns to the magic 8-ball for guidance because he can’t give up Rachel.
(It’s worth noting that at this point in the series, Ross is genuinely over Rachel. Rachel meanwhile, has started the process of getting over Ross.)
In the edited/Netflix episodes, Ross asks the 8-ball if he should never see Rachel again, and it returns with “Ask again later”. Monica makes a snarky comment at Chandler’s expense and that’s the end of the scene…
In the uncut version however, Ross asks the 8-ball again only to have Rachel walk in:
Ross: Okay, one more time. (Shakes it.) Should I never see Rachel again?
(Rachel enters with laundry.)
Rachel: Hey. Ooo, Magic 8 Ball! What did you ask?
Ross: Uhh, does…Rachel get to pick the movie that we’re all going to see tonight?
Rachel: Excellent. What’s the answer? (Ross turns it and Rachel reads it.) Woo-hoo! Looks like Stella’s gonna get her groove back tonight! (Everybody else is less ecstatic.) Wh-what? I heard it was good.
Now it’s obvious why this was cut, Ross’ question is super awkwardly worded, so Rachel has to have a big reaction to give us context into what the answer is and even then, it takes way too much time to deduce what the 8-ball’s answer was and how that affects Ross’ original question of “Should I never see Rachel again?”
But this “uncut” scene has huge implications on Ross and Rachel’s entire relationship, because the next time we see Rachel is at Ross’ apartment:
Rachel: (entering) Hi! Are you ready? We’re gonna be late!
Ross: For what?
Rachel: For Stella! Remember? She’s gettin’ her grove back in like 20 minutes.
In the uncut Friends’ episodes, Rachel “won” this outing with all the friends — and none of them actually committed to it; it was an empty promise, but Rachel doesn’t know that. The fact that she goes to Ross’ apartment instead of her own to rally Monica, Chandler, Joey, and Phoebe speaks volumes. It means she’s not moving on, she wants to see Ross and seal some one-on-one time with him.
This changes the meaning of the entire following dialogue.
Ross: Yeah, I uh, totally forgot about that. You mind if I take a rain check? I’m waiting for a call from Emily.
Rachel: Sure. I guess. Hey, I hear you don’t have to go to London. Yay!
Ross: It’s not that easy, there’s still a lot of relationship stuff.
Rachel: Like what?
Ross: Just stuff. Y’know kinda what Emily wants.
Rachel: Well, why don’t you talk to me about it, maybe I can help.
Ross: No. No. You can’t help. I mean, I kinda have to do this without your help.
Rachel: Well, I know you can do that too. I’m just saying if you need somebody to talk to… Hi!
In this scene, Rachel makes herself comfortable in Ross’ apartment. She walks over and sits at the table to let Ross know she’s there to talk… but the 8 ball promised the outing with all of them and it was Rachel’s pick. Wouldn’t she want to give Monica a call to let her know they weren’t going to make it? Or did she already check with Monica and the others and they rainchecked as well? If so, wouldn’t she be suspicious as to whether or not that was the actual question? Or did she forgo seeing the friends to just see Ross because she still loves him?
Look, I get it, to make the audience understand what the 8 ball said, Rachel had to have a big reaction… but in the context of the fictitious world, Rachel must not get the chance to choose the movie they all see very often. She won a prize and she wants to redeem it. So why would she sit to talk to Ross… unless she still loved him and was capitalizing on this opportunity?
But in the edited/Netflix episodes, this never happens. Rachel doesn’t win an outing with all the friends. Rachel has no idea they were playing with a magic 8-ball.
This means, Rachel comes over with the intention of seeing a movie with Ross. It’s not an event, not an outlier, it’s a casual outing with a friend and no one else is involved — no one needs to be. She doesn’t wonder where the other friends are, because this is something Ross and Rachel do. Maybe they planned this a week ago, maybe they both saw a trailer 4 months ago and agreed they would see it together. We don’t know, but that’s the point.
Rachel shows up at the apartment and doesn’t make a big deal out of it, making it seem like this happens all the time. This is why she’s willing to sit and talk with Ross because they see movies all the time, so they can raincheck to chat, it’s no big deal.
This is the first and — as far as I can tell — only time where we see these two engaging in a “friend” activity. No ulterior motives. No one “liking” or “loving” the other. They are doing what normal, platonic friends would do: see a movie together.
This is unprecedented. The flashbacks show Ross always had a crush on Rachel, and therefore put his best foot forward. In Season 1, Ross loves Rachel, so he continues to put his best foot forward.
In Season 2, Rachel loves Ross and tries to persuade him over to her side.
In Season 3, the reality of each other destroys their relationship because they’re not these perfect people they thought each other were. But a “symptom” destroys their relationship, not the “disease”.
Ross still loves Rachel and Rachel still kind of loves Ross which is what leads to the Season 3 finale and into Season 4, but when Ross meets Emily, he no longer loves Rachel… but Rachel loves him.
It’s in Season 5, after Rachel confesses her love to Ross, that she finally begins the process of moving on as well.
In other words, Season 5, Episode 3 — the 100th episode — is the first time where Ross and Rachel can be platonic. And sure enough, in TOW Phoebe Hates PBS (the 101st episode), we see this… BUT ONLY IN THE EDITED VERSION.
In the edited version, Ross’ challenge with giving up Rachel feels genuine. The 8 ball didn’t give him an answer and he’s so caught up in what to do that he’s even forgotten his get together with Rachel. And because Rachel coming over is not predicated on all the friends going, when she offers to stick around and help Ross with his problem, it feels sincere.
It’s why this moment:
When Ross tells Rachel he has to give her up, it’s actually crushing. It’s not because of their history, it’s because they’re finally friends, they’re finally at a good place, and they can’t see how that plays out because ultimately, they’re disposable to each other.
Seeing a movie may have been a joint decision, it may have been her idea, it may have been Ross’ idea. We don’t know and we don’t need to. It creates more subtext not knowing why the two are getting together because it seems like they’re just getting together because they’re friends. It’s normal, it doesn’t need a reason — like a magic 8-ball.
For me, it’s the edited version of this episode that solidifies why Ross and Rachel work by the end of the series. In Season 5, they finally figure out how to be friends. No ulterior motives or one-sided desires. They are actually friends and they manage to build a foundation from there.