Note: Rather than summing up the plot, scene-by-scene, I’m going to try something a little different wherein the plot summary is more a gut reaction.
A storyline – Rachel, Monica and Phoebe realize they don’t have a plan for the future.
B storyline – Chandler and Joey try to comfort Ross as he mourns the anniversary of his first night with his ex-wife.
This episode credits Alexa Junge with the story and from the storyline summary alone, you can see the difference: no C storyline.
The story’s cold opening has the friends in the coffee house asking each other what they’d do if they were omnipotent and we get a glimpse of the a great “dumb” Joey joke.
Unlike so many later episodes, Joey’s “dumbness” here isn’t a result of him being dumb, but misunderstanding. Joey asked about being “omnipotent” and he hears “impotent”. He knows what that is, so he’s not being dumb, he’s just misunderstanding. What’s more, when he hears that Ross is “impotent,” he offers his deepest sympathies, rather than caustically scoff. This kind of misunderstanding makes Joey relatable because we’ve all made that type of mistake (winner is my buddy Matt for misunderstanding “artistic” and “autistic”). It’s a well written joke on top of a funny premise and perfectly articulates Joey’s character. Immediately, you know what Joey values in himself, how he feels about others, and can relate to the misunderstanding. It’s one of my favorite cold openings for sure.
After the credits, we’re hit with Phoebe sleeping in the coffee house which in itself is ironic, but then they double down with Phoebe being unable to sleep because her grandma is having too much loud sex — yet another reversal. It immediately showcases Phoebe’s unique character and her living situation as well as sets her up to sleepover at Monica and Rachel’s.
Chandler and Joey enter (with Joey counting how many steps it took). This simultaneously shows us Chandler’s sarcastic sense of humor, Joey’s childlike games, and informs the audience — for the first time in 4 episodes — why the six of them are at the coffee house all the time, i.e. it’s not even 100 steps from their apartment. The sheer volume of jokes woven into worldbuilding and plot-related dialogue is genuinely stunning. This is expert-level writing.
Ross gets invited to a hockey game and the date reminds him it’s an anniversary with Carol. As the mourning starts, Rachel enters with her first paycheck.
The two parties split with the boys going to the hockey game and the girls having a girls’ night. Before the festivities can ensue, Rachel’s “former” friends enter with big news and, yet again, a masterclass in writing, Rachel’s friends appear to be the epitome of success but slight tweaks to the lines indicate these are girls of privilege, nothing is earned. One is pregnant which requires a second-party; one is engaged, hence the ring she was given; and one is being made partner, but the line makes it clear she doesn’t “make parter,” it’s “Guess who’s father is making her partner?” A subtle touch to show that Rachel has still done more for herself as a waitress than all her friends.
From there, Ross, Chandler and Joey go to the hockey game, then to the Emergency Room after Ross is injured where we learn the anniversary is not only the first time Ross and Carol had sex but the first time Ross ever had sex. After getting his nose fixed, Ross is not completely fixed until getting vengeance on the receptionist. Nice.
Meanwhile, Monica, Phoebe, and Rachel reckon with the fact that this life might be as good as it gets and it’s only the mistaken pizza delivery of a celebrity that pulls them back from the brink… wherein they go on the brink (of their balcony) to revel in their friendships and bond. This is also the first time we get an indication that Monica used to be hefty.
The story reconvenes inside with all the friends playing board games together.
Fun aside, I love that Rachel genuinely seems like she didn’t mean to drop the pillow. It feels unscripted and I’ll chock that up to Jennifer Aniston’s performance. Well done! Side-side note, I adore that in the tail end, some random guy brings the pillow back up.
Analysis – Let’s Be Present
This is one of the few friends episodes where the cold opening has a relationship with the primary story in that, the question posed is “What would you do if you were omnipotent?” Listening to Phoebe’s answer alone indicates an optimistic future with world peace, the end of hunger, and bigger boobs — which although a funny anecdote, plays on the idea that any existing insecurities could be remedied.
The main point is the world is full of possibility, but only for a day… hence why Chandler’s joke “If I could be omnipotent for a day, I’d be omnipotent for a lifetime” is the focal point of episode. Being omnipotent for a day means being “present”. Being omnipotent for a lifetime means you can plan the future and correct the past. Being omnipotent for a day means being present and it’s “being present” that pulls both stories out of their depressed stupor.
Fear the Future – Monica, Rachel, Phoebe
The girls storyline starts dark and depressing. Rachel’s given up a clear and exact future in favor of something unknown and unwritten. The visit from her friends makes this abundantly clear as the “news” is all mapped out. One friend is pregnant, so Rachel knows what comes next; one friend is engaged, so Rachel knows what comes next; one friend is being promoted, so Rachel knows what comes next. Each of her friends are walking a clear path and this comes on the eve of Rachel’s first paycheck wherein she wonders how she can afford a better life. For the first time in the series, Rachel realizes that while she may have a job, it’s far from a certainty that her future is secure. Her paycheck may barely enable her to make rent let alone afford a better future.
When Rachel returns to her apartment for ladies night and asks how her current friends cope. They’re full of optimism because they’re living in the present, with Monica saying “[H]alf the time we don’t know where we’re going. You’ve just gotta figure at some point it’s all gonna come together,” but when Rachel pushes them to think of the future and the reality that it might not all come together magically, that it might always be like this, the cold reality seeps in that they don’t have a plan. They “don’t even have a pla.”
Living outside of the present is what makes them unhappy. And this is apparent when the ladies find something new to focus on, namely George Stephanopoulos’ pizza — hereafter referred to as GS because lord help me if I’m typing and spellchecking that name one more time. Although initially something that appears to be yet another smear on a terrible evening, GS’ pizza quickly takes a positive turn. The girls are expecting success to one day fall in their lap — they’re hoping they’ll one day get their magic beans — but they all realize it hasn’t happened yet. Rachel’s inquiry has led them to wonder if it will ever happen, so when GS’ pizza arrives it feels like the bare minimum wick needed to rekindle their optimism. The pizza could’ve arrived at anyone’s apartment (or even the right apartment, i.e. GS’) but here, on a night when the girls are in turmoil, they receive a celebrity’s pizza by mistake. It seems too exciting to be a coincidence, therefore, Monica, Phoebe and (eventually) Rachel chock it up to fate. Things can fall into place. Sure, today it was a celebrity / sex symbol’s pizza, but tomorrow it could be their actual magic beans. This diverts their collective attention from an unknown future to focus more on the present, i.e. what’s George up to? What’s George like in bed? Even as the girls reminisce about the past, it’s given a fresh zest of the present.
Monica: Okay. Okay, I got one. Do you remember that vegetarian pate that I made that you loved so much?
Monica: Well, unless goose is a vegetable…ha haaaah!
Phoebe: Oh! Oh! Oh!
Whether watching or reading the quote, Phoebe has a loose interest in the conversation about the past. It’s only with the present knowledge that Phoebe comes to life, going form “uh-huh” to “Oh! Oh! Oh!” — also because Monica made her break her vegetarianism, but go with me here. The present knowledge keeps their conversation about the past captivating. Staying in the present keeps them optimistic.
Mourning the Past
The more overt of the two. Chandler and Joey are living in the present and trying to engage Ross who’s lost in the past. They actively play field hockey on the way to the hockey game while Ross meditates on what once was.
When they arrive at the hockey game, Ross is present. He’s shouting and hollering and not thinking about the past. He’s having fun. Of course, once his face is harpooned by a puck, this takes a turn. The “waiting room” of an ER is inherently an oxymoron. The room is supposed to be urgent, existing in the present, but the group of boys must wait before action can be taken.
Ross being in pain (and thereby present) starts off focusing on his nose. We know this as he keeps it covered up with a bloody tissue. In his next ER scene however, the tissue is removed and time has passed indicating visually he’s mourning the past again. Chanler and Joey meanwhile are at wit’s end as they don’t know how to pull Ross up to the present. The hockey game was a welcome distraction, but now confronted with a literal waiting room, there’s not much else they’re able to do other than vent their frustration. Chandler argues with the receptionist to not stay in Ross’ past and maintain some sanity living in the present. Even Joey who initially sits in a wheelchair and plays idly with the puck (in the present), feels the weight of the past when he imagines what life would be like if he only ever slept with one woman.
When Ross’ face is fixed, he’s still hung up on the past and the only thing that brings him some genuine jubilee is when he accidentally whips the puck at the rude receptionist in the heat of the moment. He punctuates this by saying, “Now that was fun.”
The Board Games
Back at the apartment, the whole gang plays Twister.
(Which, as an aside, I think the board game of Operation is simultaneously relevant to the girls’ plot and also foreshadowing Ross’ predicament. On the one hand, Phoebe saying they can’t actually operate but they can prep the guy falls in line with Rachel’s fears that she and her current friends won’t amount to anything. They’ll never be the surgeons fixing problems, just scrubs lost in the background. However, it also could signify Ross’ plight as they don’t operate immediately, forcing them to sit and wait.)
While playing Twister, a call from Rachel’s credit card company comes through but Chandler answers the phone. Rachel asks for Chandler to “take her place” on the board game and he does. Rachel answers the phone from her credit card company, something she avoided as it brought her face to face with her fears of the future. However, canonically, there’s something deeper you can pull here. Rachel was immediately replaced by Mindy. She gave up her orthodontist only to discover that that evening he went off to Aruba with her Maid of Honor, Mindy, and they’re now dating. Rachel was replaced in an instant and that fear could be part of the foundation of her meltdown in this episode.
Briefly — but a necessary aside — it’s also clear from these 4 episodes that Chandler is the most financially stable. Rachel even indicates as much when she gets her first paycheck and immediately says, “Chandler, look at that–” seeking his assessment being the wealthiest among them.
So when the credit card company calls and Chandler answers, but Rachel believes she can take the call, it’s significant in two ways: 1) she’s facing the caller who initiated her meltdown, fear of the future and 2) taking over from the person in her current group who she considers to be the most successful.
This is then expanded on when Chandler (substituting for Rachel on the Twister mat) has to reach Green (fittingly, Rachel’s last name). Chandler, reaches but fails and everyone collapses.
Despite her future with Barry being replaced in an instant; her current friends couldn’t replace her in an instant, despite the unknowable future. This is what causes her to realize, she’s better off now than she has been as she smiles and says, “I’m fine.”
This is the first episode perfectly balanced between the guys and girls and encapsulates what Friends episodes (and literal friends) are all about.
There’s no C storyline (by nature typically the weakest story) and it gives everyone plenty of screentime and this is crucial to its success as you finally see a full day-in-the-life dynamic of the cast. Everyone is clearly defined, from Phoebe’s kooky anecdotes but empathetic to a crisis to Chandler’s exhaustion at his friend’s sorrow and his cleverness manifest in his soliloquy to the ER receptionist “C’mon Dora, don’t be mad”.
Additionally, there’s the early sentimental moment between Rachel and her friends as they discuss a future they can’t see, but it never becomes so heavy as to weigh the episode down. It hits, but then bounces back.
It’s a great episode and even closes with one of my favorite type of chiastic-esque devices (and does it well) in which Rachel calls back to a line that’s contextually irrelevant to the world, but meaningful to the audience.
“I’ve got magic beans.”
And again, part of the way you know it’s done well, is rather than fade to black, Rachel finishes the phone call saying, “Nevermind!” It acknowledges the reality of the scene without losing the sentiment. I love it!
Even the dated reference to George Stephanopoulos was foreseen as Rachel asks “Who?” while the others can explain. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, and dating myself, I still assumed when I saw this episode that George Stephanopoulos wasn’t “real”; that he was made up for the plot. The point of the story is it could’ve been anyone’s pizza.
It may be obvious from my jubilation, but I’m quite fond of this episode. It is the first episode that easily sets the stage for future structured episodes. If I were to introduce Friends to someone who’d never seen it, I’d start with this one.
It’s a story that’s so friggin relatable. In the boy’s storyline, I’ve literally been each of those characters at one point or another. I’ve been the Joey, just trying to make the best of a fun-devoid situation. I’ve been the Chandler, who just wants my friend going through a crisis to shut up and spend some time with me — and, call it the surreal nature of a fun night gone awry, or the comfort of being surrounded by friends who won’t oust me for being crazy, but yes, I’ve soliloquized in an ER. And I’ve been the Ross who incessantly drones on and on about a problem I cannot control or change despite the growing annoyance of my peers. Same on the ladies’ side as well… in fact, often accompanied by drinking makeshift margaritas late into the night.
Anyway, a great episode and I’ll be keeping my eye on future Alexa Junge written episodes.
- 104: TOW George Stephanopoulos
- 101: TOW Monica Gets a Roommate
- 103: TOW the Thumb
- 102: TOW the Sonogram at the End