Phoebe looking surprised at her opened soda which contains a human thumb

103: TOW The Thumb: Satan’s Minions At Work Again

Plot Summary

A storyline – Chandler takes up (and quits) smoking.
B storyline – Monica dates someone who her friends adore, but she does not.
C storyline – Phoebe feels guilt for money she didn’t earn.

The episode begins (as the last three have) in the coffee shop. And, as most of the friends do, someone enters and provides an update on their relationship status. This time however, it’s Phoebe who says it didn’t go well, as the guy wants to “Do this again sometime.” Rachel, being the fish out of water, doesn’t understand why that positivity is met with a resounding “that’s too bad” from the other friends who try to spell out for her this dating code. As a parallel, Ross reveals his naivety as he believes their dog Chichi really was sent to live on a farm — words cannot express how much Ross and I have in common in this moment.

The next scene takes place in Joey and Chandler’s apartment (a first), and simultaneously surprising and unsurprising, the camera frames the poster of Laurel and Hardy before zooming out to show a modern comic duo, Chandler and Joey. In today’s exciting episode, Chandler is running lines with Joey for a role in which he has to smoke.

While Chandler is not an actor, he is a recovering smoker, leading him to adopt a directorial role in teaching Joey how to hold a cigarette. Joey tries to be a good friend and keep Chandler from demonstrating — indicating Chandler’s history with smoking — but in a classic addict-manipulation, Chandler says, “Look, do you wanna get this part or not?” Joey caves and Chandler takes a puff of a vice he’s been missing.

Cut to the coffee house wherein Rachel gets everyone’s order wrong (which is a little surprising because I could swear later seasons Ross always orders a double latte, but apparently Joey ordered the latte and Ross ordered the iced tea? Must be an iced tea kinda day; unsurprisingly, Monica takes her coffee black and Chandler picked a cappuccino — I’m willing to bet because it’s a silly name or for the silly foam). Phoebe enters to reveal her bank has mistakenly deposited $500 in her account and while everyone thinks she should keep it, she feels it would be karmically inappropriate. Although the friends don’t share this sentiment initially, they support Phoebe’s decision to try and get the money rescinded. At this moment, it’s discovered by the group that Chandler is smoking again (after 3 years of not smoking) which they don’t approve of, but before we get into that, Monica exits saying she has a date with a guy who she refuses to introduce her friends to.

Cut to Iridium, Monica’s restaurant where she has a new co-worker.

Sidebar: As someone who attended a whopping 16 hours of culinary school (4 of which were cancelled), I still have a hard time watching these scenes where the chefs are wearing jewelry and watches. At least 2 hours of my culinary schooling involved Cronenberg-levels of body horror from people who forgot to take off their “ties,” watches or hooped earrings. I can forgive the existence of makeup and absence of hair nets but the jewelry is my line.

During this scene, Monica explains to her coworker that her friends never have anything nice to say about the guys she dates (harkening back to Joey’s sentiment in episode 1 “you’re going out with the guy, there’s gotta be something wrong with him.” She then makes her desires known in a Monkey Paw fashion:

I just wish that once, I’d bring a guy home that they actually liked.

Cut to the purple apartment where Phoebe enters and reveals her bank “fixed” the error, gifting her $500 more and a football phone. She’s a bit frazzled, but it’s offset by the fact that Alan has arrived. Alan intro is brief, but during this time, he pokes fun at himself and the friends before we fade into a time lapse where Monica shows Alan out. Monica — as we all have when watching a movie we recommended to a friend who we can tell are not nearly as enamored with it as we are — asks them to speak up and let the ridicule begin. To her amazement, the friends love him.

Cut to the coffee house where Chandler, Ross, Rachel, and Joey enter in a casual baseball attire before proclaiming they won. This prompts a lot of questions, as a viewer:

  1. Although not firmly established (being episode 3), it’s hard to imagine Ross and Rachel playing sports given what we’ve seen of their characters.
  2. This also loosely implies that they have other friends / social circles / some community baseball team? It feels like they don’t know yet just how much time the friends spend with each other.
  3. Why was Monica at the coffee house and not at the game?
  4. Why was Alan (Monica’s boyfriend/date?) hanging out with her friends instead of Monica?

Cut to unique exterior wherein Phoebe gifts her $1000 and football phone to her homeless friend (Lizzie, who I’m going to pretend is canon with Beverly (some 20 years later) on The Mindy Project).

Cut to Chandler’s office wherein he wordlessly puffs a cigarette, eliminates all trace with his spray and then confuses the two.

Cut back to Phoebe where Lizzie agrees to buy Phoebe a soda and carts off.

Phoebe opens her soda only to see a something floating in her can — and kudos to the sound mixing or foley artists or whoever’s stroke of genius this was. Somehow, through nothing but the light but nonetheless solid “plink” that plays, you get the impression there’s something inside her soda. Special shoutouts to whoever (or whatever) you are.

Cut to coffee house where she informs her friends (and audience) that what was in her soda was a human thumb. The friends are nonplussed until Chandler lights up again. They beg him to stop until he snaps:

So I have a flaw; big deal! Like Joey’s constant knuckle-cracking isn’t annoying? And Ross, with his over-pronouncing every single word? And Monica, with that snort when she laughs? I accept all those flaws, why can’t you accept me for this?

The brutal honesty causes the friends to turn on each other while Chandler’s able to smoke in peace.

We then cut back to Monica’s restaurant where we spend a brief moment to hear her inner thoughts (by using her co-worker as a sounding board) wherein she confesses her friends like Alan, but she does not.

Back at Central Perk, Chandler continues to smoke while Ross and Joey try to talk him out of it until Rachel reveals Alan is on the phone. In seconds, Chandler is reconsiders his habit and puts out his cigarette.

Back at the purple apartment, Chandler’s gentle wit has morphed into some sharp sarcasm as he bemoans lambchop — the talking hand puppet. Phoebe shares her news that she’s now $7000 richer for finding that thumb in her soda can while Monica ushers Joey into the apartment so she can sit them all down and tell them she’s broken up with Alan, all of who take it very personally.

Quick cut to Monica breaking up with Alan who admits he’s a little relieved as he couldn’t stand her friends. Then, as the credits roll, the ensemble eats comfort food when Chandler takes off in need of a smoke until Phoebe promises him $7000 if he never smokes again. He agrees — which is fairly Terry Southern of him.

Analysis – Resisting Acceptance

Whether it’s universal or not, it’s pretty common for something that’s widely “accepted” to be considered inherently “correct.” In a handful of binary questions, that may be true, but you only need to look at history to see what was unlawful 10, 50, 100 years ago vs today. Marijuana being a prime example of something that’s widely accepted in the US, but 10 years ago could wind up in jail time — but what do I know about law? Nothing, so let’s go right back to the point of this episode.

With Monica, she holds the only unpopular opinion among the group on Alan. Everyone loves him, she doesn’t, but if society accepts him, what is she missing? Does it make her lack of interest wrong? It’s why she keeps prying, “Don’t you think Alan can be a little too… I don’t know, a little too Alan?”

And the other two stories balance that out as Chandler’s smoking isn’t accepted and he resists. Meanwhile Phoebe’s story about acquiring money she didn’t earn is accepted by the ensemble, but it doesn’t feel right about it, so she resists.

[We] take the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be.

The Nick Fury line is apropos of this episode and reiterated in so many words by Phoebe’s, “What is up with the universe?” Each of the friends have a want and they all go out of their way to make their want work. Chandler smokes in his office in the most complex fashion possible. He’ll smoke outside in the rain covered with a trash can lid. He’ll smoke inside the coffee house and just “hold in” the puff when asked. Still he cannot get society on his side. Same with Phoebe who tries to simply notify the bank of the error, only to inflate the error, and then when she goes out of her way to resolve it, she winds up with a payout seven times the size. She tries to fight the reality of her situation and suffers because she can’t accept it.

In both Chandler and Phoebe’s storylines, we side with the majority; the ensemble; society. We agree with the other 5 friends that Chandler should quit smoking (it’s negative) and we agree with the other 5 friends that Phoebe should keep the money (it’s positive).

The only story where we disagree with society is Monica’s. We recognize that Alan is accepted, but we agree with Monica and resist the temptation to assume “acceptance is equal to being correct.”

Monica’s Monkey Paw

Doing a bit of a deeper dive, one of the brilliant things about Monica’s storyline is how “absent” Alan is. As an audience, we see his introduction and we see him being dumped, but we don’t spend any time with him outside of that. This helps us latch on to Monica because we’re not given any time to bond with Alan. We don’t see what an “awesome” guy he is, so as an audience we’re left wondering where this enthusiasm from her friends is coming from.

I’m sure I’m not alone here when I say my first watch through of this episode, I remember thinking the friends were being facetious. As though when the friends found out Monica doesn’t want to bring Alan over because she fears their criticism, they made a rule to “not nitpick” so Monica can make her decision unencumbered.

To back this up, even the delivery of a number of lines praising Alan felt disingenuous. For example:

Chandler: I’d marry him just for his David Hasselhof impression alone. 

Ross: You know what I like most about him though? The way he makes me feel about myself.

This goes a bit further into what’s unseen in that, when the friends return from their baseball game and say “We won!” Monica begs the question:

Monica: How’s that possible?”

The implication being they’ve played baseball before and lost; consistently lose; making Monica’s question, “why are you all pretending you won, when you always lose?” The friends claim Alan not only was the MVP but also brought them all together as a team. We never see this, leaving us as incredulous as Monica.

Even in the one scene about Alan (but noticeably without Monica), wherein Chandler gets a call at Central Perk from Alan who tells him to quit smoking. We don’t hear what Alan says but are left to believe Chandler’s inspired, going so far as to put his cigarette out. The thing is, we’ve already seen him put his cigarettes out, it’s not a clear indicator he’s quit. He throws his first cigarette into Phoebe’s coffee mug and eventually tosses his cigarette on the balcony outside. But again, this is one of the scenes that is supposed to convince us the zest for Alan is real as Monica isn’t present — they’re not doing this for her.

As an audience member however, we literally just heard Chandler utter:

Chandler: I have had it with you guys and your cancer and your emphysema and your heart disease. The bottom line is, smoking is cool, and you know it.

So if an early (and painful) death doesn’t make Chandler quit, what on Earth could Alan have said?

Chandler: (on phone with Alan) No one’s ever put it like that before.

We, as an audience, can act incredulous on Monica’s behalf. So even in scenes where Monica is absent, we see Alan from her perspective. What’s so great about Alan?

We’re told Alan is great, with Rachel going so far as to say Alan could be the one… but we never see it. And as a result, when Monica comes forward and dumps the guy, we don’t side with the ensemble (or society), but with Monica. We adopt the personal opinion over the group. How do you dump the perfect guy? If they aren’t perfect for you.

Meanwhile, Chandler’s Mistress

Chandler’s smoking is a great juxtaposition to the Alan story. While Alan is welcomed with open arms, Chandler is rejected and ostracized for his new “buddy”. A huge difference however is we “see” the rejection. For instance, while the other friends are warm and cozy inside Monica’s apartment, Chandler is silenced and alone on the balcony where it’s raining.

Even when his friends come down on him for smoking in the coffee house and Chandler criticizes the group for each of their flaws, the scene ends with Chandler taking his cigarette and leaving the group behind. He is alone, detached from the ensemble.

Of course, this is the first episode where we see Chandler at work emphasizing his isolation. What’s more his first scene in isolation is also noticeably silent.

Once Chandler actually quits however, Chandler rejoins the group. He sits shoulder to shoulder to Ross who goes so far as to apply the nicotine patch onto Chandler himself; sticking it on him; sticking together.

It’s a humorous contrast that the ensemble welcomes Alan who is never seen, and the ensemble rejects Chandler’s smoking which is present in every scene.

Closing Thoughts

The knock I’ll give against this episode is the conclusion to each story feels unsatisfying. Phoebe’s story ends with her getting $7,000 (and offering it to Chandler), but there’s no real payoff to her story; no sense that she’s going to stop fighting reality. It ended and I had to rewatch the episode to remember what happened with the bank and her thumb settlement. Same with Chandler quitting smoking. The “what’s so great about Alan” is too effective where I don’t buy that Chandler’s quit until he goes through withdrawal on the couch with Ross. And because Monica’s story centers around someone absent, there’s not a real payoff to it — I’m convinced this is why they felt like they had to append a “breakup” scene with Alan on the end of the episode.

I have a suspicion… given how Monica and Chandler’s stories work, that there may’ve been a draft of this episode where Chandler was fearful Alan was “replacing” him in the friends circle. Alan only has 2 or so lines, but his first line actually borrows Chandler’s joke:

Chandler: What are you talking about? We love Shhteve! Shhteve was shhexy!

Alan: I’ve heard shho much about all you guyshh!

Given that Alan is welcomed with open arms and Chandler is rejected, there may have been a draft where Chandler quits smoking to rejoin the group. It’s a little reminiscent of TOW the Male Nanny (S9E02) where Chandler comes home from Tulsa because someone at Monica’s work is making her laugh. But I digress, I get why they wouldn’t do something like that in the 3rd episode of a show. It wouldn’t make sense to have us be excited about Alan and less than thrilled with Chandler.

This episode was written by Jeffrey Astrof & Mike Sikowitz and there are some elements I really like. I like the first Joey and Chandler scene, it’s clever and well constructed, going from “running lines” to “directing” and serving as a catalyst for the Chandler story which subverts our expectation considering they could’ve done a whole show on Joey’s audition — but they don’t and never bring it up again.

I also like that the “cold opening” scene wherein they talk about the “dating code” is actually relevant to the plot as Monica pulls out a number of common “breakup phrases” when she’s breaking Alan up from her friends. “I could go on pretending… but that wouldn’t be fair to you.” I also like the callback to Chichi after the cold opening. Callbacks are king in comedy (when done well) as they help with joke retention otherwise you can watch an episode and think “that was funny… but I can’t remember why.” And the pacing is great.

Rank

I’m torn because I love the jokes, I love the focus on characters we haven’t seen (especially Chandler) and I like the focus on more day-to-day shenanigans rather than focusing on love lives. That said, I think the payoffs are unsatisfying, leading to some forgettable scenes.

As current episodes go, I’d rank this above TOW the Sonogram at the End since it’s better paced, but below the pilot. Still a solid episode.

  1. 101: TOW Monica Gets a Roommate
  2. 103: TOW the Thumb
  3. 102: TOW the Sonogram at the End

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