Friends Season 3, Episode 25 “The One at the Beach”
Written by Pangi-Ni Landrum & Mark Kunerth (story), Adam Chase (teleplay)
Directed by Pamela Fryman
Aired May 15, 1997 on NBC
Friends has struggled to find its creative footing in the ten episodes since “The One with the Morning After”, offering up one underwhelming story after another to try and fill the void left by their relationship at the show’s core – which is understandable, given their romance was teased in the very first scene of the series. Given that, one might think “The One at the Beach” would embrace the opportunity of new possibilities for the future of the immensely popular sitcom; unfortunately, the season three finale is a wildly disappointing episode, one that ignores everything good about the 24 episodes preceding it in pursuit of not one, but two incredibly half-baked plot twists.
It’s frustrating, because “The One at the Beach” actually teases two of the best arcs of the entire series; whether intentional or not, Phoebe’s surrogacy and Chandler and Monica’s pairing are the two most rewarding stories left in the stories. But unfortunately, Chandler joking about being Monica’s boyfriend is but an amusing backdrop to the only real story of “The One at the Beach”: Rachel’s vindictive streak taking her to new lows, as she tries to sabotage Ross and Bonnie’s relationship, simply because it makes her uncomfortable.
One really cannot understate how awful the last few episodes of season three treat Rachel; after her incredible growth through the first three seasons, “The One at the Beach” recycles an old plot line – Rachel gets jealous of Ross’s new girlfriend, and gets her to fuck up her haircut (see: “The One with Ross’s New Girlfriend”) – in order to bring some short-term drama to the romance it justifiably cut down just a few months earlier. And it doesn’t do so through new ideas, or interesting turns for the character: no, the onus is put entirely on Rachel for most of the episode’s running time, which requires her to be a spiteful, indecisive version of herself, one thought left in the series’ distant past.
At times, it feels like Friends can’t even convince itself to buy into this story; after Rachel convinces Bonnie to re-bald herself (which… she doesn’t look all that bad? Christine Taylor kind of rocks the hairdo, if we’re being honest), she finds herself telling Ross that yes, she’s still in love with and maybe wants to be with him, but also that she can’t forgive him for breaking her heart. She then follows that up… by wordlessly asking Ross to do the very same thing that broke them up, suggesting she wants him to come to her bedroom later that night, rather than the one he’s sharing with his current girlfriend.
“The One at the Beach”, however, doesn’t want to offer Rachel that kind of agency: after all, Rachel contending with her own jealousy would require the series to reflect on what it’s done to her character in recent weeks – and there’s just no time to do that, with all the jokes about Bonnie’s hairline or Joey’s sand boobs (which ok, that is pretty funny) taking up any space for contemplation in its main characters. And as the episode moves through its other stories, be it Chandler’s ‘fake’ pursuit of Monica or Phoebe’s attempts to find her father, the episode’s inability to let any moment breathe unintentionally becomes its defining factor.
There’s no underselling just how strange it is to see Friends throw away so much growth in its characters (or in the cases of Joey and Monica, just completely ignore it) through season three, for the sake of having not one, but two dramatic plot twists in its final two minutes. The problem is, the more “The One at the Beach” focuses on using Rachel as a wedge between Ross and Bonnie, the less it has time to develop the other supposedly important story of the episode: Phoebe’s search for her father, which brings her to Montauk and, in the show’s most surprising moment, to her mother, Phoebe Abbott.
Phoebe’s pursuit of her family has been an occasional story beat for Friends, most noticeably in season two’s “The One with Phoebe’s Dad” and this season’s “The One with Frank Jr.”. But it’s never been a huge focus for the series, which makes the big reveal (which comes after Phoebe Abbot tries to pretend she isn’t her mother) an oddity – one Phoebe’s even barely able to contemplate, letting out a confused “huh?” before the episode hurriedly cuts back to more dramatic Rachel/Ross material, never to return.
Is it a bad moment? Of course not; Phoebe A.’s sheepish admission and Phoebe B.’s realization is a quietly moving moment, but one that feels like an afterthought to “The One at the Beach”, rather than a culmination of a long arc, or something the episode truly builds to, The reveal that Phoebe’s mother is very much alive and standing in front of her feels tossed in, a bit of dramatic fodder to break up the monotonous nonsense unfolding back at the beach house – and not one of the defining moments in a person’s life, which I imagine it must feel to many who have the experience.
In the moment, it is an exciting, tense reveal, but Friends gives it absolutely no room to breathe – so ultimately, it feels borne out of pure ego, trying to pawn off a big twist for a character whose story, to this point, has been arguably the most disappointing and flat of the Big Six (hell, even Joey has learned to not be a total piece of shit in every relationship… though some of that was forgotten this season, as well).
(Also, the hindsight of knowing her mother whose only other two appearances in the series come early next season, only reinforces the idea this is an entirely unearned moment for her character.)
As a culmination of season three’s stories, both of these are embarrassingly thin; however, a season finale can’t just be judged solely on the season preceding it, but how it sets itself up for the future (which, unlike 95% of shows today, knew ahead of time it would have a fourth season). Unfortunately, viewing it through that lens doesn’t make “The One at the Beach” any less of a disappointment; after seeing the many stunted stories for Phoebe, the reveal of her mother doesn’t exactly guarantee an engaging, meaningful story to follow – more troubling, though, is how immediately ill-conceived the Ross/Rachel material feels, and what it says about those two characters moving forward.
Friends wants, nay expects, the audience to be waiting with bated breath to see what bedroom Ross went into, despite doing nothing to convince the audience a reunion between its two leads is a good idea. As Rachel astutely points out, none of their differences have been resolved, and neither of them have shown any personal growth from the breakup; instead, Rachel has simply reverted into her pre-Ross/Julie form, where Rachel’s feelings for Ross are treated as a theoretical concept, rather than something tangential Friends contends with on a meaningful level – hell, their interactions have mostly been offscreen in recent episodes, save for Rachel’s night of pain in “The One with a Chick and a Duck”.
Instead, it’s assumed the audience would just cheer for Ross and Rachel’s reunion; not because Ross has learned anything about being a supportive boyfriend, or Rachel’s taken any time for herself (save for the one date she went on with Mark, mostly just to piss Ross off) – even her professional career’s taken a backseat, more a device for Ross’s jealousy or Chandler’s insecurities than a reflection of her character’s development, as it was treated before the show’s post-“The One with the Morning After” creative split. And as Ross parades around his new woman and insists that the breakup was “what she wanted”, it isn’t doing Ross any favors, either – and that just makes it all feel like a bad idea, a miscalculation seemingly made out of sheer arrogance, with no regards for the impacts it holds for its two co-protagonists.
Thankfully, “The One at the Beach” can lean on cast chemistry to fill in the space between these two underdeveloped stories; with Joey trying to play strip poker at the sand-flooded beach house as a runner, “Beach” at least has a few scenes where it can kick back and just enjoy the gang hanging out together in a different setting. But oh, the potential for this episode to be so much more memorable is palpable – and the opportunity missed is monumental, given the inherent weightlessness of its two major reveals.
“The One at the Beach” ends season three – which began with the promising, confident “The One with the Princess Leia Fantasy” – on a surprisingly precarious note, an unrefined, miscalculated half hour displaying an astounding amount of creative insecurity for one of television’s most popular shows of its time (fourth in 1996-97, behind network-mates ER and Seinfeld – and Suddenly Susan, whose first season aired between the two). Friends, of course, would prove it wasn’t completely out of creative juice after this season – but you wouldn’t be able to tell it from the cascading series of disappointments that is “The One at the Beach”, ending a season of growth and struggle on a dour note.
- Can we really treat the Monica/Chandler pairing as a tease in this season finale? Given the creatives behind the show admitted they hadn’t really considered it until after the season four finale, it’s hard to given them credit here.
- Is this the first episode of Friends without a single scene in Monica’s apartment?
- Phoebe’s mother, trying to sell a house: “It has three bedrooms, but no bathroom. But the ocean’s right there!”
- There are probably about ten people who still get the “Dorf on Dating” joke – but I agree with Chandler, it’s good stuff!
- Rachel wears a big hat, which of course, leads Chandler into a monologue where he jokes about being abducted by aliens, and as a result, is no longer able to have children.
- Is Joey wearing the same bright red shirt Ross was so distractedly wearing a few weeks earlier? There’s definitely a shift to bright, pastel colors with costuming in the second half of the season – and almost universally works better with the women than the men.
- Adding to the rushed feeling of this episode; there are an incredible amount of continuity errors in this episode – there are constantly characters and objects changing positions between shots, which makes an already dissonant, inconsistent episode feel even more disjointed.
- Extended thoughts: continuing from my first point: there is a lot of cut material between Monica and Chandler in this episode, suggesting the writers thought there was too much being teased between the two. It’s all good material, though, particularly Monica’s “who is holding the gun to my head?” comment, and Chandler’s ‘mature’ response to Monica as she cuts vegetables for dinner. Also, Chandler’s joke about strip poker rules: “Well, it’s not a law. As long as it stays attached to that tax reform bill, it will never be, mister!”
Up next: The official Friends season four Second Look begins (very soon!) with “The One with the Jellyfish”.