Originally aired 2/13/1997
Directed by James Burrows
Written by Michael Borkow
With a title like “The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break”, Friends certainly can’t be accused of burying the lede of its 63rd episode. With such dramatic stakes comes expectations – which, given its place as one of the most iconic plot twists of the 1990’s, it certainly lives up to, at least on a surface level. However, what is often remembered as a fairly clean thoroughline from Rachel’s declaration to Ross’s drunken decision, is actually a rather nuanced story – one that’s weaved surprisingly well between two utterly bullshit asides about Phoebe’s diplomat boyfriend, and Joey and Chandler debating how they’d approach a theoretical threesome together.
It’s a necessary balance, of course, because every time the episode cuts back to Ross and Rachel’s snowballing argument (during their anniversary, 365 days after “The One Where Ross Finds Out”), Friends gets about as dark as it ever would. We need Phoebe’s ridiculous attempt to date a non-English speaking diplomat, because it provides a comedic salve for what happens between America’s favorite sitcom couple; without it, it wouldn’t feel like Friends, in a way that could threaten to consume the entire season to follow (doesn’t make her plot, which ends in a combative double date with Monica, any more useless).
Similarly, “TOW Ross and Rachel Take a Break” needs Chandler and Joey’s awkward copy shop adventures; it allows us to meet Chloe, a character who Friends quickly establishes has existed on the fringes of the story for awhile. And for such a throwaway Chandler/Joey plot, it is rather smartly crafted as a way to introduce Friends infamous agent of chaos. It’s a very difficult puzzle to try and script out; how does a show establish Chloe as someone Ross would legitimately be tempted by? Given we’ve seen how awful his ability to converse with women normally is, there’s really only one way, which credited writer Michael Borkow utilizes to full effect; Chloe has a crush on Ross, and hangs out at the bar that looks suspiciously like the one Central Perk was supposedly turned into.
As a story for Chandler and Joey? Quite frankly, it’s one the series has already done this season, and one it would do better numerous times throughout the series’ run. But that’s not the point here, of course: Chloe needs to be established quickly as someone close enough to the group’s orbit that Ross would be comfortable with her – though her introduction and presence seem very random, I think it’s a rather well-crafted bit of narrative magic to make her feel at least a little dimensional, rather than a sex object thrown at Ross to make things more interesting.
Whether Chloe’s effect on the plot accomplishes that, well… that’s a debate for another day. One thing’s been clear this season, though: Friends, for the first time, has really invested in Rachel’s growth as a character, and the writers clearly recognized the limitations of keeping the two together. And what makes it work in “The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break” is how it observes Rachel’s changes this season through Ross; no longer a woman with a simple life, Ross is struggling to contend with not being the center of his girlfriend’s universe. And like any dude punching above his weight before he turns 30, Ross can’t recognize that he’s taking his partner for granted, and being selfish about allowing her to have some interests and pursuits in life besides date night with the Fossil Guy.
It’s certainly understandable, especially with episodes like “The One with the Prom Video” building out a rich backstory for the pair. When you really fall head over heels in love for someone, that magnetic attraction forms a gravity that can swallow you both whole; it’s natural, and something every couple has to contend with at some point in the first few years of their relationship.
All season, Ross’s insufferable behavior has been frustrating; it’s explicit that he’s holding her back from forming friendships with work colleagues, and his manipulative attempt to “bring the anniversary to Rachel” fails miserably, as she’s trying to deal with an underwear ordering crisis. But Friends understands Ross, a single father who lost his wife to something beyond his control – he’s a person whose very job is to handle preserved artifacts, pieces of history frozen in time. The museum’s items cannot be changed, altered, nor can they show the effects of age – like his picture of Rachel the Perfect Girlfriend, one that he’s been watching dissolve over the past months as her new job’s absorbed her every waking moment. Her maturity has frightened him – and as she grows, he regresses, in ways that are may be logical, but are certainly not endearing, or healthy to building a relationship of trust and understanding.
We can’t blame him for getting mad that she’s working too much, just like he can’t hold onto bitterness because she’s choosing to pursue a career. Though it would be nice to blame capitalism for the failure of their relationship, it’s really Ross’s interminable refusal to reflect or grow that triggers the events of “TOW Ross and Rachel Take a Break”, right down to Ross asking Rachel if “this is about Mark”, and THEN thinking it was a good idea to get shitfaced around Chloe, the copy girl who’s clearly been obsessed with him for ages. Ross has led with instinct his entire relationship with Rachel; which didn’t work for him in “The One with the List”, and certainly doesn’t work when he tries to confront her after work (presumably in the middle of the night – worst time for a fight!), leading Rachel to utter her infamous line, “I think we should take a break.”
Unlike many shows that force breakups for arbitrary reasons or to spice up a season finale, Friends has gone to great lengths to build this conflict between Ross and Rachel, using Mark as an entryway to really explore the depth of Ross’s unresolved neuroses, developed as a reaction to what happened with Carol before the series began (and defined in the show’s second episode). There’s no easy answer to how either of them are feeling, and Friends smartly doesn’t really try to play sides with Ross’s behavior, or Rachel’s comments, which she quickly tells Mark she regrets making (though letting Mark come over as emotional support is something Rachel knows is a bad idea, and does anyway – but again, that speaks to her growing independence as a human, that she’s not willing to acquiesce her needs for even Ross).
But that’s the thing that makes love so difficult; you can love someone so fucking hard it almost hurts to think about them, but the simplest things can cause the most damage. Wrong words spoken, actions misinterpreted, a bad decision is made… life is crazy like that, where with the snap of a finger, two people can go from living out the first ten minutes of Up to becoming complete strangers who never see or talk to each other again. The line is razor thin; and even the most destined couple, the lobsters who found each other, are not immune to the wants and whims of the universe (or, you know, sitcom writers… but you get my point).
And as “The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break” fades out on Ross and Chloe making out on the dance floor, Friends, on some level, knew it could never be the same. It’s a dramatic moment, but one Friends clearly ends with a bit of somberness. Which, in a way, makes it a more brave creative decision, no? There’s no going back from a moment like this, no solution that Friends would be able to justify getting the two back together at the end of the episode – also, given there’s still ten entries left in the season, means there’s over three hours of TV left to deal with it.
Though I typically try to write about these episodes as standalone entities, it is nigh impossible to watch “The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break” without considering its place in the series. It is both the end of season three’s second act, and what feels like the end of the first act of the series arc as a whole (Chandler and Monica’s wedding at the end of season seven being the second); it is a momentous moment, but one Friends doesn’t try to draw out, or linger on.
That restraint makes such a powerful statement, a rejection of romantic norms on sitcoms that have inspired generations of stories (some good, some bad, some forced) in the genre; it’s kind of hard to argue that Friends doesn’t pull this moment off with a surprising amount of grace, standing strong and facing the impending vitriol face first. In spite of whether it ends up being good for the series is debatable, of course, given how much oxygen it consumes at different points in the story, often for no discernable reason – but it is an undeniably smart decision made in the moment, an episode that rightly cements itself in the mythology of Friends as “The One Where Everything Changed”.
- “I need an atlas!” is something nobody in their 20’s has said in an depressingly long time. Do kids even know who Rand McNally is???
- Chloe is a great 90’s prototype for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl; she’s also distinctly different from Rachel (short hair, flashier makeup, into Ross’s nerdy shit), which again speaks to the craft built into such a short-lived character.
- We just blaze right past the whole “Phoebe picks up a dude giving free massages outside the UN” premise to get to language barrier jokes, huh…. probably a good thing!
- “On Monday, I start wearing makeup.” – Oh, poor Sophie. Now, if someone were trying to make a dumb, pointless Friends spinoff… that’s a character you could make a series about! Just sayin’, for any network execs in 2004 looking for something besides Joey.
- I love how “With or Without You” by U2 is a sign of impending doom for Ross and Rachel, both times it is used in the series. Fuck you, Bono!
- So many shows try to have awkward convos between dudes making threesome rules; it only works if the actors have great chemistry, and it’s why it works so well here, even though it’s the same dumb shit we hear every time these jokes are made.
- Other things nobody has anymore with important appearances in this episode: globes and pencil sharpeners.
Up next: Ross chases down The Trail, while Phoebe and Monica contemplate removing their own, in “The One With the Morning After”.