Second Look: Friends Season 3 Episode 16 – “The One with the Morning After”

Friends The One with the Morning After

Originally aired 2/20/1997
Directed by James Burrows
Written by David Crane & Marta Kauffman

Television’s obsession with the “will they, won’t they” of sitcoms has persisted since the 1980s; after Sam and Diane helped catalyze the popularity of Cheers, the concept quickly become ingrained within the fabric of all ensemble comedies. Even shows with married couples built into the premise (from King of Queens to Happy Endings) desperately searched for that romantic tension: and like the post-100th episode pregnancy, became a trope that often defined the beginning, or end, of a series’ creative prime.

It made sense for some shows; the first four seasons of That 70’s Show are propelled by Donna and Eric’s teenage relationship and how it mirrors their emotional maturity, and Parks and Recreation didn’t really find itself as a series until shoving its main characters’ genitals together (romantically!).

But for so many others, from NewsRadio to Sports Night, to Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place and the worst seasons of How I Met Your Mother, it felt like a requirement, an idea sprung from executive and writer’s rooms to exist as nothing but desperate fan service – the kind that can blemish the legacy of an entire series.

Friends The One with the Morning After

For Friends, the events of “The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break” were a creative statement; by 1997, the series was perhaps the most popular show in the world, and Ross cheating on Rachel is a moment that reverberates back to the very first scene of “The Pilot”, when the gods heeded Ross’s depressed call for the woman of his dreams to appear in Central Perk. Ross and Rachel were destiny personified – and with episodes like “The One Where Rachel Finds Out” and “The One With the Prom Video” as a prologue to their relationship, who would assume they’d ever break up under such upsetting circumstances?

To call it a risk would be an understatement; the final moments of “TOW Ross and Rachel Take a Break” are a creative leap of faith, a choice “The One with the Morning After” is tasked with resolving – and to its credit, it does incredibly gracefully, with a number of exciting creative choices I really wish the series would have embraced in the seasons to follow (and without making Ross a complete villain, a tall task on its own).

The Ross/Rachel dynamic in this episode is like nothing offered anywhere else in the series; once the jokes about leg waxing and The Trail (Joey’s name for the people who can connect your partner to the person you cheated with) are aside, “Ross and Rachel Take a Break” delivers one of the most honest, emotional portrayals of a breakup I’ve seen on a sitcom; one, importantly, that doesn’t budge on Rachel’s evolutionary arc this season by letting Ross off the hook without any consequences. When Rachel tells Ross that “everything has changed”, she isn’t kidding – not only would their dynamic change, but the very fabric of the series would shift, into something a little more acerbic – and outside of the one very obvious example, more cynical and defeatist.

Friends The One with the Morning After

It’s a decision I don’t think most modern sitcoms would be comfortable making (Superstore‘s a great modern example) – and one Friends clearly put a lot of thought into, with a script credited to series creators David Crane & Marta Kauffman. And it doesn’t make its task any easier with the premise of the episode, which is split into two halves: the first, featuring Ross on the world’s cringiest scavenger hunt, and the second, which I’d consider among the best scenes of the entire series. The contrast between slapstick jokes of Ross trying to quickly shoo Chloe out of his apartment, and the emotionally raw scene in Monica’s apartment is a stark one, and one that most certainly wouldn’t work if it was focused on the comedy, as it takes some time for the shock of Ross actually fucking Chloe to settle in and become reality, both for characters and audience alike.

The episode’s shift is a visual one; Ross’s proverbial Trail eventually leads back to Central Perk, in a moment that so sadly contains echoes of scenes from “The One Where Ross Finds Out”, another phenomenal scene laying bare the connection (and dissonance) between Ross and Rachel. Unlike the episode with their iconic embrace, however, “TOW the Morning After” is wordless when the camera dramatically dollies to reveal Rachel, silently watching Ross as he tries to plead with Gunther to not reveal his tryst to Rachel.

What follows is some of the show’s finest writing, turning the rest of the main cast into audience surrogates and comic relief, trapped in Monica’s bedroom listening to Ross and Rachel lay it all bare over the span of an entire night. As Ross goes on about how frustrated and disillusioned he’d become (all because Rachel decided to get a job and have a male friend, mind you) and Rachel screams at every excruciating new detail about Ross and Chloe, everyone else is just sitting and listening – and alongside the audience, sitting jaw agape wondering how the lobsters who’d found each other were going to get through this.

Friends The One with the Morning After

On a plot level, it works really well – it maintains hope, even when it is clearly illogical to do so. Given the growth we’ve seen in Rachel over the past year, there’s no way she’s going to forgive Ross for what he’s done; but with each dramatic escalation of their argument, Friends keeps the dream alive through the rest of the cast, wondering what will happen as they eavesdrop through the bedroom door. It’s a small touch, but it delays the inevitable before dropping the hammer on the audience, rebuking the idea of Ross and Rachel as the destined couple audiences across the world embraced them as (and allows for the occasional, welcome relief of the tension on the other side of the wall).

Their fight, and how it is put together, also adds considerable dimensionality to their characters, especially Rachel, allowing Jennifer Aniston to show off her incredible depth (and growth) as a performer, hinted at but never embraced in the show’s previous rom-com moments. She’s abrasive, frustrated, disgusted, and sad all in one breath, trying to reconcile the images playing in her head with the person she thought, in her words, “would never, ever do anything to hurt me.” and given director James Burrow’s inclination to isolate her and Schwimmer and create space through blocking and editing in their breakup scene, Aniston’s incredibly raw performance almost drowns out Schwimmer, who can barely keep up with Ross’s pouting and incredibly self-serving attempts to place the blame on her (though at one point, he points and yells at her “are you going to fight for us, or are you going to bail?”, capturing Ross’s self-righteousness with impressive clarity).

But their contrasting performances are critical to help the episode feel like something more than just another weightless sitcom plot, something that had real stakes for the characters, its ensemble – and most importantly, the show’s future, untethered from the incredibly high expectations of an audience expecting a lengthy happily ever after for the two. To that, Schwimmer and Aniston are both up to the task, displaying their versatility as performers to deliver these big, dramatic swings from the show’s writers without it becoming some maximalist, overwrought showpiece.

Friends The One with the Morning After

How well all of the elements are weaved together are why “The One with the Morning After” is rightfully considered one of the most iconic episodes of the series. I think it is really the end of the show’s first act; paired with the end of the Monica/Richard romance to conclude season two, the track record for Friends with popular emotional pairings sets the tone for a series that is a bit more melancholic than its slapstick Joey/Chandler moments and goofy Phoebe plotlines would suggest. Friends would not remain a grounded series, but its understanding of just how rare true love in these early seasons really is, with a message I think this generation of romantic comedies and sitcoms have forgotten, especially in this era of ironic detachment and references as punchlines (conversation for another day).

The Ross/Rachel fight is just shitty; it is difficult to sit through, and doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the situation. Technicality or not, Ross slept with another woman, and sometimes even the most powerful love in the world can’t survive a moment like that. Ross’s attempts to ask forgiveness while ordering a pizza or kissing her later ratchet up that discomfort even more; Rachel and Friends both fight the urge for a quick resolution, which would require letting Ross off the hook for his infidelity. It would be dishonest, though, and “TOW the Morning After” instead opts for a much more beautiful, complex and ugly crescendo to their fight, full of anger, tears, and desperate attempts to recapture a moment that was gone, probably even before Ross drunkenly leapt into bed with the girl from the copy shop.

And that’s what “TOW the Morning After” captures so well; after all the fighting and crying and pleading, Ross and Rachel’s love ends with two simple, incredibly beautiful lines of dialogue, the ultimate testament of the confidence in the creative decision for the two to split. Ross, still crying and almost wordless, looks at Rachel and incredulously insists, “this can’t be it.”

“Then how come it is?”

And with that, Friends would never be the same.

Grade: A

  • This is the first review I’ve published since January 27 – and such, the first review I’ve written since Matthew Perry’s death. As someone who found himself as a kid through Chandler’s ability to make himself feel normal through self-deprecating humor, Perry’s performance on Friends is not only iconic, but incredibly personal to me. He will be missed, and I can only hope he knew how much his work resonated with so many people of my generation.
  • Given the incredible focus on Ross chasing down the consequences of his huge mistake, there’s really not a lot else to say about the episode! However, some may notice it’s been 312 days since my last Friends review, and the second lengthy delay in the Second Look of season three. To which I say: life seems to come at me the fastest when I start writing about Friends – and thanks for your patience, I guess?
  • Extended thoughts: the difference between the broadcast and DVD versions of these episodes are negligible (at best) – which speaks to how tightly crafted and performed this script was!

    Up next: Everyone gets stuck in the Ross/Rachel fallout in “The One Without the Ski Trip”.

One thought on “Second Look: Friends Season 3 Episode 16 – “The One with the Morning After”

  1. One thing about the trail from Chloe to Rachel that always felt a little off to me: Isaac having told his sister about Ross’s infidelity. I understand Chloe telling Isaac about it, given that he was basically her confidant. But Isaac telling Jasmine, despite neither he nor Jasmine having any kind of relationship with Ross or Rachel, just strikes me as a little contrived.

    Amazing episode, otherwise! Your review was spot-on.

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