On May 4, 2004, Friends did something almost unheard of in the history of television: it ended well. At best, series finales are polarizing (see: The Sopranos), and more often they disappoint everyone (see: Seinfeld). But after 10 years and more than 200 episodes, Friends managed to stick the landing: The friends said good bye, Rachel got off the plane, and the will-they-or-won’t-they couple were united at last. Everyone got their happy ending: Monica and Chandler had their babies, and were headed off to the suburbs. Phoebe had her new husband, Mike, with whom she’d found the love and stability she’d never had. Joey had his (ill-fated) spin-off to look forward to. Ross had a flourishing academic career and the woman he’d loved all his life. And Rachel had…Ross.
Among all these satisfying conclusions there remains one question, and it’s a doozy: Why did Rachel get off the plane?
Today, critiquing Friends is almost as popular a pastime as the show itself. Critics and fans alike lambast its glaring whiteness, its cheap gay jokes, and the many moments the show does not — to put it politely — hold up. Yet the fact that Rachel sacrifices her dream job (working for her ex-Bloomingdale’s boss at Louis Vuitton in Paris) for Ross is largely glossed over. It’s easy to get swept up in the romance and drama of this otherwise perfect finale: the chase to the airport; the tearful goodbye; that agonizing silence when Ross stares at his answering machine, listening to Rachel confess that, yes, she loves him, too. And then, she appears and delivers the heart-swelling line for which some viewers had waited a decade: “I got off the plane.” But consider how much better it would have been if, instead, Ross got on it with her. Or at least offered to, for crying out loud.
This is a two-fold bummer. First, there’s the obvious: Rachel is giving up everything she’s worked for and the career opportunity she desperately wants, all for a man. Secondly, he’s not just any man, but a man who’s been in love with her for 20 years, who will do anything to keep her, except, it turns out, relocate. He is the father of her child — who is also moving to Paris, by the way — and yet he is unwilling to change his life in order to be in theirs. By this point in the series, Ross has watched Rachel work her ass off, inching her way up the career ladder for the last decade, and he knows better than anyone what this opportunity means to her, and he begs her to throw it away. And then, she does.
It’s infuriating, but this kind of fairytale misogyny is ‘90s TV 101. Even the more enlightened shows, like My So-Called Life, suffered from it (Angela has her own getting-off-the-plane moment when she gets in the car with Jordan Catalano — that dreamy scumbag). In fact, Friends was more progressive than most of its sitcom peers on this front. Creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane often had to fight the network to include scenes like the one where Monica and Rachel argue over the last condom, or the storyline where Monica sleeps with a guy on the first date. Strange as it may seem in a post-HBO world, it was once considered risqué to feature women with a modicum of sexual agency.
Still, Friends was a mainstream network show with a massive audience, and when it came to romance, it pretty much stuck to the formula: Conventionally attractive people falling in conventional love with each other, getting married, having babies. Even Phoebe, the unapologetic weirdo of the bunch, winds up walking down the aisle to marry a nice, ordinary guy from a rich family. In the world of Friends, women want sex and careers and all that — but what they really want is a big white wedding and a house in the suburbs.
Every woman except Rachel. This is the real problem with her ending. Rachel began the series as a woman running out on her big white wedding. It is literally the catalyst for the entire show: She bursts into Central Perk in a soaking wet wedding gown, moves in with Monica, and everything unfolds from there. Rachel’s defining characteristic is her desire to break out of that patriarchal mold. In many ways, the show is driven by her 10-year evolution from the spoiled girl relying on daddy to the self-sufficient woman who lives by her own values. (You might recall, that was the initial “problem” that led to Ross and Rachel’s break-up. He got jealous when she landed a job at Bloomingdale’s and suddenly had less time for him. So, he started showing up at her office unannounced and accusing her co-worker of coming onto her. Healthy!)
By Season 10, Rachel has truly come into her own. She’s done what she came to the city to do, and now she’s ready for the next step. By her own admission, she’s gotten everything she could out of her current job, and she’s ready to move on. Sure, she’s scared by the idea of leaving New York for Paris. But as she tells Ross, it’s “good scared, though, you know? Like when I moved to New York scared. Or when I found out I was gonna have Emma scared.” Ross tells her she should go — and he’s right. Friends began when she arrived. What better way to end it than to watch her fly off to the next adventure? This is not only the ending Rachel deserves — it’s the perfect ending for this show. Or it would’ve been, but then Ross changed his mind and decided she had to stay.
A lot of people talk about the ways Friends would look different had it premiered today. Perhaps there would’ve been more people of color and fewer gay jokes (maybe even no gay jokes! Imagine!). Certainly, condoms wouldn’t be such a scandal, nor would the women who use them. At the risk of wishful thinking, I’d like to think the fairytale ending could look a little different now, too. I say keep all the drama — the chase to the airport and the heartbreaking farewell. Let her get on the plane and suddenly realize she’s in love with him as well. Then, Ross comes home to his answering machine and listens to her message: “I love you, too. Go grab the next flight.”