Friends: The One About “The Last One”

Frame around the peephole in the last shot to the series finale of Friends

When the series finale of Friends aired on May 6, 2004, a reported 52.5 million tuned in to watch it live. Not counting anything having to do with the Super Bowl, no episode of scripted television has attracted close to that amount since, and it’s been twenty years. Also, it’s important to repeat that 52.5 million viewers watched the finale live. To be fair, although there was TiVo, most people, even in 2004, still had to watch TV live. Regardless, it’s clear that the series finale to Friends was an event.

Is it a good episode, though? Well, there are two ways to look at it, and in both cases, I believe the same is true. The Friends series finale is both a good episode of Friends and a good episode of television, period. Within the span of 47 minutes (or longer if one watches the extended version that only exists on DVD as of this writing), the writers manage to wrap all major storylines without sacrificing character. It’s an impressive achievement.

Of course, it helps that Season 10 of Friends was designed to be its last. I’ve always loved the final seasons. There’s something exciting about seeing where the showrunners plan on taking the story and characters. Like all things, some final seasons feel definitive and stick the landing, while others fall short. Before the show can get to that, though, it had to get past something.

For Friends, the first few episodes of Season 10 wrap up the (in this writer’s opinion) most ridiculous storyline from the previous two seasons. If you know the show, you know I’m talking about Rachel and Joey. It’s the one thing that truly bugged me when the show was on the air, and it felt like the first real sign that it had been on too long.

Once that was out of the way, though, Friends entered into a solid season of television. We have a wonderful set of episodes that highlight the six main players and begin positioning things for the series finale:

1) Phoebe and Mike get married and start their lives together,

2) Chandler and Monica decide to move out of the city to raise their family,

3) Chandler and Monica await the birth of their adopted child,

4) Joey comes to terms with so many things changing around him, and

5) Ross comes to terms with Rachel leaving for Paris.

Rachel stands in Ross' doorway in the series finale of Friends

In a special feature for Lost’s own final season, veteran TV director James Burrows had this to say about the last episodes:

“The last show should…try to wrap up what [was] started in the Pilot [episode].”

I think I agree, and I think Friends pulled it off.

The first episode of the series does what a pilot for a sitcom should. It establishes the main characters (Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross) and the world (the characters’ apartments and Central Perk). At the very end of the episode, though, the whole Ross and Rachel story begins. The former clearly has strong feelings for the latter, and no matter how many starts and stops the darn couple had throughout the show, the audience waited nearly ten years to see them finally get together.

And, honestly, I like the way it plays out in the episode. Phoebe, who, over the course of the show, becomes the biggest cheerleader of Ross and Rachel, sets about driving Ross to the airport so that Ross can tell Rachel that he loves her and wants her to stay in New York. When they arrive at the wrong airport, all seems lost, but Phoebe (along with Rachel and a few other passengers on her flight) gets Rachel off the plane and Ross confesses his feelings. When Rachel left, I was honestly so invested in the story that for a moment or two I actually believed the show wouldn’t put them together. But the show delivered. Ross and Rachel were finally united.

Meanwhile, Monica and Chandler find out that they will be the parents of twins. When they return to the apartment, Monica finishes packing while keeping an eye on the babies, and we get some solid closure with Chandler and Joey. There’s a farewell to the foosball table, a new chick and duck, and even Mike makes one last appearance.

Ultimately, we’re left knowing that the six friends will remain friends, whether some stay in the city or others start new lives away from the city. Not only does the show accomplish what Burrows says a finale should accomplish, it does so very well. Of course, I’m not here to say that the series finale to Friends is a great episode; although, it does come close. There are a few missteps that I can easily overlook, like how awkward it is to see Joey be supportive of Ross going after Rachel after he had such strong feelings for her for nearly two seasons.

Because so much focus is put on wrapping up the Ross and Rachel storyline, Joey pretty much stays put the entire time, Monica doesn’t have too much to do aside from disassembling the foosball table mostly by hand (which happens offscreen, unfortunately), and Phoebe is utilized in a way to move characters and plot where it all needs to be. Now, like I said, I can overlook all of this.

Chandler and Monica each hold a baby in the series finale of Friends

For one thing, I love the characters. Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer were outstanding on the show, elevating the already pretty darn good consistent writing week after week. If the last episode were treated as just a regular episode, as some finales opt to do, I would’ve been fine with it. I mean, I would’ve demanded closure on the Ross and Rachel story, but otherwise, simply spending time with the characters would’ve worked for me. So, even though not everyone gets to do big work in the finale, they do good work.

Yes, Joey doesn’t do much, but he’s Joey. I love how much he cares for his friends, and I like how he’ll have the chick and the duck to keep him company as so many of them move on. (I’m ignoring the Joey spinoff for the purposes of this article, but, for the record, I actually liked that show.) I love how we get Monica being Monica, and the idea to have her be the one to disassemble the foosball table to save the chick, given how she always won any foosball game she ever played, is inspired.

Phoebe being a part of the climax to the Ross and Rachel story works perfectly for me. After all, she’s been there for so much of the drama between those two. She knew they’d be together, because, as she told Ross in “The One with the Prom Video,” that he’s her “lobster.” Phoebe was also there when Rachel decided to fly to London to stop Ross’ wedding. Then, there was the time Ross confided in her that he had not gotten the annulment following his drunken marriage to Rachel in Las Vegas. The list goes on. That Phoebe was there this time made complete sense to me, and I was happy she was there.

I’ve rewatched 90% of the episodes of Friends at least a dozen times. As for my favorites, there’s no way I can even begin to count. I have loved this show, ever since I decided to give it a chance halfway through its first season way back in February 1995. It’s insane that this show has been a part of my life for so long. When it ended in 2004, I wasn’t sad. I had every episode recorded on VHS, and I was already starting to buy the seasons on DVD. When it came to syndication in a big way in 2012, well, rarely does a day pass when I don’t see a few seconds of an episode.

“The Last One” is an episode I watch occasionally. Like all syndicated series, unless otherwise stated, the episode is incomplete whenever I catch it on Nick at Nite or TBS. And, in all honesty, even the original broadcast version is incomplete. If you love the show but have never seen the extended version of it, seek it out. There’s nothing dramatically different, as it’s only about three minutes longer and most of the new footage is at the beginning of the episode, but it just feels more complete. It’s the version I think about when I think about the series finale.

Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Rachel, and Ross stand in an empty apartment in the series finale of Friends

Friends was and still is funny. I can recognize how problematic it can be from time to time. Heck, I noticed when it was still airing on Thursday nights over two decades ago. Yes, there are not a lot of people of color throughout the series 236 episodes, and LGBTQ+ characters, though given a presence in the show, aren’t always treated well. Unfortunately, they’re used as cheap jokes every so often. There are other things, and another writer can get into them, but for me, it’s not about defending the show or apologizing for it. As I said, I recognize the issues, but for me, it’s not enough to take away the joy I ultimately get from watching the series.

In addition, it lasted for ten seasons, and I will concede that because of the sheer number of episodes produced, Friends is not a perfect show. However, I will say that because of the sheer number of episodes, the show produced plenty of great episodes. I’m not sure if “The Last One” is a great episode of television or a great episode of Friends, but it’s clearly a good one on either account. It ends the show, and it does it well.

As Chuck says in the Season 5 finale of Supernatural:

“Endings are hard…You try to tie up every loose end, but you never can…And since it’s the ending, it’s all supposed to add up to something.”

Showrunners Marta Kaufman and David Crane, along with frequent director and fellow executive producer Kevin S. Bright, pulled it off. Endings are hard, but they managed not only a good finale for the show but a good finale of television. I love it. It hurts rewatching this, or any other episode for that matter, now that Matthew Perry is no longer with us, but seeing Chandler is comforting to me. Seeing all six friends is comforting to me.

Ross and Rachel ended up together. Monica and Chandler started their family. Phoebe was happy with the man she loved. Joey would always be Joey. (There’s that spinoff again…) Central Perk would be there. It’s an ending that worked for me. Would I have liked to have seen other characters pop up? I mean, sure, there was Gunther, but what about Ben? What about Carol and Susan? Again, though, I’m satisfied.

I don’t know if I’m the average Friends fan, so I can only speak for myself in this regard, but as I rewatched both the broadcast and extended versions recently, I’m convinced it’s the best series finale Friends could’ve had.

Written by Michael Suarez

I write and occasionally teach English classes. When I'm not doing either, I'm watching something awesome, reading something awesome, listening to something awesome, eating something awesome, or resting. Actually, not everything I do is awesome, but I'm okay with that. My loves include Lost, cinema from the '90s and aughts, U2, David Bowie, most of Star Wars, and - you know what? I love a lot of things. More things than I hate.

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