I, like many people, have seen every episode of Friends approximately an infinite number of times. I go back to the story time and time again, and it is as close to perfection as any show could get. The final episode always makes me feel all the feelings. Finishing a show like Friends where so many outcomes are possible, it’s easy to wonder if things could have been different. When the show began, it was a snapshot of the lives of twentysomethings in New York City, who were working through challenges in their careers and love. Somewhere along the way, they all turned 30, and many of the characters’ story arcs involved falling in love, getting married, and having children (not necessarily in that order.) Aside from Joey, all these milestones are basically where we leave the main characters in the final episode.
At the time Friends ended, I couldn’t imagine it going any other way. But now that I’ve rewatched the show yet again, I’m wishing there was an alternate reality where more of the characters were still single and thriving—confirming, as the show always has, that anyone can walk into their future confidently without being in a relationship. Sometimes all we need is our friends. Let it be known that I have a deep love for everything Friends, and the relationships that succeeded in the end. That being said, here’s why I think a few different endings would have been just as satisfying—and definitely more powerful:
Rachel’s Job in Paris
In the last season, Rachel gets a job with Louis Vuitton in Paris and is preparing to move there for the role. There’s a hilarious sequence in the final episode in which Ross and Phoebe are racing to the airport in Phoebe’s taxi so that Ross can tell Rachel how he feels, and ask her to stay. When I first saw this, I thought it was romantic, and I was so wrapped up in the moment that I didn’t notice that by asking Rachel to stay, Ross was also asking Rachel to give up her job opportunity, with no notice. In rewatching, I realized I didn’t want Rachel to give up the job to be with Ross. Don’t get me wrong, I am team Ross and Rachel forever, but couldn’t they be together without Rachel having to be the one to give up her huge career opportunity? Couldn’t Ross have gotten involved in dinosaur stuff in Paris? We’ll never know.
When we first meet Rachel’s character, she’s in a wedding dress, running away from a marriage she doesn’t want. And from then on, one of the most crucial story arcs in the series is the saga between Ross and Rachel. It has manifested iconic recurring quotes like, “We were on a break!” Rachel doesn’t end up getting married in the end (except for that brief time in Vegas) but instead is with the person she loves, something she didn’t have at the beginning of the series. But I personally would have been okay with an ending where Rachel gets on the plane and takes the job. I always believed that Ross and Rachel would get together when the time was right. The actual ending that took place was very cinematic, especially when Rachel is at Ross’ door and says, “I got off the plane.” But it also would have been cinematic, and very brave, to see Rachel chase her dreams, jumping into the unknown and having confidence that it will all work out with Ross, or it won’t, and that’s okay. After all, any time they weren’t together was just a break.
When I entered adulthood, it seemed like many people were obsessed with getting married, but no one was discussing why that is. I often saw my friends set a “goal” to get married, and the goal seemed more tied to the idea of marriage, rather than the partner. Some people even feel like they have to get married because that’s just what we do as humans. So, I felt myself rebelling. And yet, I absolutely devoured shows like Friends, where the characters seem to also be caught in the same societal cycle that says a relationship and marriage and children, above all, are the ultimate end goal for a fulfilled life, lest you end up like Joey. And seeing characters we adore confirm this message leaves us with conflicting information when life doesn’t, and shouldn’t, always follow this path.
While Friends is by no means a commentary on marriage, it’s telling that perhaps even the creatives behind Friends felt that all their characters had to end up together to complete the story in a way that would satisfy audiences. (Except Joey, of course.) But what if Monica and Chandler didn’t get married? What if Ross and Rachel didn’t get back together? What if Phoebe stayed single? What if they didn’t all leave Joey behind? What if Joey wasn’t the exception, but the norm?
If the friends, or most of them, were still single in the end, it would have sent a powerful message that there is no one path in life. That there’s no rush to get married because there are many other adventures in life to be had. That you can change, grow, and move forward whether or not it fits into the mold that society places in front of us. That having your friends is a satisfying enough end to a show about friends.
The Joeys of the World
Joey is often portrayed as the character who doesn’t have it together. But I’m here to tell you that Joey’s doing just fine. I particularly related to the fact that Joey was not only single, but still living in the same apartment, and continuing to chase after his dreams and career. However, the last season presented him as stuck in the past when all of his friends were moving forward. He was resistant to change and really didn’t want Rachel to go to Paris, or Monica and Chandler to move to the suburbs. His was a cautionary tale. As we’ve probably all learned by now though, in real life, things don’t magically fall into place when you turn 30, or 40, or beyond.
I never thought I’d say that Joey was the most relatable Friends character, but I think in the final season, maybe he is. It would have been exciting to see a Joey that supports his friends (which he eventually gets around to). But I also would have loved to see more of a Joey who is proud of how he’s changing, in different ways than his friends are. Because it’s okay not to have it all figured out.
I think I used to be the Joey of my friend group, but recently I’ve noticed my friend groups don’t just have that “one single friend” anymore. In fact, people seem to be embracing being single more often, and for longer. Granted, Friends was made a couple of decades ago. However, looking back to the late 90s and early 2000s when most television shows ended in marriage or kids, it was actually very significant that there was a Joey on Friends who represented the single life. But to make single life the norm in any story, there has to be more than one Joey and more than one path. And while I’ll continue to watch Friends countless more times, I’ll always be dreaming of the alternate ending, “The One Where They All Stayed Single.”