The road to happily ever after was long and winding for the six main players on Friends, and understandably so — how could you produce a fresh and interesting series for 10 seasons without keeping elements of uncertainty in play?
Bones were thrown to viewers here and there — most notably with Monica and Chandler’s wedding at the end of season 7 — but the show’s greatest questions were left unanswered until the very end.
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Ross and Rachel, the sitcom’s great white whale of a relationship, managed to keep viewers on the will-they-won’t-they train for a full decade. It was a pairing that always felt inevitable despite the reality that the characters spent the bulk of the series apart. The showrunners and writers’ creativity is perhaps best exemplified in the volatility of this relationship. There was always something (or someone) standing between Ross and Rachel, be it a girlfriend or boyfriend, a list of flaws, a Mark, a copy girl, an 18-page letter, an altar in London … After seven years of skillful evasion on the Ross and Rachel front, co-creator David Crane decided to up the stakes with what could (and would) prove to be a horrible misstep: pairing Rachel and Joey.
According to Saul Austerlitz’s book, Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a TV Era, it wasn’t just audiences who found the idea of Rachel and Joey’s romance icky — the cast was also opposed to the coupling. “‘You can’t do that!’ Crane remembered their telling him, united in their apathy toward this idea. "‘That’s like having a crush on your sister!’" They went on, exercised by their displeasure: "‘It’s like playing with fire!’" Crane agreed with them but believed playing with fire was exciting. "There was a reason children had to be warned away from doing it,” Austerlitz wrote.
Despite the outcry, the series ran with the Rachel-Joey subplot — and, like Ross and Monica’s grandmother in season 1, it just wouldn’t die.
The beginnings of the idea crop up in the middle of season 8 when Joey takes Rachel (then-pregnant with Emma) on a date after she mentions how much she misses getting dressed up and going out. By the end of the episode, Joey realizes his feelings for Rachel have left the friend zone. A few episodes later, Joey gets up the nerve to tell Rachel how he feels. She doesn’t feel the same, and after a brief period of awkwardness, their relationship more-or-less returns to its original state.
In the season 8 finale, Joey complicates the Ross-Rachel web once more when he presents Rachel with the ring Ross had considered proposing to her with — a gesture Rachel interprets as Joey’s proposal.
Toward the end of the ninth season, Rachel finds herself harboring feelings for Joey. After much (much) ado, the seasons-long tension between the two culminates in the ninth season’s finale when they kiss in Barbados. Thankfully, Rachel and Joey’s relationship is short-lived — by episode 3 of season 10 the pair has come to the conclusion that millions of viewers (and at least a couple cast members) had already reached: they’re better off as friends.