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Why the Friends Ending is Actually Sad

The ending of Friends seems to be about as happy as a sitcom finale can get—but is its resolution a lot sadder than it appears? On closer inspection, Friends’ ending carries notes of tragedy: sooner or later, your friends will leave you behind. And as if that weren’t sad enough, the show also leaves some of its central sextet of Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, and Joey trapped in increasingly narrow life paths. Here’s our Take on why Friends’ series finale is more disheartening than it seems, and whether the audience’s demand for an ending that satisfies expectations can sometimes deny a show’s characters a truer form of happiness.

TRANSCRIPT

The ending of Friends seems to be about as happy as a sitcom finale can get — but what if this resolution is actually a lot sadder than it first appears?

After a successful 10-year run, the hit show about a group of twenty-somethings struggling with relationships, careers, and adulthood concludes with everyone getting exactly what they always wanted. Ross and Rachel end up together at last. Monica and Chandler become parents (and even get one more child than they asked for). Phoebe has already gotten married to her soulmate. Even Joey gets his own modest version of happily ever after.

On closer inspection, though, Friends’ happy ending carries notes of tragedy. While the finale finds almost everyone moving on to exciting new chapters, it also closes the book on the chapter that viewers invested in. It brings a symbolic close to youth — telling us definitively that the time in our lives when all that matters is being there for our friends is limited. Sooner or later, your friends will leave you behind. And if that weren’t sad enough, this show which centered on that phase when the future appears limitless leaves some of its central sextet trapped in increasingly narrow life paths. Here’s our Take on why Friends’ series finale is more disheartening than it seems — and whether the audience’s demand for an ending that satisfies expectations can sometimes deny a show’s characters a truer form of happiness.

Where We Leave Our Friends

As Friends wraps up with an emotional farewell to the iconic apartment where Monica, Rachel, Joey, Chandler, Phoebe, and Ross spent so much time together, we’re left with the bleak image of an empty, barren space, where there once was so much color, goofiness and good times. “It was a happy place … filled with love and laughter.” Together, the friends mourn the end of their shared era — the death of their friend group in its ultra-tight-knit form — as everyone prepares to go their separate ways.

Countering the obvious bittersweetness of the friends (and audiences) having to say goodbye, The finale gives each main character an individual ending that’s positioned as moving on to bigger and better things. But by looking closer, we can see that some of these conclusions aren’t quite as happy as they seem.

Ross & Rachel

The main story of the finale revolves around Rachel, who’s leaving New York to start a new job with Louis Vuitton in Paris. Ross and Rachel have long-delayed resolving their relationship, comforted by the idea that they’ll always have the option of a reunion.

Rachel Green: “With us, it’s never off the table.” - Friends, 10x13

But faced with the prospect of possibly losing Rachel for good, Ross finally admits he can’t live without her. With Phoebe’s help, Ross makes a mad dash to the airport to tell her how he feels — only it doesn’t go the way he planned. When Ross gets back home, though, Rachel surprises him. She decided to stay, realizing she can’t live without him either. For one of TV’s all-time most iconic couples that spent nearly a decade falling in and out of love, it’s exactly the happy ending that audiences spent ten seasons waiting for. But on deeper inspection, the way that this reunion comes about equals an unfortunate ending for Rachel, who’s been effectively prevented from finally taking a big step forward in her individual life.

When we first meet Rachel, she’s lost — a runaway bride who doesn’t know what she wants out of life. She’s a spoiled girl who’s never even held down a job before becoming a waitress at Central Perk. A few seasons later, Rachel would land her dream job at Bloomingdale’s — only for Ross to immediately grow jealous of her colleague, Mark, and accuse Rachel of not having enough time for him.

Rachel Green: “Do you realize this is the first time in my life I’m doing something I actually care about?” - Friends, 3x15

And while we all remember their infamous “break” and Ross sleeping with Chloe (“the girl from the Xerox place”), what really first leads to their split is Ross’ overbearing, unsupportive reaction to Rachel’s achieving some independence and professional success for their first time in her life. When Mark reappears in the final season to offer Rachel another life-changing job in Paris, that same dynamic we saw in Season 3 repeats all over again. Rachel is clearly excited for a future that’s bigger than what she dreamed possible in her career. And once again, Ross feels threatened, puts his own feelings before Rachel’s fulfillment, and selfishly tries to prevent her from following through.

Seasons earlier, when Ross was about to marry Emily, Rachel raced to tell him she loved him before the wedding — something even complete strangers could tell her was totally selfish. But unlike Ross, Rachel ultimately made the choice to respect Ross’s decision, instead wishing him well on his new path, and waiting to share her feelings until after Ross’ marriage had already fallen apart. This ironic parallel to the finale underscores that the dynamic in their relationship is ultimately very uneven. Ross won’t give up being close to his son or his own career in New York to be with Rachel in Paris. So it’s up to Rachel to sacrifice her own dreams to fulfill his. Given that this show opened with Rachel abandoning her safe but boring fiancé for a scary, exciting life in New York City, there’s something dispiriting about the choice to conclude her arc with her giving up an amazing opportunity to settle down with a man.

Plus, after all these years, the couple still hasn’t really resolved what’s so unhealthy about their dynamic. As two adults raising a child together (and sometimes living together), they’ve had plenty of opportunities to revisit their feelings and come together in a mature partnership. But Ross’s love for Rachel is only reignited by the sudden threat of losing her; his declaration of commitment is a rash decision based on fear and his own immediate desires. So after all these two have been through, they’re rebuilding their relationship on, especially shaky ground. This lack of a solid foundation leaves open the possibility for yet more dissatisfaction and even resentment to come.

Phoebe

Before the show ends, Phoebe gets her own happily ever after by marrying Mike. It’s an ending that gives Phoebe the stability she’s never had and has come to realize she needs.

Phoebe Buffay: “When I was growing up, I didn’t have a normal mom and dad. But now I’m standing here today knowing that I have everything I’m ever gonna need.” - Friends, 10x12

She came from a broken family, spent some time being homeless, and had even resorted to crime. Ending the show settled down with a nice guy, surrounded by friends, Phoebe is undeniably at her most secure and loved — which feels like a reward after a life of so much trauma and abandonment.

That said, marriage is also a rather mundane ending for Phoebe’s character — and one that speaks to how the show often suppressed what made her unique. Throughout the series, we see glimpses of Phoebe’s eccentric talents. She’s also exceptionally caring toward both her friends and the world at large. She volunteers to be a surrogate for her half-brother with barely a second thought.

More than anything, Phoebe is an individual, remaining indifferent to social norms or what others think. So while her story ending in marriage to a sweet but bland guy is joyful, it’s also a lackluster endpoint for this colorful person with so much unusual potential to offer the world. Rather than realizing and following

through on what makes her unique, over the seasons Phoebe increasingly assimilated into becoming more like her normal, essentially vanilla friends. This unconventional free spirit decides that all she really wants is her own conventional married life. She also gets married five episodes before the finale, leaving her with little to do in the last episode besides drive Ross to the airport and get in one last joke about her fictional alter-ego, Regina Phalange. As in much of the series, Phoebe ends the show being reduced to playing a supporting role in her friends’ far less interesting lives.

Joey

While his friends all get happy endings, Joey’s fate is left more or less a question mark. That’s because Matt LeBlanc’s character was set to get his own spinoff, Joey, which presented a problem for Friends’ showrunners, who were forced to leave his ending open for a new show to explore. As a result, Joey ends up essentially just being left behind as the people he loves most in the world all move on without him.

This lack of an ending for Joey reflects his lack of real growth over the course of the show. Friends began with Joey as an eternally single, struggling actor, and it ends with him — though moderately more successful — pretty much the same. Only now, he’s in his mid-30s, his life remaining stagnant, while all of his friends are taking significant leaps. The closest he gets to actual growth is sacrificing his foosball table to rescue his pet birds. His only real closure is with Chandler, who assures him they’ll still be friends, even though we know it won’t really be the same.

Joey was never the most sophisticated character, but the later seasons introduced the potential for change in his controversial, ill-fated romantic relationship with Rachel. Yet by the finale, this future is long forgotten: Joey openly cheers Ross on in his quest to win Rachel back. Earlier in the final season, we even watch Joey freak out when a date tries to eat some food off his plate — and while this is played for laughs as a quintessential example of Joey being Joey, his inability to consider sharing anything with a potential partner might make us feel pity for this person who’s been unable to evolve or mature like all his friends have. Ultimately, Joey’s lack of resolution is the saddest ending any of the friends gets: he doesn’t want to leave behind this chapter of freedom, spontaneity, and putting your friends first. But no one else is willing to remain there with him, so he’s left there all alone.

Joey Tribbiani: “All alone … forever.” - Friends, 8x14

Adding insult to injury, the Joey spinoff was canceled before it could air its own finale. So the character remains trapped in this limbo forever.

Monica & Chandler

Perhaps the happiest ending is granted to Monica and Chandler, who finally achieve their dream of becoming parents, and even find their family size doubled when their surrogate gives birth to twins. It’s the culmination of a long journey for these friends-turned-lovers, both as a couple and as individuals. Monica has spent much of the series talking about wanting to have children, and this controlling Type-A has, at last, made her major life goal a reality by accepting that motherhood might not come to her in exactly the way she’s always planned.

Monica Geller: “Adoption.”

Chandler Bing: “How do you feel about that?”

Monica Geller: “I think I feel okay about it.” - Friends, 9x22

Meanwhile, Chandler — thanks to the big leaps he’s taken in his professional and personal lives over the series — has evolved from a neurotic, commitment-phobic bachelor into a mature, self-assured individual who’s ready to be a father. They’ve made what many would consider a sensible choice to leave New York City for a quieter, calmer place to raise the kids. It’s an adult decision, reflecting Chandler outgrowing the bachelor lifestyle he’s enjoyed with Joey, and Monica is relinquishing some of her need for control by facing the uncertainty of their future. In return, the finale gives them what they’ve always wanted — and more.

They’re ready to start their new life as a family in the suburbs — but while all this is far from sad, the repercussions certainly are. Moving to the suburbs isn’t essential for raising kids, especially when you have an apartment as spacious as Monica’s and Chandler’s. It’s a choice they make for their family, which necessarily means spending a lot less time with their friend circle. As both the physical and emotional center of the circle, Monica and Chandler moving officially marks the end to the group as we once knew it and the life they’ve all been sharing these past ten seasons. Things will never be the same. The Friends, as we knew them, are over.

The End of Being Friends

Friends captures that time in your life — mid-twenties, post-college, and pre-career — when you’re trying to figure out how to become an adult.

Monica Geller: “Welcome to the real world! It sucks. You’re gonna love it.” - Friends, 1x1

You date the wrong people, you make bad choices, you behave immaturely, all in that last window of time before you simply can’t put off responsibility any longer. It’s an age when nothing matters more than your friends — and when your friends become your family.

All this is the basis of Friends’ enduring appeal.

Phoebe Buffay: “Boyfriends and girlfriends are gonna come and go, but this is for life!” - Friends, 7x11

When it premiered in 1994, Friends was one of the few series on television to depict young, single people. Most sitcoms were about families or adults who were already well-established in their careers. Even Fox’s Living Single, the show Friends most closely resembled, was about successful professionals. But Friends showed us twenty-somethings who were struggling, relying on each other for support.

Since it went off the air, our culture has even more widely embraced the idea of your twenties as elongated adolescence. More people today are waiting until well into their 30s to marry and start families, taking extra time to figure themselves out. Friends, with its portrait of a tight-knit family of close friends rallying around each other — while living in the kind of enormous Manhattan apartments that only

TV characters can afford — offers an aspirational example of a youth that never needs to end.

But the finale undercuts this fantasy by emphasizing another universal experience: Eventually, you and your friends grow apart. Many of them start real families and move on. Married couples often seek out other married friends, while singles start the difficult search for new single friends.

So the melancholy of the finale comes from this acknowledgment that those seemingly endless years when we have plenty of time to pull ourselves together and simply enjoy being around our friends are actually incredibly short. We can’t just keep sitting around a coffee shop all day, laughing with our friends. Eventually, we have to start dating the right people, or else risk ending up alone. We have to start making the right choices — not just about our careers, but about where to live, what to eat, how to take care of ourselves. The show continues to attract fans who are living through their own directionless twenties, eagerly looking forward to them, or nostalgically looking back. But the finale puts a definitive

time limit on it all — reminding us this phase of life, which Friends made so appealing, won’t last forever.

Could This Ending BE Any Happier?

Of course, when the Friends finale aired in 2004 after months of hype, audiences and critics were mostly left satisfied.

The finale focused on giving viewers what would feel most narratively rewarding and offer us the most closure. But did it meet those expectations and please audiences at the expense of the lives and dreams of the characters? Does denying Rachel the opportunity to follow her career aspirations make the audience as selfish as Ross? Likewise, Monica and Chandler might get the dream of a family which we want for them, but the series doesn’t resolve whether Monica’s life as a suburban mom will allow space for her career as a chef in Manhattan — and shouldn’t that be important, after how hard we’ve seen her work for it? Are these endings truly the most satisfying for the characters themselves and for the story of what it means to transition into full adulthood?

If Rachel had stayed on the plane, if Monica and Chandler had decided to make it work in Manhattan, if Phoebe had figured out, at long last, that her friends were, actually, pretty boring — these would have been endings that more closely (and interestingly) reflected who they were and what life is actually like.

Rachel Green: “Sometimes, things don’t work out the way you thought they would.” - Friends, 4x20

Still, when it comes to TV finales, our expectations as an audience are rarely about what feels truthful. We demand grand, emotional closure from these stories — probably because we know we won’t get it ourselves. And that gulf between the fantasy and our reality is what really lends an unshakable feeling of sadness even to the happiest of endings.

Ultimately, the Friends finale is sad because it’s about change. It reminds us that nothing ever stays the same.

It’s especially poignant because Friends is a show about how it feels to be young: Full of angst and anticipation, but also carefree and confident that everything will somehow work out. As the creators described the show in their original pitch, “It’s about sex, love, relationships, careers, a time in your life when everything’s possible.” But inevitably, those possibilities narrow. Those relationships and careers take off, and suddenly, spending time with our friends becomes less frequent, less important. Like a TV show, our youth always comes to an end. But like a great TV show, it also lives on forever in memories, and in reruns — always there for us. There’s sadness in that. But there’s happiness, too.

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