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The Final Word on Whether Ross and Rachel Were on a Break

What if we've been asking the wrong question all along?
  • (Screengrab: HBO Max)
    (Screengrab: HBO Max)

    For a quarter of a century now, it's been one of those pop culture questions that's been framed as a great debate: were Ross and Rachel in fact "on a break" in the third-season episode when the great Friends It Couple took a romantic pause and Ross slept with the girl from the copy shop? While this was a major point of contention for the characters in question throughout the series, it's a question that's endured among viewers as well, if mostly as an exercise in relationship ethics; a kind of "Dear Abby" letter for Gen-X/Millennial cuspers.

    Still, I can't help but feel like we've been asking (and attempting to answer) the wrong question all along.

    "The One Where Ross & Rachel Take a Break" first aired twenty five year ago this week — on February 13, 1997 — smack dab in the middle of Friends's third season. It came at the end of a five-episode stretch that began with Rachel getting a job at Bloomingdale's. That job was a big deal since Rachel had spent two and a half seasons working as a coffee shop waitress, but pretty much from the get-go, Ross was jealous of Rachel's handsome boss, Mark. This built for several episodes until Rachel couldn't take it anymore, and she suggested they "take a break."

    The vague and blurry boundaries around the definition of a "break" versus a "break-up" tend to drive this great debate, but let's focus on the facts: 1) Rachel proposes they take a break from their relationship; 2) later that night, after going out with Chandler and Joey to drown his sorrows, Ross ends up going home with Chloe, the girl from the copy shop; 3) they have sex; 4) the next day, Rachel calls Ross and says she's thought better of it and wants to get back together; 5) Ross tries to cover up that he and Chloe had sex and get a whole bunch of people to lie for him, but 6) Rachel finds out anyway and dumps Ross for real. Then, in the next season's premiere, Ross and Rachel are on the verge of getting back together, so long as Ross can read her 18-page (front-and-back) hand-written letter working out their previous breakup. Ross can't manage to stay awake and read it, ends up unknowingly agreeing to take full responsibility for cheating on Rachel, but when he does realize what he agreed to, he snaps and bellows the famous "WE WERE ON A BREAK" that has fueled years and years of debate.

    So. Were Ross and Rachel on a break? Obviously yes — Rachel said they were! It's ludicrous to argue that they were not. But that doesn't negate the fact that Ross was the bad guy here and bears full responsibility for their breakup. He slept with the copy shop girl the same night he and Rachel went on a break. He slept alone in his bed zero times before finding some other chick to go home with. Rachel: "Hey we're clearly bumming each other out, maybe we should take a break for a bit." Ross: "Can't hear you, my face is already buried in this other girl!" Not to mention the fact that they were only fighting in the first place because Ross kept trying to sabotage Rachel's job because her boss was too handsome. Ross was a nightmare boyfriend, and Rachel was still going to take him back if he only could have managed to stay awake and read a letter that was shorter than the Zola Twitter thread, and he couldn't even do that.

    So the great Friends debate ultimately comes down to this: Do you feel that being on a break is a sufficiently bulletproof loophole that allows Ross to mope his way into the bed of the nearest warm body without Rachel being able to feel bad about it because she granted Ross infidelity rumspringa? Or do you feel that having your boyfriend set land speed records for finding his way to a rebound screw entitles you to some kind of expression of regret before you take his sad paleontologist behind back?

    So, yes, 25 years later, we can all say with authority: Ross and Rachel WERE on a break. And it couldn't possibly matter less.

    Friends streams on HBO Max and airs in syndication and on TBS.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Friends, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston