The ending of Friends finally explained

Friends came to an end in 2004, a decade after viewers first watched its cast sip mugs of coffee at Central Perk. Its finale episode garnered, at the time, the fourth-largest audience for a show's ending ever with a whopping 52.5 million people tuning in. Titled "The Last One," Friends' series finale had to finish up the stories of Ross (David Schwimmer), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Monica (Courteney Cox), Chandler (Matthew Perry), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) in a way that was satisfying while still being open-ended enough to earn long-lasting hope for a future reunion or revival.

So, how did the last episode, which featured a walk through Monica's purple apartment, tie together the group's ten years of relationship drama, career challenges, and personal pratfalls while ending on a high note? Let's take a look back at exactly what happened in the final moments of the beloved NBC series Friends.

Ross and Rachel forever

The will-they-or-won't-they saga of Ross and Rachel began in the Friends pilot and kept right on chugging up until the end. Although they were one another's so-called "lobsters," they only dated for a short while and were more like star-crossed lovers whose terrible timing and bursts of jealousy kept them apart. And don't even get us started on the issue of whether or not they were actually on a break.

After they had daughter Emma, Ross was reticent to give it another shot with Rachel, even though their feelings for one another were clearly still strong. Once reality set in that not taking another chance at their romance meant putting an actual ocean between them though, Ross wisened up and finally declared his love for Rachel — despite a little hesitation after watching Gunther (played by James Michael Tyler) crash and burn with a similar reveal. 

Ross didn't get the answer he wanted right away, of course, but, once Rachel realized she wanted a forever with him too, she went back to Ross. The two agreed to be "done being stupid," which meant there'd be no more temporary splits or errant hook-ups in their future. Of course, there had to be a touch more drama before the happy ending could happen…

Of course there was an airplane

To get Ross and Rachel together again after so much stalling, the showrunners had to think big. The two couldn't just decide to set aside their long-standing gripes with one another; there had to be a grand gesture. So, what better way to sew things up for them than to turn back to the same locale that had caused them so many setbacks in the past?

The first airport incident was in early season 2 when Rachel rushed to the airport to court Ross after his work trip to China and fell flat on her face before meeting his new girlfriend Julie. Then, who can forget when Rachel decided to fly to London unannounced to try and stop his marriage to Emily. And then, after stopping herself from admitting her feelings for him and still somehow sabotaging his vows, she ended up stranded by Ross on a flight to his Grecian honeymoon! Given their many experiences at terminal gates, their one last flight fracas — with Rachel getting off the plane that would've taken her to Paris for a new career path — made their final destination landing all the more poetic.

Double the children, double the fun

Monica and Chandler's fertility struggles throughout the last couple of seasons of Friends were heartbreakingly real for Courteney Cox, who endured a series of miscarriages before turning to in vitro fertilization to have her daughter Coco with then-husband David Arquette. However, just as Cox's bundle of joy came into the picture in season 10 with a hidden bump, Monica and Chandler were able to find a baby to adopt by way of Erica (played by Anna Faris) in the end.

It wasn't until Erica went into labor in the show's final moments, though, that they learned she was pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl. While Monica quickly got on board with her surprise second addition, Chandler simply had to have one more moment of hesitation about the news to cap off the many times he'd been unsure about fatherhood — or his progression into adulthood in general — with Monica calmly talking him into accepting his new reality. After so many scenes of him not being ready for this or that, it was fitting that he'd have one last adjustment to acclimate to before the final credits rolled on their story.

Moving on out

Monica's apartment became as much of a character on the show as any one of the series' six friends, and it served as the backdrop for many of the show's most iconic scenes. As we learned in the last episode, it was a home for every one of them at some point in their lives. So, when Monica and Chandler decided to move into a house, the place that had been such a hot commodity for the six — and was even involved a betting war between the girls and the guys one time — was suddenly available to new occupants. 

Even though Phoebe and Mike were looking to expand their budding family —and even though Ross and Rachel were getting back together, too — none of the main characters wanted to take over the apartment. The reason? Closure. "We always knew that we basically had to end with them leaving Monica and Chandler's apartment," co-creator Marta Kauffman explained. Chances are, if any of the six friends had moved into the place, the story might have felt unfinished, so having them all turn in the keys to the apartment that had provided so many memories was important to saying goodbye.

A normal life at last

An entire manuscript could be devoted to piecing together all of the weird anecdotes from Phoebe Buffay's personal history, but, once she met Mike Hannigan (Paul Rudd), she started to envision a more ordinary future for herself. Sure, she still tried to mother some "rat babies," and it took him a while to come around to the idea of remarrying after the bitter experience of his divorce, but the same woman who'd once played around on a barge and spent her formative years escaping a mental patient in a tire yard started seeing herself as a wife and mother.

After Monica and Chandler introduced their babies to the group, Mike told Phoebe he wants to have children with her, and she was all in for the idea right away. In fact, she wanted to have a "bunch" of babies with her new husband, and, while we never got to meet the little Hannigans, in that moment, it was clear that Phoebe Buffay had finally gotten the normal life she'd wanted after so many terrible and weird trials and tribulations.

A foul end for the fowl

When it came to pets, the friends' choices of companions were odd (for example, Ross' monkey Marcel), but Chandler and Joey's baby chick and duck became an important part of the series for a long time. The animals were introduced in season 3 and hung around for a long time, causing unforeseen problems like disappearing wedding rings and realizing a date's worst fear. However, the two inexplicably disappeared after the show's sixth season, and it wasn't until the show's final moments that we found out what happened to those birds.

Joey decides to bring home a new chick and duck — affectionately named Chick Jr. and Duck Jr. — as a gift for Monica and Chandler. And after meeting the new little birds, we learned that the original chick and duck had died — though Phoebe swept in to spare Joey's feelings by saying they "dove headfirst into fun on the farm." After several seasons of not knowing what became of the feathered twosome, the show finally gave some bittersweet closure to their story as well.

Growing up and getting on with life

As a whole, the series' showrunners intended for the Friends series finale to mark an end to the moment when people tend to lean on their friends the most. As Friends writer David Crane told Entertainment Weekly, "Friends started as the time in your life when your friends are your family, so what's at the heart of the episode is six friends going off in different directions." Indeed, as Monica and Chandler geared up for the suburban life, Ross and Rachel decided to get together at last, and Phoebe and Mike made plans to grow their family, their need to rely on the group setting to hash out their issues seemed to wane.

However, it wasn't just about ending their journeys; it was also about beginning new ones. As David Schwimmer reflected to San Francisco Gate, "We all end up with a sense of a new beginning and the audience has a sense that it's a new chapter in the lives of all these characters." In other words, they may never sit around the coffee shop humming together or strike up a game of Bamboozled again, but theirs is still a happy ending.

Not a figment of her imagination

There have been a lot of fan theories thrown around regarding the Friends finale, including one which suggested that the whole series was nothing more than a psychedelic drug-induced fever dream of Phoebe Buffay. The thinking was that a still-homeless Phoebe saw a group in Central Perk and proceeded to imagine having a friendship with these people, who were all so very different from her, as a means of coping with her devastating reality of living a violent street life.

The idea earned enough attention to eventually elicit an official response from Marta Kauffman, who shut it down as "a terrible theory" and called it "the saddest thing [she'd] ever heard" in an interview with Entertainment Tonight. In other words, Phoebe might've had a wild imagination — even believing her dead mom had resurfaced as a cat — but the events of the show weren't part of that.

The unintentional spinoff

In the end, the only friend whose future was not made clear by the series finale was Joey, and, since he wound up being the center of the show's only spin-off Joey, that open end might have seemed intentional. However, the showrunners insist they didn't design the series finale to give rise to more storytelling.

"We never, ever from the beginning ever wanted to do a spin-off [...] we never wanted to be part of that, because it so rarely works," Kauffman told EW. The fact that Joey ended up happening also had no influence on the script, as David Crane insisted, "That was its own thing. It had no bearing on what we were doing for the finale." 

That said, former NBC president Warren Littlefield always had spin-off potential in mind, albeit a very different one. "My fantasy was that the two Matts would be the spin-off," he conceded. "But by then I was gone from the network, and of course, storywise that couldn't happen." The only question we're left to wonder is: would something like Joey and Chandler have worked better as a spin-off? Would more Friends fans have tuned in? Unfortunately, we'll never know.