‘The One With All The Poker’ (originally aired 3/2/95)
‘TOW All the Poker’ is a troubling episode: the two big arcs of the episode involve women being inept at a “men’s game”, and Ross becoming a person he’s never been before. It’s an episode with a number of funny moments, yes, but the way the narrative plays out, it felt like it betrayed its characters, and how it posited its own gender dynamics early on in its run. But all the men vs. women nonsense aside, ‘The One with All the Poker’ contains one important – and completely unintended – revelation: Ross and Rachel would not make a good couple.
Anybody who remembers ‘All the Poker’ remembers it for one scene: when Ross and Rachel get into a betting contest, which goes from competition, to Ultimate Man vs. Woman competition with everyone putting in money for their gender when Ross and Rachel run out of cash (Ross: “Joey, I’m a little shy” Joey: “It’s ok, Ross, you can ask me”). It then turns again in the final instant, when it becomes “Awww, Ross is such a sweetheart) when he caves and lets Rachel win. It’s a memorable scene of the show, but under a critical eye, it becomes memorable for all the wrong reasons.
In a nutshell, it represents Ross emotionally coddling Rachel when she’s in a depressed moment. Sure, it plays out real cute when Ross lets her win after she doesn’t get the dream job at Bloomingdale’s, but in terms of their relationship dynamic and how Ross changes through the episode, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. At first, ‘All the Poker’ is trying to show Ross’s manlier side, which is really just a lot of bullshit that even he can’t finish with something meaningful. Why poker grows hair on his back is something we don’t know – but it turns into a lot of posturing and talking down to Rachel, by a character who hasn’t been able to do much but openly fawn in front of her.
The call during the poker game at the end also feels a little manipulative: before that, it was about one of the girls finally beating the guys who have kicked their asses continuously at cards – even after they’ve been trained by Monica’s odd aunt. Shit, they even beat them at games they’ve never heard before! But that chance at redemption for the women on the show through heated genderized card-playing is thrown out in favor of reminding us that Ross loves Rachel, and he’s willing to remove his nutsack if it gives her a moment of happiness.
I guess the episode comes down to the placement of the phone call: being so conveniently added to the middle of the scene changes its tone, concluding with a shrug of the shoulders when it comes to gender. So what if the men win; they know how to appeal to a woman’s emotions, ISN’T THAT JUST THE GREATEST? ‘All The Poker’ is an episode that doesn’t age well at all, another episode where Ross’s personality becomes a plot device, one that doesn’t even remain consistent throughout (as soon as Rachel starts taking potshots at him, Ross recedes into his “I love Rachel” cocoon of awkwardness and limp-dicked behavior).
– the girls don’t even get the common rules of ANY card game: Phoebe and Rachel are talking about their cards out loud, trading with each other… it’s like they’ve never seen a deck of cards before, despite being in their late 20’s, in a day and age without iPhone card games.
– Bluffing is not lying about hitting someone with a car – the only appearance of Aunt Iris is a forgettable one, a character never mentioned again in Friends lore (a rare occasion of this happening).
– whistling never sounds that good on television, does it?
– Marcel likes listening to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”… ugh, I can’t want for that monkey to be gone!
– by now, Chandler is consistently the funniest character on the show, and when there’s no plot involving him, he can just sit in scenes and bust out great one-liners and awkward self-revelations.
– Can someone go buy me some ‘pretz’? I’m starving over here!
– Phoebe: “Hello kettle, this is Monica. You’re black.”
‘The One Where the Monkey Gets Away’ (originally aired 3/9/95)
Both ‘All the Poker’ and ‘The Monkey Got Away’ were co-written by Jeff Astrof and Mike Sikowitz, so it makes sense both are heavy on Rachel and Ross. But unlike its companion, ‘The Monkey Got Away’ does a major turnaround halfway through the episode, setting up arcs to conclude in next week’s ‘The One With The Evil Orthodontist”, and finally giving us a reason to be interested in the Ross/Rachel dynamic.
The most troublesome part of the episode’s first half is Rachel: she’s dressed like a 14-year old mentally challenged school girl, and acts in such a fashion throughout. We know she’s a bad waitress – a reminder we get in the short cold open – and her rampant irresponsibility leads her to lose Marcel because she’s too interested in soap operas to pay attention. It’s one thing to poke at the immaturity she’s trying to grow out of, but it manifests itself in a really uncomfortable way, in combination with her clothing and behavior early on.
What ‘The Monkey Gets Away’ right was my biggest complaint in ‘All The Poker’: Ross doesn’t pander to Rachel’s emotions after she finds out what she did. He calls her out as irresponsible, claims her behavior is “vintage Rachel”, continuing to live in her Rachel Land bubble. It’s the first time Ross challenges Rachel’s perception of herself, the first time his timid facade dissipates and he reveals the frustrations he has with her.
It gives their relationship a new layer, something it desperately needed to establish before playing out their season end game (signaled every season by whatever Ross/Rachel tease is being dangled). And although Ross is never able to express his feelings for her, there’s a major change in his ability to approach her. He’s hesitant, and the show plays it up for dramatic effect, but he’s finally picking up that spoon he’s had in his pocket all season. It’s an important gesture for him: as an audience, we can finally start to believe in Ross a little now that he’s taking himself off the sidelines.
Everything hovers around the search for Marcel, but smartly keeps it from being the sole focus of the episode. A bitter Animal Control officer turns out to be a former classmate at Lincoln High, which reminds us that Monica was fat and Rachel was Ms. Mean Girl (Ross: “why did you have to be a bitch in high school?”). I just wish we would’ve spent a little more time going door to door with Joey and Chandler: their one scene at the apartment with the ‘hot’ girls was hilarious, an effortless display of the chemistry that made the Joey and Chandler dynamic so good through the show’s life (it helps they consistently had great story lines together, even in the show’s later years when it became a rare thing). ‘The Monkey Gets Away’ might get off to a rough start, but once Marcel gets away, it does an about face and becomes integral to the season’s arc.
– Phoebe is a waste in this episode, except when she takes a dart for Marcel. Every other scene, she is a place card for “airhead female joke”.
– the end of the episode turns it into a two-parter when Barry interrupts Ross’s conversation with Rachel. Barry, of course, is banging Rachel’s former best friend, and is now running away from marrying her, to get back with Rachel. Not the greatest character in the world.
– all of a sudden, Rachel wants a relationship. Bit of a contrivance, but we’ll allow it.
– Rachel’s “penis embargo” isn’t quite over yet.
– Joe G’s Pizza never became a regular scene for Friends, but it’s good for a Ross/Joey/Chandler scene here. Most of the episode is spent in tight hallways or close-ups of Ross and Rachel, and it gives the episode some life.