Yeah, they were on a break. Rachel said they should take a break. The entire cast still says they were on a break, as they did when James Corden asked during the reunion. They were, unequivocally, on a break, but that's not actually the important question here! The actual age old question is less about whether they were on a break and more about what that break actually meant, especially when you consider why everyone's spent years arguing over the break. Ross, as usual, messed up, and has basically spent 24 years convincing us all that he didn't actually mess up at all.
Let's set the scene.
It's season three, and Ross is being peak Ross. He and Rachel are together, but as her career is taking off, she's having to work more, and it's causing issues in the relationship. She's also got a co-worker who happens to be a friendly man named Mark (Steven Eckholdt), and so Ross naturally hates him and thinks he's the reason for all of their troubles.
In the episode, "The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break," things get particularly bad when Rachel has to work late on their anniversary. Ross decides to take a picnic basket to her office to celebrate with her there, not understanding that she actually has to do work.
She makes him leave, and when they see each other later, she expects an apology for the way he's behaving while she's finally figuring out what she wants to do with her life. "Is this about Mark?" he dares to ask, and it's the last straw.
Rachel says it's time for them to take a break from each other, and a furious Ross just turns around and leaves.
Meanwhile, Joey (Matt LeBlanc) and Chandler (Matthew Perry) are trying to seduce Chloe (Angela Featherstone), the cute girl who works at the copy place, but all her talk of copiers is kind of boring. Then, Ross arrives at the club and announces that he and Rachel broke up, while Mark invites himself over to cheer Rachel up. When Ross calls Rachel, he hears Mark in the background, and takes that as his cue to drink and dance the night away with Chloe. Chloe goes home with him, while Rachel sits at home by the phone, alone, with a loaf of bread.
By the morning, Rachel wants to get back together, but Ross has now just slept with Chloe, and he's not sure whether to tell Rachel or lie to her. He eventually decides not to tell her, but as it turns out, Chloe and Gunther (James Michael Tyler) are roommates, and he's already told Rachel the whole story. She is furious.
Thus begins the never-ending saga of whether Ross and Rachel were on a break. Sure, they were on a break, but does that excuse Ross for immediately sleeping with someone else? That's a question only Rachel can really answer, and it seemed like her answer was no. The "break" continued to plague Ross and Rachel for years, and they weren't able to get fully back together until the series finale, seven seasons later. Clearly, Ross did something that Rachel considered wrong, and it took her a really long time to move past it!
So why are we still arguing about it 24 years after it happened?
It's as if the series finale of Friends brainwashed all of us into thinking that Ross and Rachel were the ultimate romantic couple, and we could all be happy with their happily ever after ending if we just can get over that one sh--ty thing he did that one time, as if that were the only sh--ty thing he ever did. If we all just keep yelling "they were on a break!," is it somehow less bad that he slept with Chloe hours after Rachel declared the break, then tried to lie about it? Do we just like yelling TV quotes? Do we just like yelling in general?
There are plenty of things we could actually be debating, if we really want to still argue about Friends. Should Rachel have gone to London when Ross was marrying Emily? (No.) Did Rachel actually belong with Joey? (Yes.) Where did Ross' son Ben go? (Unknown...or Riverdale.) Was Richard (Tom Selleck) really hot even though that age gap between him and Monica (Courteney Cox) was very weird? (Yes.) Did Fat Monica deserve better? (Yes.) Was the storyline with Chandler's dad mishandled? (Yes.) Were the '90s and early 2000s a really hard time for body image and marginalized people, especially in media? (Yes.) Is Friends capable of traveling back in time to fix all of its many related issues? (No.) Should the entire Geller family have been in therapy? (Yes.) Should Rachel have put beef in the trifle? (No.) Is it now time to let this show live peacefully in the depths of HBO Max while we all move on? (Yes.)
Ross and Rachel were on a break. Ross and Rachel's break didn't make what Ross did any less gross. That's it, case closed, no one's allowed to ask about it anymore!
The Friends reunion is now streaming on HBO Max.