By Nerdy Spice and Janes
[In 2018, we rewatched all of Dawson’s Creek. See our posts here.]
Nerdy Spice: I’m so sad to have finished up this rewatch. It was bringing me so much pure delight–often to the point of tears, and even when an episode was sort of stupid or even infuriating or angering. Living with Dawson, Joey, Pacey, Jen, and Jack day in and day out remains a pleasurable and even magical experience.
I wrote about this in the first episode, but I also really appreciate how non-aspirational it is:
It’s about truly regular kids: kids who wear J. Crew, who don’t drive limos or hunt murderers or make out with vampires, who live in slightly shabby houses and work their way through college and borrow their sister’s lipsticks and fall in love with each other against the backdrop of a gorgeous waterside town where they aren’t visiting on a glamorous vacation but living as unglamorous “townies.”
Since I’m also watching Riverdale, where the kids are all wearing ballgowns to prison fight clubs and shit like that, I appreciate even more the fact that Dawson’s Creek decided the stories of four regular kids were worth telling. (Would it have been better if they’d decided that the stories of non-white kids were also worth telling, well, yeah. But the show did its share of good work, too, in fighting to represent gay kids and their love lives on network television.)
Once Keets asked me, before we were dating, what the big deal was for me and Dawson’s. I said it was like a 100-hour-long romantic comedy where the right couple ends up together. And really, that’s what it is to me: a story about two loves, one of which was never meant to survive to adulthood, and one of which was.
Janes: It’s amazing how well Dawson’s Creek hangs together as a 100-hour rom-com in the end, because so much of its magic is accidental. At the beginning, the writers bought their own hype: they told the audience over and over that Dawson was the last of the “nice guys” and that Dawson and Joey were soulmates because they honestly believed it. But just as in life, that self-mythologizing was stifling, and prevented the characters from building a healthy, dynamic relationship. They introduced P/J, not because they consciously changed their minds about Joey’s true love, but because the D/J ship had been crushed under its own weight.
As a result, Dawson’s Creek reflected real life more than anyone watching the first couple of seasons could have imagined. Like the writers, the characters thought they were destined to play prescribed roles in a predetermined story, and like the writers, they realized that things don’t always turn out the way you expect them to. As kids grow up, and their identities shift in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the promises they made to their younger selves become at best irrelevant, at worst suffocating. As Joey would say, “Things change. Evolve.”
By all accounts, Pacey and Joey wasn’t “endgame” for the writers–it just sort of happened as a result of any number of interrelated factors: Katie and Josh’s amazing chemistry, Joey becoming the most rounded character and de facto protagonist, the need for fresh conflict, etc. Pacey and Joey came into the picture mostly to breathe new life into the proceedings, which also imitates real life. The relationship that breathes new life into you is usually the right one—at least for that moment, maybe for the long haul.
If you haven’t noticed, we have a deeply personal connection to this show. Growing up, when we had a quandary in our love lives, we always asked ourselves: “Who is the Pacey?” But when we called someone “the Pacey,” we didn’t mean the hotter one (although, yeah) or the “bad boy.” We meant the ones who encourage us to grow without needing us to change. We meant the ones who fit into our dreams for ourselves, rather than writing us into their own. I almost ended up with my Dawson, someone who tried to shoehorn me into the “Girl Friday” role, and I literally thank my lucky stars every day that I didn’t. At Nerdy Spice’s wedding, I said that Keets was “her Pacey” in my maid-of-honor speech. Dawson’s Creek didn’t make these things happen for us, but it empowered us to make healthy choices in our romantic lives and be the protagonists of our own stories (if only accidentally).
Nerdy Spice: You actually also quoted me saying that Pacey was “not as good as Keets.” So I just want to clear that up. 🙂
But yeah, almost every straight girl has experienced what Joey experienced–not in the sense of drawing out a love triangle for nine effing years but in the sense of being put on a pedestal by a boy and then being blamed for falling off of it, the way Joey was with Dawson. That is how boys, as opposed to men, relate to girls–and it’s the best most girls are taught to hope for. Crazily enough, Pacey the class clown really does represent adulthood and growing up.
And this love triangle remains eternal partially because it’s so archetypal. There’s the one path that’s safe, that represents a person (or a habit or a pattern) clinging to you and not letting you go; and another path that represents respect and autonomy and the terror of freedom. Adulthood, in other words.
Which–the fact that Joey Potter’s entry into adulthood is the real story of Dawson’s Creek–is another nice thing about this show, and another thing that was apparently completely accidental. The show was supposed to be about a nice boy and his girl next door. Only by the end, it turned out the real story was hers. Isn’t that kind of great? That scrappy, poverty-stricken Joey Potter’s ambition, her hard work (even if she so often seemed to end up watching the film adaptation instead of reading the assigned book), her charisma, and the force of her personality ended up the central through-line of this show which was originally supposed to be about the boy who had a dream–and dozens of people telling him he was sure to get it.
I mean, love triangles will do that to a show. Whoever is in the middle of the triangle gets to be in the middle of the story. But I like to think it’s also that the writers created a character in Joey Potter (as much as Janes, and most people, like to rag on Second-Gen Joey for being kind of an airhead) that transcended the limitations of her story.
Janes: Exactly. No matter how much we like to rag on her (which is approximately 50% more than Pacey and 1700% less than Dawson), it says a lot that we’ve basically forgotten to talk about any other characters. Like poor Jen, who became structurally and spiritually irrelevant once the original Dawson/Jen/Joey triangle was eclipsed by the real one. Or Jack, who made history with his mere presence in the show, yet was often relegated to the “sidekick” role in Jen’s increasingly isolated corner of the plot.
We’ve talked a lot about how Dawson’s Creek has aged over the last two decades (ah, we’re so old!!), but one of our most troubled relationships is with Jen. From a very unscientific examination of internet comments, it seems like a lot of feminist fans want to “take back” the character of Jen Lindley, the “bad girl” from the big city who is unfairly vilified for her sexuality. As a lifelong feminist who has only become more radical over the past few years, I thought I would sympathize with Jen on this rewatch a lot more than I do. But unfortunately, the writing of her character is too atrocious to salvage. She starts off as a romantic object/evangelical atheist, veers suddenly towards Eve-level cartoonish sex kitten in season two, graduates to fake feminist who shit-talks other women all the time, and then–God, I don’t even know how to condense the terribleness of CJ-era Jen. She is, indeed, unfairly vilified for her sexuality (despite almost never having sex) throughout the show. But even in retrospect, her tepid sex life is the very least of her problems.
Several 90s/early aughts teen shows followed an eerily similar formula: they would introduce the bombshell blonde/projected star (Marissa Cooper/Peyton Sawyer/Serena van der Woodsen) and a slightly antiheroic-but-equally-beautiful brunette as the side character (Summer/Brooke/Blair), realize that the brunette was becoming the fan favorite, and then flatten the blonde bombshell character beyond all recognition. And Dawson’s Creek was not immune from this affliction; once it became clear that Joey would be the primary love interest, she essentially sucked all of the appealing qualities out of all the other female characters. Jen didn’t even get to be the “blonde bombshell” anymore, and instead landed somewhere in the area of “blonde irritant” (where the once-wonderful Audrey also ended up, and where Andie was from the very beginning).
It would be relatively easy to recast Jen as a feminist hero–the rebel who refuses to conform to a small town’s ideal of femininity so perfectly embodied by girl-next-door Joey. But since Joey got an actual arc, maybe even a journey, she came out feeling like the most feminist character. Not to say she’s a feminist hero—she’s more like an earlier iteration of the “different from other girls” trope, similar to her namesake, Jo March. (Which makes Jen the… Amy?) But like Jo March, she was still an inspiring character, relatable to so many girls who were looking for permission to take their dreams as seriously as the Dawsons of the world.
Aaaaand, I’m talking about Joey again. Whoops!
Nerdy Spice: Yeah, I am SO not on board with reclaiming Jen Lindley. Let’s leave her fake feminism and whining in the past where it belongs.
Anyway, we just want to wrap this up by thanking everyone who read these recaps! We had a seriously fantastic time on this project and we were happy to hear from everyone else who has similar nostalgia for Dawson’s Creek. Thank you! Say goodnight, not good-bye!