The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: Dance
Dawson Leery wants to be a filmmaker. His drive to pursue his dream is at the center of a lot of his decisions over the course of six seasons, and though the show sometimes forgets about Dawson's grand ambitions, it always manages to circle back to the idea that his dearest dream is to make movies (and in fact the very last scene of the finale is a revelation about his career). The pilot presented Dawson as a celluloid obsessive, what with his urge to get into the one film class at his high school, his carefully curated Spielberg obsession, and his yen to get himself into a junior film festival in Boston with a horror movie whose shoot is interrupted by the arrival of Jen.
So we know that the hunger is there, and that Dawson has acquired plenty of study in his obsessive re-watching of E.T., but what about his actual skills as a storyteller? The second episode of Dawson's Creek gives us a slightly more in-depth look at Dawson's in-production horror pastiche The Sea Creature From the Deep, starring Pacey as the titular monster and Joey as Stephanie, the love interest/victim. On one hand, Dawson's choice of genre makes perfect sense, as horror movies can be made on the cheap and tend to reward idea-level ingenuity (which plays out in the scene where Joey dives behind a boat and then a janky but convincing enough model of her gets decapitated) and Creek creator (and Scream scribe) Kevin Williamson knows plenty about slasher flicks and monster features.
On the other hand, Dawson doesn't really show any other affection for horror movies, does he? His favorite director is Spielberg, and while a handful of his directorial efforts have nods toward scares (particularly early entries Jaws, Duel, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind), he's never really made a true horror movie and doesn't appear to reserve a ton of affection for the genre. Is Dawson's interest in a campy horror send-up because of the success of Scream, which we know exists in the reality of this movie? Or is it just that Dawson prefers to be a Godard in the streets but a Carpenter in the sheets? I'm leaning on that last one, particularly because his interest in fright flicks does seem to grow over time (by the end of this first season, he'll have a poster for I Know What You Did Last Summer on his wall, and he later puts a one sheet for The Blair Witch Project in a place of prominence).
The Sea Creature From the Deep doesn't look very good. The only bit of dialogue we hear is an exchange between Pacey and Joey wherein Pacey says, "I may not believe you Stephanie, but I believe in you," which is pretty cringe-inducing. But I think Sea Creature is supposed to be shaggy, and we're supposed to get wrapped up in the spirit of Dawson's obsession. He's our primary protagonist, and his main character trait is that his reach exceeds his grasp. That's not necessarily a great bit of universality for an audience to latch onto, but for me it was perfect. Though Dawson became somewhat loathed on the show, I immediately gravitated toward him because I saw myself in his personal frustrations. Here was a kid living in New England who knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life, who had an overwhelming hunger to express himself, and who regularly felt hamstrung by the lack of opportunities afforded to him and the general attitudes of the people around him. That was me! High school was miserable for me not because of bullying or homework, but because I had to do so much waiting. If there's one thing Dawson's Creek really hit upon (and what still resonates with me now two decades on) is that feeling I think a lot of overachieving and creative kids feel while marking time in their suburban teen years. That angst is difficult to express, but Dawson's Creek very often gets it right in the guise of Dawson's general outlook on the world.
Of course, I recognize now that my combination of ambition and ennui was super annoying to a great many people around me, and I understand completely why people would reject Dawson as a protagonist and why the audience gravitated more to the more traditionally sweet and earnest Pacey. But as of the second episode of Dawson's Creek, we're still supposed to be with our boy Dawson, though he's already making it difficult. There's a dance coming up on Saturday that has no theme or seasonal peg (in fact, Nellie simply announces it as "The big dance on Saturday" during an opening montage, as though it's the XFL version of the Super Bowl). Dawson rejects the idea of school dances, though changes his tune once he sees football player Cliff (Scott Foley, who was a recurring guest star in season one; he would graduated and attend the University of New York in the fall) chatting up object-of-his-affection Jen. Dawson makes all the wrong moves in this episode, pouting when Jen decides to go to the dance with Cliff rather than watch his dance-themed movies in his bedroom, and then insensitively (and repeatedly!) talks to Joey about the prospects of kissing Jen. Joey proved herself to be monstrous during the disastrous movie outing during the pilot, but her behavior is a little more understandable once you get a look at Dawson's casual cruelty around her. It's genuinely disheartening, and that scene is made unexpectedly creepy thanks to Dawson's work on Joey's model head (which is a pretty impressive effect though does not look very much like Katie Holmes).
And speaking of creeps: What's up with Pacey in this episode? Obviously he's only supposed to be 15, but his encounter with Tamara is horrible for two main reasons. First, he confronts her in school as a class is gathering, which is conspicuous at best and would probably seem alarming were I witnessing it as a student. But Pacey doubles down when he delivers the line, "Your tongue was in my mouth" in the grossest way possible, as though he learned everything he knows about talking about sex from David Caruso in Jade. For her part, Tamara handles all this extremely poorly later during Pacey's class, where they discuss Wuthering Heights and she delivers a monologue about the book's false romanticism (which is a stance I kind of agree with) that for some reason makes Pacey super angry. (Maybe he's just a huge Brontë apologist.)
Everything comes to a head at the titular dance, the result of Pacey chasing after Tamara (she's chaperoning) and Dawson obsessing over the idea of Jen and Cliff kissing (I found his spiraling deeply relatable and also wildly unlikeable, which pretty much sums up my personality when I was 16). Dawson tosses on his best Han Solo vest because it seems the dress code of the dance is "business casual," a detail that the show actually gets right—when they finally get to the half-full gymnasium, every kid shaking around to Savage Garden's "I Want You" is wearing a variation on something I saw somebody wear at a homecoming event, with the girls in nice-ish Gap dresses and the dudes all wearing wrinkly khakis and tucked-in button downs.
(I don't want to get too far away from the momentum of the plot of this episode, and Cthulhu knows this is already long enough, but I want to address something that the show gets wrong, at least in my experience: Dawson decides to go to the dance seemingly an hour into the event, so he's essentially just dropping in, which in my experience was IMPOSSIBLE TO DO at a school dance in the '90s. When I went to a dance, I had to buy tickets well in advance, partially because there were a limited number of slots that often sold out and partially because all sales ended a full week before the actual event. You couldn't buy tickets for another person at all, and in the instances wherein I wanted to bring my out-of-town girlfriend to a shindig, I had to get security clearance for her weeks ahead of time (and pay extra for her ticket!). I may just be normalizing my experiences in a school system in the grips of Columbine-era school shooting panic, but I do not believe that Dawson would have been able to just show up at Capeside High's big dance without catching a ton of static at the door.)
ANYWAY, Dawson tries to cut in on Jen and Cliff's date and things go exceptionally poorly. Pacey also gets rejected by chaperone Tamara, and they each retire to the local dock where so much of the show's drama unfolded in the opening season. Tamara admits that she was wrong to kiss him, and Pacey confesses that he's not good with girls, and this ends with them making out? The show never does a great job of expressing Tamara's motivations. Pacey's are pretty clear: The dude is super horny and appreciates the attention of an older woman (and if we want to get a little more Freudian, don't forget that Pacey's mother is mostly absent). But what does Tamara see in Pacey? Is he right in that she is starting to feel her age and in the midst of a mid-life crisis found herself wanting to feed on the youth of a teenager? It's not like Joshua Jackson isn't attractive, but there's very little to go on to get us from the two of them meeting in the video store to their eventual coupling.
Meanwhile, Dawson has another thinly-veiled argument with Joey about the nature of their relationship, and when Dawson describes everything as "high and low, black and white," he ends up summing up both overwrought teenagerdom and manic depression. Joey calls him a "sphincter," which sounds a lot like a piece of slang that some writer overheard once but was never actually used by teens (that epithet never came up in my high school). Dawson doesn't want Jen to put him in the friend zone, even though that's exactly what he's doing to Joey. Dawson spots Jen and they have a chat that features one great burn (Dawson: "I don't know what to say." Jen: "A first!") and the reveal that Jen is nervous about kissing Dawson because of all the sex she had in New York? Look, the dock very clearly does not bring out the best in the people of Capeside. The whole thing ends with Dawson and Jen dancing on the dock to the music played by a couple on a boat, and it's an image I found skull-crushingly romantic in '98 but now just think is sort of weird and uncomfortable.
Once again, Joey is sort of on the outside looking in on a lot of these plot developments, and once again she's responsible for the two best scenes in the episode. The first is when they are working on Dawson's movie and Jen offers to help clean the fake blood off of Joey. Their chilly relationship begins to thaw slightly when Jen compliments Joey's breasts and Joey assures Jen that she doesn't look like a duck. I imagine a lot of people took this scene as yet another piece of unnecessary titillation that would poison the minds of teens everywhere, but it's actually a really sweet and organic exchange that develops both characters in very subtle ways: Jen shows that she is becoming more aware of the dynamic between Dawson and Joey and how she complicated that with her arrival in Capeside, and Joey nods toward her own insecurities (which eventually break down completely by the time we get to her climatic beauty pageant scene).
The other great Joey scene comes when Joey spies on a conversation between Dawson and his father Mitch. Dawson asks his dad about the mechanics of kissing, and father walks son through a somewhat useful tutorial while sharing the story of his and his wife's first kiss. Mitch insists Dawson practice on the fake Joey head (which is totally not a creepy thing to do, no creepier than Mitch using Dawson's camcorder to record he and his wife fucking, which is definitely an allusion made at the top of the scene), and Dawson complies. Joey observes all of this from upstairs in the Leery house, and the longing on Holmes' face as she projects herself into the lips of the plastic version of her head is gut-wrenching. It's a deeply silly scene that Holmes elevates with her expressive eyes and her deep-seated sense of yearning. It's a moment that represents one of the many pieces of evidence for the case that Dawson's Creek was always Joey's show and always should have been.