The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: Detention
For a teen show, what’s a better trope than Saturday detention, a thing that doesn’t actually exist in the real world? It’s certainly possible this was A Thing in a bygone era, but based on the teachers I know and how the current state of public school systems operate, everybody wants as little to do with problem children as possible, and bringing them in on a Saturday only creates more logistical issues (and essentially punishes whatever staff member has to oversee those kids). I’m also fairly certain that any reference to the concept of punishing kids on a weekend comes directly from The Breakfast Club, so it’s only right that not only does “Detention” borrow the plot from John Hughes’ film but also has Dawson directly reference it over the course of the hour.
In fact, let’s begin right at that meta point. Once all of our characters have been introduced (Dawson, Joey, Jen, Pacey, and newcomer Abby Morgan, played with delicious venom by the perpetually underrated Monica Keena), Dawson notes that the whole endeavor of the five of them sitting around in a school library on a Saturday is “so Breakfast Club.” For some reason, Jen isn’t entirely sure what that is, so Dawson then explains what the movie is, and then everybody laments what became of that section of the Brat Pack. They dismiss everybody, though Pacey stands up for Emilio Estevez because he was in “those duck movies,” the Disney series that also starred Joshua Jackson. (Incidentally, I thought Dawson’s dismissal of the cast members of The Breakfast Club was a little harsh, but then I looked up what everybody was up to in 1998, and he’s sort of right! They really were nowhere. Two decades on, just about everybody has righted the ship—and Molly Ringwald is now a regular on a descendant of Dawson’s Creek.)
A cooler show would have just left the Breakfast Club references unspoken—after all, it’s not like we’re talking about Godard here. I would have assumed that any teen watching Dawson’s Creek in 1998 would have at least a passing familiarity with The Breakfast Club, which was released in 1985 but was a cable staple throughout the ‘90s. In fact, I have to assume that episode writer Mike White probably played the references with a little more subtlety, though extending the discussion of where the Brat Pack is now (or was then) into another meta joke about Joshua Jackson’s resume does feel like White making lemonade out of network note lemons. So I can’t decide if I think the handling of all these references works or not. I definitely thought it was cool when I first saw this episode but it made me flinch this time around.
In fact, there’s a lot about this episode that I was surprised made me roll my eyes, because I always remembered this as one of my favorite all-time episodes of the show. (When the first season ended and my two Dawson’s viewing partners discussed the best moments, I declared “Detention” the show’s finest hour.) But this time around I got hung up on a lot of little things, although I think the cumulative effect of the episode remains entirely solid and does a remarkable job of setting up the dominos for the back half of season one.
Let’s rewind to the beginning. We open with Dawson and Joey watching a movie in bed, as we often have. Though Dawson has repeatedly stated how fine he is with taking it slow, he’s all bent out of shape because Jen won’t bang him. Dawson’s underlying frustration is clear, and it is exacerbated by the fact that a part of him is jealous of Pacey for having already cashed in his virginity (and with an older, more experienced woman, no less). Dawson remains hung up on Jen’s colorful sexual history and desperately wants to play it cool, but it eats him up inside and it manifests in him lashing out at Joey (and later in this episode at Pacey himself). It’s a state of being I could relate to at 16: When it came to sex, I knew it was deeply uncool to pressure anybody into it, though underneath my perception of gentlemanliness I just wanted to get laid.
Dawson’s libido remains twisted the next day at school, where a little light chiding from Pacey about gym class and the revelation that he told Jen they all used to call Dawson “Oompa-Loompa” leads to Dawson winging a basketball directly at Pacey’s face in a scene that plays out really violently. That earns Dawson a trip to Saturday detention, where he is joined by Pacey (who keeps mum about what he did to get there), Joey (who absolutely kicked the shit out of a meathead who interrupted a presentation she was giving and later cut in line at lunch) and Jen (who defended euthanasia to a Bible-thumping teacher and said “life’s a bitch,” prompting the immortal response, “This is not Times Square, Miss Lindley!”
The core four gets an extra antagonist in Abby, who is Capeside’s acid-tongued mean girl (and who claims she got sent to detention for hosting an Ecstasy-fueled orgy in the boys locker room). Abby is a phenomenal foil for the rest of the group and is a perfect small town antagonist: She clearly has known Dawson, Joey, and Pacey since elementary school and draws on a decade’s worth of embarrassment, rumor, and scandal to push their buttons. She’ll later become friends with Jen, and you can already sense the little bit of admiration that Abby has for the girl from New York (though that doesn’t stop her from lumping Jen in with the rest of a group she considers lame, noting, “Oh great, it’s Howdy Doody time” when she arrives at the library for detention).
The usual hijinks ensue: The group argues a bit, they bond, they sneak off to the gym to watch Dawson and Pacey play in the most embarrassing game of one-on-one in history, but everything comes to a head when Abby suggests they all play Truth or Dare. Pacey ends up kissing Jen, something that drives Dawson insane, and then Joey ends up kissing Dawson, which was a huge moment for young Kyle. Even though it came in the context of a game, and even though everyone involved was distressed at the time, this was something many Dawson fans like myself were anticipating. I was not necessarily anti-Jen, but I was 100 percent behind the coupling of Dawson and Joey. It was a classic Hughes construction: Here’s a guy who pines after a mildly unattainable girl, but in the end his true love is his unassuming best friend. It was a narrative that felt hopeful (and sort of plausible) for a guy like myself who was good at making friends with girls but less good at getting them to really like me. I was wishing myself into Dawson’s shoes, and the first glimpse at the possibility of he and Joey together was exciting (though I would not trade our basketball skills—I was never any good, but Dawson is crazy terrible).
Everybody comes clean in the end: Dawson tells Jen he wants her to want him, and Jen explains that she doesn’t want to sully the one thing that makes her feel good about herself since she moved to Capeside (which kind of makes no sense but is very sweet, so I’ll allow it). Dawson explains to Pacey that being called Oompa-Loompa reminds him of his own shortcomings and that he is in fact all bound up because Jen won’t touch his penis. Pacey doesn’t have that problem, because he admits that the reason why he’s in detention is because the cheerleaders took pity on him after he broke his nose and he got caught jerking off in the bathroom. And poor Joey breaks down and delivers a wonderful monologue that really shows how amazing Katie Holmes was on this show. “I have all these feelings, these weird feelings,” she tells Dawson. “I want to say it but I can’t say it. You know everything about me and I can’t even say this. I can’t. I just feel really lonely.” Dawson wants her to say what she means, but she doesn’t want to unleash the fact that she just wants Dawson to love her (and Dawson makes it harder by being a dense weirdo, because literally everybody else in the room knows what Joey is talking about). Joey knows that she and Dawson already have something special, and admitting that there’s something more could obliterate the whole thing (a worry that basically plays out over the next year of television). Ironically, both she and Jen like and appreciate Dawson’s dew-eyed purity, and that is why they are both attracted to him. But he wants nothing more than to obliterate the one thing he has going for him, which he’ll attempt to do the first of many times in next week’s episode.
- The banter between Jen and Pacey that leads to the “Oompa-Loompa” revelation is a little out of nowhere, but I can totally see how the two of them would have bonded off-camera, particularly because Jen would probably sympathize with the sex-related misery that Pacey just went through.
I can’t figure out how Capeside High School is run. For example: Why are the cheerleaders practicing in full uniform during a gym class?
And another thing: Pacey wants Dawson to stay after gym class to play some more basketball so he can impress the cheerleaders, but doesn’t everybody already know Pacey and that he’s either A) A screw-up or B) A guy who might have just fucked his English teacher? We know that Capeside is a pretty small town, so by the time everybody hits tenth grade, everybody basically knows everybody. That’s one thing that shows about small towns tend to get wrong (though everybody’s mutual history with Abby Morgan is a good nod to that detail).
One thing I do appreciate: Joshua Jackson is in shape but not crazy jacked. Were this show shot today, he’d have to look like he does Crossfit between classes. I mean, there’s no reason why Archie needs to look like this, and yet here we are.
The librarian overseeing detention’s name is Mrs. Tringle, which is only one letter away from the name of the teacher kidnapped in the Kevin Williamson script Killing Mrs. Tingle, which was later made and released as Teaching Mrs. Tingle and starred Katie Holmes.
Another Teaching Mrs. Tingle connection: Molly Ringwald, who is mentioned in this episode, was also in that movie.
From a design standpoint, that library set is pretty awesome (at least I’m pretty sure it’s a set—if it’s a location, it’s an amazing one).
There are a lot of terrible music cues in this episode, but Michelle Malone’s “Grace,” the droney tune that plays when Dawson and Joey kiss, is a killer.
Dawson really shows his ass (not literally) at the end of the episode during his conversation with Pacey: He says the really embarrassing line, “You’d do anything for sex!” right before topping it with, “I’m a virgin, OK? I’m not some big sex stud like you.” For a guy who was often erudite and eloquent beyond his years, those are some clunkers.
While Dawson and Pacey make a mockery of the game of basketball, Joey says something catty to Jen and then Jen calls her out on it, which causes Joey to shrink back. She hits on one of her fundamental issues: She wants to be mad at Jen because she has what Joey wants, but Jen has been nothing but kind in return. “It’d be so much easier if you were just a total wench, that’s all.” This is one of the truest lines on the show. I may be speaking out of turn, but I feel like everybody I knew in high school had at least one person they really wanted to hate but found it hard to because of general niceness. It's a very high school-specific urge.
Jen says that The Breakfast Club sucked, but was that a prevailing opinion in '98? I seemed to remember it being pretty canonical by then, but I might just be normalizing my own experience.