The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: Road Trip
One of the great joys of rewatching Dawson’s Creek this time around is realizing how off-base my dyed-in-the-wool convictions were about the show. For example, I had always operated under the ineffable truth that “Detention” was by far the best episode of the show’s first season. But it’s merely OK, and it has now become clear to me that “Road Trip” is unequivocally the finest hour of Dawson’s Creek’s first 13.
We begin with a re-introduction of Billy, whose business seemed to be wrapped up at the end of “Boyfriend” but who is inexplicably still hanging around Capeside. His whole plan remains elusive (it is still unclear what would actually happen if Jen agreed to go back to New York with him—would she just show up back at her parents place?), but the more time we spend with him the clearer it becomes that his lack of a plan is all part of his character (he is, after all, a dumb teenager). He tells Jen that her break-up with Dawson inspired him to stick around a little longer to pick the bones, but she’s having none of it. “You used to be fun,” Billy tells Jen. “No, I used to be weak and vulnerable,” she replies, one of the stronger lines given to Michelle Williams in the show’s first season.
So Billy bolts to bond with Dawson, who has spent the last 48 hours wallowing in post-dumpee misery: He’s not eating, he’s listening to Savage Garden, and he’s watching Sid & Nancy under the assumption that all great romances are doomed. Perhaps a little too quickly, Dawson cottons to Billy’s idea that they roll out of town and head to a club in Providence where Billy knows the bouncer. (Why a high school kid in New York, even one who was well-connected in the Manhattan party scene, would know a bouncer at a club in Rhode Island doesn’t quite track, but I’m willing to go with the idea that he’s got a line on a friend’s cousin or something. It’s amazing how often this show traffics in the idea that anybody who lives in New York must be well-connected and street smart; most of the kids I knew who grew up in the five boroughs had the same favorite delis as everybody else and were often crippled by their personal space issues.) Dawson and Billy resolve to get over their shared rejection, and Pacey goes along for the ride because he doesn’t like going to school.
That’s really when this episode, penned by Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas, starts to pick up. I always liked the relatively insular nature of Dawson’s Creek, which is why the final two seasons (with their sojourns into the real world outside of Capeside) are a bit muddled. But the occasional field trip serves this show awfully well, and the remainder of the Dawson/Billy/Pacey narrative is a cracker. First we find the trio on a ferry of some kind (which again doesn’t entirely track geographically, but the ferry business is so tight that I can’t get mad at it), where Pacey accuses Dawson of being no fun—even though this road trip was his idea, you can still read in James Van Der Beek’s face that Dawson’s primary concern is getting caught. But he’s not backing down from this challenge, and rather than hurl another basketball at Pacey’s face, he hatches a revenge plot against a couple of yokels who are harassing people and dumping beer on an old lady’s windshield. (Again, I’ll ask a question I’ll ask of a lot of people in this episode: What was the end game for these yokels?) Dawson tethers their truck to the boat with a train, and when the time comes to pull out, Pacey shoots a moon (with a shot of his actual bare butt, which was probably pretty edgy in ’98) and the yokels speed up so fast their rear axel gets completely torn off. That’s probably a low-grade felony, but those yokels had it coming.
It is evening by the time they arrive at the aforementioned bar in Providence, which is a little crazy considering Cape Cod and the Rhode Island capital are only separated by a maximum two hour drive, though I assume Dawson, Pacey and Billy stopped to do a little shopping at Providence Place. Billy and Pacey both stalk their prey, but Dawson is content to shoot pool until he sees a coed named Nina wearing a Film Threat t-shirt. While Pacey and Billy both strike out with their proto-Mystery shtick, Dawson has a real conversation with Nina about Stanley Kubrick that turns out to be incredibly sweet. It’s actually the first time in the series where Dawson acts like the guy he perceives himself to be, and it plays out well after Nina invites Dawson back to her place and he politely declines. As long as you remember that their age difference would have made their coupling very illegal, Dawson and Nina provide the finest relationship moments of the season so far. It even leads to a great bonding moment between Dawson and Pacey, who have to wait for a bus to take them back to Capeside after Billy abandons them.
With the boys distracted by their road trip, the girls of Capeside bond in their own way. Joey gets offered a ride to school by a jock named Warren (Eric Balfour), who drives a Jeep Wrangler and is low-key sweet with Joey until he starts talking about her nipples. (I’ll ask again: What was his endgame?) By the time third period rolls around, it gets back to Joey that Warren has been bragging about the two of them having sex. This does not sit well with newly single Jen, who hatches a pretty ingenious revenge scheme that involves Joey’s fake pregnancy and the easy manipulation of gossip-friendly and vengeance-thirsty Abby Morgan. It eventually spins off the rails, and the whole thing is put to bed when it is revealed that Warren would not be able to impregnate anybody because he is impotent (a slightly too mean reprisal, in my opinion), but it does provide for some great team-up stuff between Joey and Jen. It’s a shame the two of them so often had to be at loggerheads throughout the early part of the show, because they have a really easy chemistry and compliment one another quite well. (In an alternate universe, they end up having a relationship not unlike Rory and Paris in Gilmore Girls.) When their plan finally does implode, Joey lashes out at Jen, accusing her of doing this not for Joey but because she has misplaced resentment about men, and Jen shoots back that she believes Joey is terrified now that Dawson is single and still treating her like a friend. It’s just the right sized blow up, and it is resolved nicely when Joey arrives at Jen’s house later (Jen is reading by candlelight on her porch, which is ridiculous) and the two have an “ice cream anti-social” (which is just tortured enough to be amazing). Jen, who has never had a whole lot of female friends, really earnestly wants to make it work with Joey and finally asks, “Is there any way to keep Dawson from coming between us?” Joey tells her, “Sure. He’s only in love with one of us.” That gets a pitch-perfect smile and nod from Michelle Williams, and it sends Joey up the ladder to wait for Dawson to return from his epic journey to Providence. (I guess they had to wait all night for a bus? Again, even with elevated traffic, you’d get from Providence to the Cape in less than three hours.) Joey wants to hear all about his adventure, but Dawson falls asleep before he can get anything out. In the most perfectly delivery in an episode full of such moments, Joey says, “I’ll wait.” “Road Trip” is a nearly-flawless hour of teen television: Not only does it tell a compelling self-contained story, but it also advances the main overarching Dawson/Joey plot. The closing moment pushed the two of them slightly closer together, though looking back now it seems like they probably should have teased their coupling a little while longer. Still, for the first time on this rewatch, I got excited about what comes next.
- In addition to all the Savage Garden on this episode, we also get a loud cue for Days of the New’s “Touch, Peel & Stand,” which was a post-grunge dirge featuring a guy who looked like Chris Cornell and sounded like Layne Staley.
In another music note, Jen has a Filter poster in her bedroom. In my mind, she loved the track they did with the Crystal Method for the Spawn soundtrack.
When Billy first talks Dawson into heading out of town, he’s sitting on the hood of his car eating an apple with a knife like he’s in a film strip about juvenile delinquency.
Joey’s manipulation of Abby is so, so brilliant in this episode, and it makes me look forward to the bond that Abby and Jen will form in the second season.
Dawson’s Kubrick-loving coed conquest Nina is played by Melissa McBride, better known today as Carol on The Walking Dead.
I know I said that the revelation about Warren’s limpness was a little harsh, but he’s a villain right until the end: In a last-ditch effort, he tries to convince Joey that since everybody thinks they had sex that they should just go ahead and fuck, which is a truly insane pitch from a sociopath.
Next time, Dawson goes back to being a monster when he takes a girl to a fair out of spite!