The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: Beauty Contest
It cannot be understated how important the footage of Katie Holmes singing a song from Les Miserables on network TV was for me in May of 1998. At that point in my life as a high school sophomore, only two things really mattered to me: Music theater and this show. There was definitely a point during this era wherein Les Miz was my favorite musical of all time, though I’m not sure if Joey’s performance of “On My Own” triggered that adoration or merely reinforced it. There was something strangely validating about a network TV show—one that had the most buzz of anything airing that spring—spending a full two minutes just allowing an actress to sing a song from a musical. (Years later, this became less remarkable, and also became the entire premise of Glee.) Kids who are as possessive of their obsessions as I was tend to take a little bit of pride whenever something of “theirs” makes a splash in the mainstream, like when a band you love suddenly ends up on the radio. Chuck Klosterman tells a story about how he kept the newspaper clipping that announced the death of Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle Dingley in 1984 simply because he had never seen the name of his favorite band Motley Crue in that context before. Joey singing “On My Own” had the same effect on my friends in the drama club and beyond. Our logic was that if this cool show thought Les Miz was cool, then that must mean we’re super cool too.
Our ownership over the musical was ridiculous, of course, as it was a hugely successful international sensation that had been steadily selling out theaters everywhere for well over a decade. But even then, it would not have deterred our collective excitement over the penultimate episode of Dawson’s Creek’s inaugural season, not only because it tossed a bone to some theater nerds, but also because it set up what felt like the most significant question on television in ’98: Will Dawson and Joey finally get together?
I always remember the tension between the two of them building more gradually in the first season, but really it only has three episodes to truly ratchet up to the finale. “Beauty Contest” is the most significant step in that process, one that actually delivers a false resolution towards the end that only makes the eventual finale hit harder. The bulk of the action centers around the Miss Windjammer competition, the last big local event before the tourists disappear from what is clearly becoming a much chillier Capeside. Our core four balk at the very idea of it, though Jen notes that her mother entered her in Lil Miss pageants as a child (because of course she did). However, the $5,000 prize appeals to both Joey (so she can put it toward college in her never-ending quest to get out of Capeside) and Pacey (who needs cash because he wants to emancipate himself from his parents and move into an apartment, and also to troll his dad). The Pacey stuff is an amusing sideshow, but this 44 minutes is hyper-focused on the three-way dance between Joey, Dawson and Jen, the latter of whom offers to coach Joey through the rigors of beauty contests. Jen’s logic is initially admirable: She admits to Joey that she’s never had a whole lot of female friends (because of course she hasn’t) and has been attempting to make inroads with Joey for the bulk of the semester. Joey has been gradually letting her guard down, and though I’m aware that it is terrible for the sake of the dramatic storytelling on television, I kind of loved the two of them getting along. Joey and Jen are very different characters from their hair and height on down, but they offer such great counterpoints to one another. In Joey, Jen sees the type of integrity that she strives for now that her underage drugs and sex lifestyle is behind her. Meanwhile, Joey silently acknowledges that Jen has experience and perspective and has seen a version of the world outside of podunk Capeside. She’d never admit it, but Joey knows that Jen could provide her some useful information about the world beyond backwater Massachusetts. It’s a bond that would benefit both of them, and yet the specter of Dawson has so far driven a wedge between them. But in the rare times they have come together on Dawson’s Creek, as they did to get back at rumor-mongering Warren in “Road Trip,” its made for some pretty awesome tag-teaming between Williams and Holmes.
With their two heads together, Joey turns herself into a pretty formidable pageant contestant who gives strong answers to questions, wears a pretty nice evening gown, and puts together the aforementioned performance of “On My Own.” All the while, Joey is able to put forth a series of fundamental philosophical ideas that would define her throughout the show’s six seasons: When Dawson asks about her future in the pre-interview, she talks about wanting to travel and discover new things and embrace change, and later during the actual competition she talks about maintaining pride and character when confronted with small minds (she finishes that monologue with the line “Don’t ever sell out,” which is pretty punk rock for Joey). It’s ironic that it took a beauty pageant for Joey to be able to present who she truly is, and now that she’s been able to present herself, Dawson can’t help but share his newfound revelations—first to Pacey, then to Joey herself. “I’ve known you forever, but it feels like I’m seeing you for the first time tonight,” Dawson tells her on the docks during his awkward attempt to ask Joey for more. But she delays the climax one more episode, telling Dawson that she doesn’t want him to see her like this just because of the pageant; rather, she wants Dawson to see her like that all the time, and to have arrived as his conclusion without the spectacle of Miss Windjammer. It’s an emotionally honest and mildly devastating exchange, and both Holmes and Van Der Beek are aces in that scene.
It should be noted that Joey did not win Miss Windjammer (that prize went to Julliard-attending Peace Corps-joining Roberta Crump, which inspired my friend Casey to ask a most compelling question the next morning in front of our high school lockers: “Who the fuck is Roberta Crump?”), but neither did Pacey, who nevertheless managed to win over the bulk of the pageant crowd with his grandstanding and his recitation of a variation on the famous William Wallace monologue from Braveheart. Throughout the episode, Pacey went toe-to-toe with a foil named Hannah who goes to boarding school and is the favorite to take home the tiara. When they both come up empty, they have a great exchange after the show talking about how they are both the outcast in their respective families. It’s a sweet, sharp scene, and it actually foreshadows a lot of the dynamic and themes that Pacey and Andie would explore in the second season.
And then there’s poor old Jen, who is about to be kicked around a bunch. She managed to turn Joey into a swan, and in doing so may have pushed Dawson too far in her direction. At some point she realized she still liked Dawson (a development that does sort of come out of nowhere), but when she asks him for a second chance at episode’s end, Dawson lets her down. He says he’s got some things to figure out first, and all of those revelations will be coming to their logical and thrilling conclusion next time around.
- As an elitist music theater nerd, I definitely remember declaring Katie Holmes' rendition of "On My Own" to be "too pop" in '98, but she really avails herself rather nicely (though things get a little pitchy on "pretending," dawg). In 2017, I mostly can't believe they just let a character sing a song for two straight minutes in prime time. Nobody would have the patience for that now.
- Joey twice refers to how irredeemably tall she is in this episode. The Internet says Katie Holmes is 5’9”, which is slightly above average but would make her tower over 5’3” Michelle Williams.
- Dawson declares he finds Drew Barrymore hot, which has to be another nod to Scream, right?
- When they first meet, Hannah calls Pacey a “pre-op transsexual.” That’s certainly not a cool thing to say in 2017, and I’m fairly certain it wasn’t cool in 1998 either.
- Jen teaches Joey poise by making her walk around while balancing a book on her head, which is an image that I saw a lot in my youth as it was a hacky image used on a lot of sitcoms whenever a Jan Brady type was trying to score a date.
- The music department really outdoes itself in these last two episodes: There’s some legendary moments coming in the finale, but “Beauty Contest” boasts a killer cue from Amanda Marshall (her “Fall From Grace” soundtracks Pacey’s eveningwear entrance), Goldfinger (“Superman” scores a pageant montage) and Creek mainstay Chantal Kreviazuk (“Surrounded” accompanies the post-competition conversation between Dawson and Joey).
- Speaking of which: When people think about the great Dawson and Joey moments from the first season, their talk on the dock after Dawson gives Joey his jacket is one of the greats. When she gives him the jacket back after letting him down, it’s killer.
- Next week: Joey visits her dad, Dawson makes a decision, and Jen gets kicked around a whole lot more. Poor Jen.