The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: Decisions
There’s a moment in the truly exceptional season one finale of Dawson’s Creek that not only galvanizes the arguments for Katie Holmes’ performance as Joey and the writing of Kevin Williamson (as well as credited co-writers Dana Baratta and Mike White) but also poignantly sums up everything I loved about this show back when it first arrived in early 1998. After a tumultuous series of events that we’ll get into in a minute, Joey is finally able to talk to her incarcerated father on his birthday, and she says a line that is so ungodly emo it transcends language and Jawbreaker simultaneously. After asking her father if he truly loves her, she tells him, “I’m 15 years old, and I go through every day of my life thinking that nobody loves me.”
That line is fucking magical, and for a multitude of reasons. First, it crystalizes Joey’s entire internal life and gives credence to her drive to drop everything and flee to Paris for an ill-defined summer trip that would leave Dawson and the rest of the Creek gang behind. Joey is, above all things, alone: Her mother is dead, her father is behind bars, her sister has already started a family of her own and her best friend remains at a distance because of unrequited romantic feelings (and she rebuffs the olive branches of her only potential female friend because of said romantic feelings). Of course she would assume that her potential for love—particularly in the Podunk town of Capeside—would be more or less impossible, particularly for someone her age. So that line speaks to Joey’s entire character biography, but it’s also painfully universal, at least to a particular type of cerebral kid. What 15-year-old over-achiever didn’t believe he or she was alone in the universe at that age, and would indeed remain that way for eternity? It’s entirely possible that the Internet and social media has eroded those types of sentiments (after all, we are never truly alone anymore), but though the technology and the hair styles change, it seems as though teenage alienation remains universal (now there are just more emojis).
I can’t remember whether I responded directly to Joey’s sentiment when I first watched this hour of television as an actual teenager, but 19 years later I realize that it’s the cornerstone to understanding Joey, the show as a whole, and my own personal inner life at that time. Among other things, Dawson’s Creek is about the struggle to turn potential into accomplishment, be it in academics or filmmaking or parental relationships or matters of the teenage heart. Most every character on this show, teens and adults alike, is inside his or her head on something or other, and the drama that unfolds primarily surrounds the various risks involved in seeing those ideas or feelings through to their completion. The moments when the characters emerge from their shells provide some of the most satisfying catharsis on TV, like when Pacey got up the nerve to ask out Joey or when Joey fully committed to the beauty pageant. Even Dawson, whose newfound boldness since the season premiere has resulted in his breaking his pal’s nose and exploiting an innocent classmate for a revenge plot, has figured out that action trumps stasis.
Dawson makes one final bold move in the closing moments of “Decisions,” which finds him grappling with the idea of Joey disappearing for the summer and at long last coming to the realization that he is in fact in love with his old pal Joey. Because he’s Dawson, he doesn’t get there very easily—in fact, it takes Joey’s dad to tease out everything Dawson loves about her (and in the end, it’s Mike Potter who plays matchmaker when he reveals to Joey that Dawson loves her after she says that nobody does). They end the season as they opened the series: In Dawson’s room, going over the nature of their admittedly complicated lifelong relationship. Joey remains reticent and says she initially came over to cut ties with him completely before she jets off to France, but Dawson is finally ready. The scene leading up to the kiss has lost a bit of its romance through the years: Dawson comes across as a little whiny, and it’s pretty clear that Joey has evolved past pining for her best friend and longs for opportunities beyond that goal. It’s also mildly shitty that Dawson essentially puts the kibosh on her Paris trip, though that plot point was so ill-defined that I’m sort of fine with Joey throwing it away as casually as it initially arrived. But despite all that, the final moment where they kiss over the swelling tones of Chantal Kreviazuk’s “Say Goodnight, Not Goodbye” as the camera pulls away to reveal the silhouette of the two of them in Dawson’s window is beyond priceless.
In fact, that one image is so indelible that it makes up for a lot of missteps in the previous 40 minutes. The bumpy road to get Joey and her father together begins with Dawson accompanying her to the prison only to find that they’ve missed visiting hours and have to spend the night in a motel. Nothing really happens in the overnight scene, and whatever tension might have been created is nullified by the fact that we’ve seen these two characters share a bed countless times before (in fact, it’s the very first scene of the entire series). Though it does lead to Dawson’s confession to Joey’s father, the whole sequence seems rather pointless.
However, it does lead to a great moment between Joey and Pacey that finds the latter coaching the former into resolving her feelings with her father. The two of them bond over their fraught relationships with their parents, and Pacey relays a story about striking out in a little league game that reveals another level of darkness when it comes to the Witter clan. It touches on yet another thing Pacey and Joey have in common, and it inspires Joey to return to the prison to have a proper confrontation with her jailbird parent. The fact that Pacey comes along for that second trip (and even bribes the prison guard so Joey can talk to her dad!) is one of the many pieces of evidence that the two of them probably should have been together a lot sooner than the show made them that way. (As an aside: The fact that the producers had no intentions of putting the two of them together until they decided they should kiss in the third season is astonishing to me, mostly because there are so many bits of foundation established for their love affair so early on.)
Meanwhile, Jen remains rudderless, and as good as Katie Holmes is as the richly constructed Joey, Michelle Williams remains completely wasted as the broadly drawn Jen. She’ll have a lot more to do in this series beginning right away in season two, but at the moment she vacillates between fretting over her grandfather (who both wakes up and dies in this episode, and who I totally forgot existed until he shows up at the top of this episode) and throwing herself back at Dawson (which makes no real sense). She demands that she spend the night in Dawson’s room like Joey does, and Dawson reticently agrees. Does Joey find the two of them in bed, creating another deeply unnecessary roadblock to the inevitable kiss at the end of the show? Yeah, of course that happens. The only benefit to Jen’s arc in this finale is that it sets up Second Season Jen, who is an amazing creation who gets an intense makeover, shoplifts, casually bangs around, drinks heavily and hangs out with Abby Morgan. Second Season Jen rules, and it’s a retroactive bummer that Williams had to stay in a holding pattern for an entire season before she actually got to show some acting chops.
So here we are at the end of season one: Joey and Dawson are finally together, Jen is broken in a hundred different ways, and Pacey continues to exist. (He’ll also instantly get more interesting in the second season with the introduction of Andie McPhee and also the arrival of his frosted tips.) The first 13 hours of Dawson’s Creek are spottier than I remember them, but the overall arc—the love triangle between Dawson, Joey and Jen—remains remarkably satisfying and surprisingly nuanced for a late ‘90s teen soap. I still love it for what it is and also for how it made me feel when I was 16, and isn’t that the ideal state for any piece of nostalgia?
The opening conversation in Dawson’s bedroom is about TV reruns (a concept that no longer really exists) and the nature of cliffhanger episodes (which are still here but have a very different meaning in the binge/streaming culture). It’s exceptionally meta but executed in a way that keeps it on the right side of clever.
When Grams’ husband wakes up, she’s telling him about Jen and Dawson. All it took for him to come out of his coma was a ridiculous story about two teenagers who weren’t even boning.
Every piece of clothing in this episode is perfect. At this point, Dawson’s Creek had become a trendy show, though the style they were putting forth was basically “the J. Crew catalog.” I owned Dawson’s blue sweater and Pacey’s baggy-ass rugby shirt, and that too-large sweater vest that Joey is swimming in was worn by multiple objects of my high school affection.
I still don’t understand the geography of Capeside and its surroundings. It apparently took Dawson and Joey four hours to get to the prison via bus, but it seems like it took Joey and Pacey significantly shorter to get there? Did that bus make a million stops? Also, there’s a scene that suggests that a boat was involved in the journey. Does that mean that Capeside is actually an island? Or is it faster to ferry from the northern side of Cape Cod to the southern side? (It is not.) These are things I get hung up on as I age. I’m the worst.
When did Dawson’s Misery poster sneak onto the walls of his room? His Spielberg theme made sense at the top of the show, and a bunch of Kevin Williamson posters arrived mid-season, but I’m having a hard time making a connection to Misery. Maybe it’s a Williamson favorite? It does seem like the kind of story the Dawson character would be into, as the protagonist literally has to write to live.
The last scene between Joey and her dad (played by Gareth Williams) is really masterfully done and features both exceptional writing and performances by both actors. I’ll admit that it made me cry in ’98 and got me sort of choked up this time around too.
A great series of soundtrack songs in this episode: In addition to “Say Goodnight Not Goodbye,” there’s also an appearance by Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” and the third act kicks off with Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be,” which is a song that definitely became a minor hit because of its placement on the show. That introduces a double-edged sword for season two: The song selections get much more plentiful and involved because labels realized Dawson’s Creek could move the needle on sales, but almost none of those songs survive because the rights weren’t cleared for home video. I’ll try not to complain about that too much as we move through the rest of the series, but there are a handful of big music moments that are forever altered by that.
This episode picks up right where the previous one left off, and the same is true of the next episode: Season two opens right at the moment after Dawson and Joey kiss in his bedroom. Season two is a continuation of their sophomore year in high school, but every season hereafter ends with a school year wrapping up.