The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: The Dance
My wife and I have been obsessing over Moonlighting, the hit dramedy from the ‘80s that launched the career of Bruce Willis. With a redesigned office and some deconstruction of Cybil Shepherd’s hair, Moonlighting would absolutely fit into the modern television landscape and would still be mildly ahead of its time today even though it went off the air in 1989. The writing, particularly dealing with the relationship between Willis’ David Addison and Shepherd’s Maddie Hayes, crackles with throwback energy while still allowing for an evolved look at what was then a modern dynamic both professionally and romantically. And its fourth-wall breaking meta-commentary should be irritating but it ends up being thrilling. I think the only reason why Moonlighting isn’t in the conversation more in 2019 is because it’s sort of hard to see: It doesn’t stream anywhere (music clearances would make that exceptionally difficult) and the DVDs that were produced at the turn of the century are long out of print and quite expensive on the secondary market.
Moonlighting broke a lot of ground, though not all of it was positive. When the history of television is written, Moonlighting often gets brought up as a prime example of a show that was built on a will they/won’t they relationship that completely collapsed once the two characters finally got together. When creators build that type of dynamic into a show (and do it well), it creates a particular brand of tension in the audience: they want the people dancing around one another to actually get together, but secretly they like being denied the thing they think they want week after week. That’s why so many shows become aimless and confused once it finally unites star-crossed lovers. The spark that kept Maddie and David apart was extinguished once they settled into an actual relationship, and when that energy exited so did the audience. The thrill of the chase ends, and there’s little left to titillate fans. It happened to Moonlighting, it happened to Friends, and it happened to Dawson’s Creek.
One of the reasons the first season of Dawson’s Creek works so well is because it is built primarily around one narrative thrust: Joey Potter’s changing feelings for her longtime friend Dawson. The final few episodes of the season, along with the season finale, create a satisfying ending because it ends with Dawson finally waking up and embracing Joey as a lover and not a friend. Though it was shot before any episodes of the show ever aired, that closing shot of the two of them in Dawson’s bedroom acted as fan service, correctly predicting that the devotees of the show would be well lathered by the time that moment happened.
But what do you do for an encore? Dawson’s Creek never figured that out, and this episode—which finds Dawson and Joey breaking up—feels like the writers raising the white flag. There have been plenty of stories that have slipped in to pick up the slack—namely the budding romance between Pacey and Andie, as well as the continued devolution of Broken Jen—but the first quarter of the second season of Dawson’s Creek found its two primary characters lost at sea. Joey’s hesitation about getting what she wants is believable but muddled, and Dawson’s boyfriend philosophy is generally inexplicable (which is accurate to teenage boys but doesn’t make for great TV). There was a flatness to their entire relationship together, as though they were making decisions simply because the script told them to.
That flatness extends to their actual break-up, which unfolds over the course of “The Dance.” Even the event itself feels like a punt—for a show that has done a great deal to zig where other teen shows tend to zag, setting the end of Dawson and Joey’s romantic entanglement feels zaggy as hell. The set-up is charming enough: We open with our two main couples in Dawson’s bedroom, watching Footloose while Andie spasms wildly. She cannot understand why Dawson, Pacey and Joey are so disengaged with high school (they brag about never attending football games, pep rallies or dances, even though they all go to a dance in the first season), but she manages to convince everybody that a school dance can operate as effective foreplay. Why else would John Lithgow want to stop Kevin Bacon from gyrating in public?
At school, Joey remains skittish about the fact that she kissed Jack, and though her instincts tell her she should come clean to Dawson, Bessie discourages honesty because what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. A clunky bit of exposition will get our entire cast to this dance: Joey feels bad for Jen because her grandfather died (which seems like it happened several presidential terms ago) and Andie wants Jack to get out more, so they all devise a plan to get Jack and Jen together. Going forward, Jack and Jen’s platonic bond would end up being one of the more endearing relationships on the show, but at this moment it’s just a clunky bit of scene-setting that doesn’t get a proper payoff.
Things go south fast once the dance kicks off. While Pacey weirdly pines over cheerleader Christy (a returning Ali Larter), Dawson finds out about the Joey/Jack kiss, and Jack digs in because he thinks Dawson is a tool (which he is one hundred percent correct about, but still). It escalates, and Dawson just flails, first punching Jack and then cursing out Joey for letting the kiss happen. (Way to victim blame, Dawson!)
They all scatter, and while Pacey makes up with Andie for dancing with Christy (and clutching her hair most creepily), Dawson finds Joey back in his room, and they have what ends up being a pretty evolved conversation about their feelings—one that doesn’t fit at all with the previous five episodes of sturm und drang. Joey explains to Dawson that she feels like she is ultimately going to end up with him but doesn’t like the idea of settling down so young. “You’re what I’m going to want, Dawson,” she tells him, which is as honest an assessment of her own feelings as it gets. Of course, from Dawson’s perspective, he’s completely getting the shaft, and he’s not entirely wrong either. Joey is essentially telling him that all he really has to offer her is comfort, devotion and stability, and she’s looking for danger and the opportunity to make some mistakes that she’ll learn from. (Around the same time, I was broken up with for similar reasons, and a few years later I would use the very same justification to break up with my high school girlfriend before I left for college. It’s useful!) Joey exits upset but confident in her own emotional state, and Dawson freaks out the way he was always going to freak out: by throwing a bunch of stuff around his room and kicking down the ladder that Joey uses for access. It’s another way that I relate to Dawson (I threw a tantrum like this recently), which is also another remind that we both suck.
And thus ends a rather inert relationship, one that disappointed fans as much as the possibility of Dawson and Joey getting together thrilled them. The narrative surrounding their romantic entanglement is certainly a failure, though it ultimately proved to be better for the show, as the next few episodes find the cast boldly reconfigured and invested in infinitely more compelling story lines. And it begins next time with “The All Nighter,” one of my favorite episodes of all time.
“The Dance” premiered on November 11, 1998. It was written by Jon Harmon Feldman (his final script for the show after writing some of the most memorable entries from season one) and directed by Lou Antonio (a knockaround guy with a ton of credits).
Dawson’s parents take the first step of their separation, and it’s hilarious. Mitch moves into a cheap motel, Gail covers her ADR crying by chopping onions (and later eats a whole pint of ice cream alone like she’s in a Lifetime movie), then Mitch just drives back to the house and watches Gail like a goddamn creep. The Leery men really take their surname seriously.
The costume choices for the dance are all seriously perfect: Dawson wears a suit that is generally too baggy (like a kid playing dress-up), Pacey wears a sport coat with a butterfly collar (which was on trend but is still ridiculous), Jen dons a lacy black cocktail thing that is probably too nice for the occasion but is perfect because Michelle Williams pulls it off, and Joey shows up in every semi-formal dress you ever saw a high school girl wear in 1998. (I think I took a girl to a dance in that exact dress in that era.)
Because it’s a dance, there’s a ton of music in this episode, and the lines between the original needle drops and the replaced music don’t make a whole lot of sense. Most of the tunes played at the dance itself feel like replacements, so there’s a lot of anonymous sounding dance pop replacing what I believe were tracks by Savage Garden and Garbage (all spun on the DJ’s vinyl rig, which seems like it wouldn’t have been very useful in ’98), but elsewhere in the episode we get a high-profile tune from a then-emerging Jessica Simpson as well as the appearance of Sixpence None the Richer’s immortal “Kiss Me.”
Ali Larter does a nice job as the secretly insecure Christy. She would later team up with James Van Der Beek in the movie Varsity Blues.
It’s probably been there since the beginning, but I just noticed that Dawson has a bumper sticker for the New England Revolution, one of the ten charter teams when Major League Soccer formed in 1994. So I guess our boy loves futbol?
The little moment at the end of the episode that finds Jack and Jen both deciding they enjoyed themselves despite the fact that the evening (and their set-up) was a total disaster is a nice little bit of foreshadowing for their relationship down the line.
Seriously, the next episode is pretty inconsequential plot-wise but also rules.