The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: Sex, She Wrote
It is perfectly absurd that human beings have to begin to learn how to navigate complicated relationships and feelings exactly at the time they are the most unable to process most anything at all. I’m not a child psychologist or anything, but it does strike me that teen romance is a necessary evil: At what other time in your life can you learn something about yourself emotionally, romantically, and sexually and have the stakes be so low? Not that teen pregnancy isn’t a thing, but in general I found my 16-year-old experiences with girlfriends educational if only so I knew what not to do down the line.
But just because these relationships inherently hold less real world weight doesn’t make their emotional gut punches any less devastating, and that’s one thing “Sex, She Wrote” really nails. The whole whodunit with Abby and the note is a good gimmick that makes for great TV, but the centerpiece of this episode (coming quite near the halfway point in Dawson’s Creek’s second season) is the conversation between Dawson and Joey at the very end. They have spent the bulk of the previous 40 minutes suspecting or assuming the other had sex with someone else (and because of their previous intimacy, they’re both acutely aware that such an act would represent the end of someone’s virginity), and both James Van Der Beek and Katie Holmes wear the vague nausea and dull ache of such a revelation expertly. The idea that Joey would let Dawson think that she had sex with Jack initially struck me as off base, but on this re-watch I realized that she was doing it as a defense mechanism—recognizing the hurt she felt when she thought Dawson and Jen slept together, she knew Dawson would feel the same sort of vague betrayal and led him astray if only to keep them on even emotional playing fields.
The twist is that neither of them had sex (that was Pacey and Andie, which shocked me when I first saw this episode back in ’99 but now seems obvious if only because the show lays on the idea that they abstained so thick that it’s clear a reversal is coming a half hour later), and they feel so relieved that they resolve to work at becoming friends again. They both went through the mildest of traumas—thinking an untrue thing was true for no more than a day—but it’s the type of emotional battery that tends to manifest in extreme ways with the right combination of context and hormones. It also successfully closes the book on the “Dawson and Joey are estranged” section of our story, which led to some pretty good episodes (notably “The All-Nighter”) but was also putting a strain on the storytelling. As I have come to realize on this re-watch, this show works much better when our crew is together and operating and full-ish capacity. (One of the reasons why people were so turned off at the top of season five is because everybody is so splintered; once the show finds contrivances to get everybody together it actually works much better and the back half of that year is really solid, but we’ll address that down the line—at this rate, around the same time my currently unborn son turns 14.) Reuniting the title character with his primary romantic foil might not make a ton of emotional sense if these people were real, but it does make for better television, as the back half of season two will bear out.
I know I have sung her praises before in this space, but let’s continue to celebrate Abby Morgan, played with poison-tongued vapidity by Monica Keena. In “Sex, She Wrote,” she assumes the mantle of Hercule Poirot (or, to tie it in with the title of the episode, of Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher) when she picks up a note after her English class that reveals that two people in said class recently had sex. Through process of elimination, she narrows down the potential field to our six main protagonists and proceeds to draw them out in a final Murder on the Orient Express-esque showdown where everybody comes clean. It’s a well-executed sequence, and the whole thing is caught on tape by Abby’s oft-recruited partner-in-crime Chris (who has been promised the opportunity to “touch [her] in bad places” if he goes along with her plan). But in the end, she shrinks at the idea of submitting her investigation as an actual English assignment and keeps Pacey and Andie’s sex a secret for the time being. It’s a little frustrating, if only because Abby has been such a caricature of a mean girl that I wish they had just leaned into it completely. Giving Abby a little bit of character redemption at the end of the episode feels like a bit of a cheat—not because her actions don’t deserve it, but because she would serve the show better if she were entirely diabolical (and besides, I’m pretty sure this incident of mercy is completely forgotten down the line anyway).
“Sex, She Wrote” is a very fine episode of Dawson’s Creek, and not just for its concentrated narrative (there’s no real b-plot here—we don’t see Dawson’s parents at all which is really refreshing) but also because it knows how to slip in those little nods to teenage heaviness that make the show feel just a little more real and resonant. Those moments clarify exactly what attracted me to this show in the first place, and they act as a healthy reminder of just how internally complicated being 16 can be.
This episode was written by Mike White and Greg Berlanti, which might be why it’s one of the sharper scripts in the history of Dawson’s Creek. White, of course, would go on to make movies like School of Rock and Chuck & Buck and create the HBO series Enlightened; meanwhile, Berlanti now produces roughly 72% of all television.
The original broadcast of this episode featured two excellent musical selections: Shooter’s “Life’s a Bitch” (a bit of faux pop-punk that ended up on the first Dawson’s Creek soundtrack) and New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” (one of the best one-hit wonders of all time and probably one of the ten best tunes of the ‘90s).
I didn’t talk about it at all, but the post-coital tension between Pacey and Andie stems from Pacey freaking out over the fact that he got an A on a history quiz (something he’s never done before) and realizing that Andie is making him a better person and fearing losing her would cost him everything. It’s not the strongest moment in the Andie and Pacey arc, and seems like the type of petty psychological nonsense that is more likely to infect Dawson, not the more mentally resilient Pacey.
The entire plot of this episode is set in motion by a handwritten note, a relic that is probably lost on kids in 2019 (because I assume they just text or DM or whatever). When I was in high school, notes were a thing, and having one slipped into my locker was a relatively common occurrence in middle and high school. I used to be flattered, even though most of them were written by friends of whoever was my current girlfriend about what a bad boyfriend I was being (I probably didn’t offer her my grapes in the lunch room or quote the right Smashing Pumpkins song or something).
Also there’s a pivotal sequence that takes place at the Capeside High Book Fair. I assume book fairs are still a thing? Also said book fair features a poster promoting reading that says “There’s more to life than must-see TV,” which is a reference to the catch-phrase that NBC used when they were the dominant network.
Jack and Jen have a nice heart-to-heart that foreshadows their deeper relationship down the line (when they eventually become housemates). Jack also notes that one of the many reasons he and Joey didn’t have sex was because he couldn’t get it up.
At one point, Chris refers to Abby as “Nancy Drew from Hell”; twenty years later, the network that descended from the WB premiered a Nancy Drew series (produced, of course, by Greg Berlanti).