The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: The All-Nighter
I know I’ve been hard on Dawson Leery, but throughout the first 19 episodes of the show bearing his name he has proven himself to be a petty and manipulative narcissist. Those qualities have been on particularly powerful display in the past few episodes as his relationship with Joey has slowly disintegrated, ending in their break-up in “The Dance.” In real life, I would never wish a break-up on anyone, but in the case of Dawson, getting dumped was the best thing that ever happened to him.
It didn’t necessarily make him a better person—he still does a healthy amount of pouting over the course of “The All-Nighter,” which is one of my favorite episodes of Dawson’s Creek for reasons we’ll discuss in a bit—but Dawson does do a little more useful self-reflection and self-flagellation here. It’s not the healthiest way for an actual human being to live his life, but it’s a good alternate angle into a character who might have gotten stale otherwise.
The set-up for “The All-Nighter” is straight out of the teen sitcom playbook: The crew has a big mid-term coming up in their English class, an ordeal lorded over by the loathsome Mr. Peterson who seems to be actively rooting for his students’ failure. (Perhaps I had a particularly rosy public school education, but I never encountered teachers like this and assume they are primarily a construction of lazy screenwriters.) Everybody reacts how they are supposed to react: Uptight Andie and scholarship-minded Joey both fret about the test, slacker Pacey is just trying to skate by, and Dawson and Jen are both too wrapped up in their respective romantic entanglements to notice. When the planned study session is canceled, rich classmate Chris Wolfe (Jason Behr, making his first appearance in a series of recurring spots in this season before he launched Roswell) suggests to Jen that the session be moved to his house, and though he does this as a way to get Jen alone to bang her, he says that Andie and Pacey can tag along to keep everything on the up and up. Andie recruits Joey, insisting that it will not be an excuse to goof off but rather a proper Andie-run educational experience, and Pacey recruits Dawson because Chris has a satellite dish (which was still something of an unusual and decadent commodity in the fall of 1998). That puts all of our core cast (with the exception of Jack) in one place for a mini field trip.
Shenanigans ensue, with Chris getting down to the business of bedding Jen, Pacey watching old The Three Stooges shorts dubbed in Polish (why would anybody want this?) and Dawson and Joey trying to avoid one another while sitting in the same room. Dawson and Andie both get upset at the answers their respective counterparts give on a “purity test” they all take from the pages of Jane, Dawson has a weird series of conversations with Chris’ little sister Dina, and Chris and Jen spend a bunch of time negotiating a hot tub before they do actually have sex. By the end, fences are more or less mended, the gang comes together to actually study, they all jump in Chris’ pool and the mid-term is postponed (leading to a strange mid-day nap in the middle of the football field at Capeside High).
So why is this generally run-of-the-mill episode one of my favorite hours of this show? There are a few reasons. First, it’s a breakthrough endeavor for the aforementioned Dawson, who starts to hint at some depth that would be further explored in subsequent episodes (the Dawson of the back half of season two, particularly when he gets back together with Joey, is probably my favorite of the high school years). He opens up the episode with a monologue about tragedy, delivered to his mother now that Joey is out of the picture. It’s a tad over-dramatic in a very WB way, but it points directly to Dawson’s flailing. For once, he’s not in control of the situation or his own emotions, and like many a teenage boy, he has no idea how to process getting dumped. It’s a piece of realism that is nicely integrated into the more heightened soapiness of the show.
That flailing also needs to another breakthrough for Dawson. Although he has always prided himself on his analytical side (particularly when discussing Spielberg movies), Dawson has rarely turned that focus inward. But Joey showing him the door has unlocked a new series of doubts and fears in Dawson, and over the course of “The All-Nighter” he displays a brand of self-loathing that I related to very much. Later in the episode, Dawson clues in Jen on Chris’ carnal intentions. Jen, never the innocent bystander, tells Dawson, “Why do you assume I don’t have a plan of my own?” A previous version of Dawson might have stayed on his high horse in that situation, barking at Jen because he is the more noble person in this scenario. But the dumped version of Dawson gets angry and disappointed at himself for overstepping with Jen and assuming too much based on gender stereotypes. It’s subtle, but it’s the kind of internal emotional navigation you can only get when you’re this deep into a series’ run.
In addition to the Dawson-related revelations, I also love “The All-Nighter” because it’s the rare episode that keeps the core of the cast together in one place (it’s kind of a bottle episode for the bulk of it), and the full-group energy at this point is a real revelation. Each of the actors has a clear take on his or her character, and each of their interactions feels lived in and expresses all of the backstory we’ve seen so far as well as the unseen moments before we met everybody and in between when the cameras roll. Though the big plot shift happened in the prior episode, these follow-up episodes are the ones that are truly difficult to pull off. Re-establishing the universe of the show after a major shift like a break-up can be difficult, and the organic way in which those relationships are navigated is really impressive (even if the actual wheel-grinding of the study session premise feels particularly contrived and convoluted). Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the first Dawson’s writing credit for Greg Berlanti, who now produces a slew of TV shows that often deal with characters trying to navigate the fallout of major catastrophes (his scripts tend to involve supervillains rather than simple break-ups, but the same underlying sentiment is there).
But mostly, I love “The All-Nighter” because it operates like a hangout episode, and all of my favorite hours of Dawson’s Creek (and indeed, most of my favorite hours of TV) are less interested in plot and more concerned with creating a world I’d like to spend time in once a week. (The other episode that often comes up when I discuss my favorite Dawson’s Creek episodes is the season four finale “Coda,” which is essentially a comedown from the graduation episode the week before. It’s a lot of wandering around and I love it.) That’s why Mad Men and the later seasons of The Sopranos are so re-watchable for me: I just kind of like luxuriating in the realities the writers and performers have created. “The All-Nighter” confidently basks in that, while also feeling like the rainbow bridge to a whole new series of dimensions for Dawson, for the show, and for teen TV writ large. It’s a gateway to the next chapter of Dawson’s Creek, and I find it endlessly re-watchable.
“The All-Nighter” was the aforementioned Greg Berlanti’s first byline for Dawson’s Creek, and he would go on to write a bunch of really excellent eps along the way, including “Sex, She Wrote” and the stellar two-parter that leads to Jack coming out of the closet.
The episode was directed by David Semel, who was a real WB standby in that era. He helmed a handful of Dawson’s eps, as well as hours for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Roswell, 7th Heaven and Angel. His most recent credits include Star Trek: Discovery, The Man in the High Castle and Goliath. He has one incredible moment in this episode: When Jen and Chris are drinking and flirting in the hot tub, the camera shifts to Dawson creepily watching them as Joey looms in the background reading. It’s an incredibly-composed shot that is loaded with story and relationships and also feels kind of arty at the same time.
None of the women in this episode are all that great with pep talks: When Gail is trying to cheer up her son in the cold open, she tells Dawson, “Every inch of pain that touches you makes you a more real individual,” which is some real Nietzsche shit. Later, when Joey is talking Dina down from having been rejected by Dawson, she tells her, “Growing up sucks, and not all kisses are magic and most boys do not live up to your expectations,” which is exactly what a pre-teen girl wants to hear to lift her spirits.
The music cues in this episode are pretty brutal, though I am endlessly shocked that with all of the replacement tracks brought into the streaming and DVD versions of this show, somehow they managed to preserve Barenaked Ladies’ “Who Needs Sleep?” as the soundtrack to the studying montage (and later to their football field nap). “Who Needs Sleep?” came from BNL’s 1998 album Stunt, which yielded their first and only Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper in “One Week.”
This is deeply personal, but the biggest musical bummer in the whole series occurs in this episode. When “The All-Nighter” originally aired on November 18, 1998, the song that played underneath the communal pool jump was Save Ferris’ “Nobody But Me” (their 1997 album It Means Everything was still making tracks thanks to their cover of “Come On Eileen”). On the streaming and DVD versions, that sweet bouncy ska song is replaced by a dingy piece of rap rock called “2 Kool 4 Skool” by a band called the Salads. It sucks. Hard. In fact, whenever Dawson’s Creek arrives on a new platform (as it recently did on Amazon Prime Video), I always check that pool scene to see if the Save Ferris song has been restored (and thus the rest of the music in the series). I never have any such luck.
The whole Dawson and Dina thing is a little creepy.
I have always been impressed with James Van Der Beek’s full forward flip into the pool.
Next time, Dawson continues to messily evolve and the Joey-Jack romance heats up in the slightly clunky “The Reluctant Hero.”