The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: The Election
One thing I’m realizing during this particular re-watch of Dawson’s Creek is that this show really struggled to balance out its multiple plots within episodes. Generally speaking, most hours of Creek have two concurrent plots, often dividing the core characters into pairs for one reason or another. One of those stories always centers around Dawson while the other generally revolves around Joey (unless their story is the same, in which case Pacey tends to get elevated to that other position). Even when everybody is in the same place at the same time (like in “The All-Nighter”), there are still dividing lines and factions and divergent stories. Sometimes all of those plots will be satisfying, and sometimes one will totally eclipse the other.
This is a problem with most television, by the way. The bulk of your most popular serialized TV shows tend to have gigantic casts, and most creators are compelled to give everybody something to do within each individual episode, even if it bogs down the central narrative or distracts from more important plots. The best shows are able to balance the personalities and get you invested seven, nine, or a dozen characters deep, and the most elite of those shows tend to cheat (see the way that Pete Campbell or Roger Sterling would fundamentally vanish from Mad Men for hours at a time). The worst thing that can happen in this scenario is for a show to jump from a story you’re enjoying to one you don’t care about, which tends to lead to channel changing or nodding off for me.
Dawson’s Creek doesn’t commit that sin too often—at this point in the second season, the core characters (or at least the high school characters—Mitch and Gail can go piss up a rope) have been so well established that all their plots remain engaging. So it isn’t that Andie’s recruitment of Joey to run for class president (with an assist from Pacey) is a bad plot, but it is treated as the primary thrust of the hour while Jen’s teenage rebellion training of Dawson gets second place when it’s actually a perfect concept for an episode of TV.
Let’s get the election stuff out of the way first, because I’m just not that compelled by it. Because she’s a Type A lunatic, Andie really wants to run for sophomore class president at Capeside High even though she’s still relatively new to the student body and only seems to talk to like four people. Her master plan is to recruit Joey to be her running mate, even though Joey A) Does not want to participate in student government and B) Rightfully points out her status as a pariah in Capeside thanks to her convict father. Andie convinces Joey to do it because the script demands it, and it leads them down an unpleasant path that involves a series of public humiliations for Andie at the hands of opponents Chris and Abby. The latter is particularly savage: She repeatedly invokes Andie’s troubled family history publicly in speeches, including the accusation that Andie’s mom is responsible for her brother Tim’s death. All of this is too much for Andie, whose façade continues to chip away on the road to another proper breakdown (and a return to a steady diet of Xanax). It gives Pacey a few opportunities to wear the white hat (and to quote from James Carville’s book about the Bill Clinton campaign), but it’s primarily a table-setting tale for Andie and her eventual reckoning with her own mental health.
(It’s at this time I’d like to point out that the presentation of the class election in this episode seems remarkably insane. It’s possible I’m normalizing my own experience, but I don’t really recall anybody outside of the actual contenders truly giving a shit about student government when I was in high school at the end of the ‘90s. Yet here Capeside High’s sophomore class is pulled into multiple assemblies to hear speeches and debate topics. Later, the entire school is presented with closing speeches over the intercom system. And Abby Morgan is constantly given a microphone even though she repeatedly abuses that privilege. None of this reads as accurate to me. I know we had a class president but I couldn’t tell you who it was or if I even voted. I do know that in my junior year we had an executive committee that existed separate from student government, and we were in charge of planning the prom and organizing a bunch of other class activities. I was assigned to this group, and we wielded real power! I guess I’m part of the problem. Anyway, back to the show.)
Meanwhile, in a more interesting wing of Capeside High, Jen is trying to get Dawson to act like an actual 15-year-old boy and not an overly analytical thirtysomething neurotic. The episode opens with Jen reading Dawson’s new script, the one he intends to produce with the money he won from the Boston Film Festival, and she is not particularly impressed. He has weighed down the story of his and Joey’s relationship with a lot signature over-analysis, and Jen rightfully points out that the characters in the script don’t seem to act like actual teens—the demographic he’s theoretically writing for. She declares his take on teendom “naïve,” and she says the script is missing some of the raw darkness and dramatic angst that actually accompanies most teenage relationships. She proposes a simple and very TV-friendly solution: Why doesn’t she, an expert in teenage rebellion who was first sent to Capeside because she was caught drunkenly having sex on her parents’ bed, teach Dawson the ways of the average teen? It’ll be like The Karate Kid, except instead of learning the crane kick Dawson will just skinny dip by the end of the episode.
He’s initially resistant to Jen’s schooling, putting down the idea of cutting class and shoplifting. But the more time they spend together, Jen eventually gets Dawson to open up enough to TP a teacher’s house and strip down to his birthday suit for a romp in a lake. Because Dawson can’t read people at all, he kisses Jen during this, and she very calmly declares that she is happy with the current state of their friendship and would prefer to keep it non-physical (a declaration she’ll completely reverse in the next episode, but we’ll get to that later). There are a lot of inconsistencies in the way Dawson and Jen’s relationship has shaken out since their initial season one break-up, but I have always really enjoyed their dynamic, and some of their interpersonal moves in the later seasons really shine in an understated way. For now, we just have the two of them sitting on Jen’s kitchen floor, holding a despondent Dawson (who just found out his parents are formally getting a divorce) while Heather Nova’s awesome “Heart and Shoulder” swells on the soundtrack, and right now that’s enough. If that scene could be elected president, register me for whatever party is necessary.
As mentioned, Dawson’s parents are actually getting a divorce, despite the fact that he walked in on the two of them having sex earlier in the episode. I still find it very hard to care about Mitch and Gail’s relationship, and I think it’s because we met them when they were already broken (Dawson talks about Gail’s potential infidelity in the very first episode of this show), so we don’t really know what we’re rooting for. It’s especially tough because Dawson’s reactions are always pitched for maximum juvenilia.
Speaking of which, Jen diagnoses Dawson later on in the episode when she says his constant over-analysis makes him too mature for his age. Perhaps this is just the 2019 version of me speaking, but doesn’t it seem like the opposite is true? I found that constant interior fretting extended my adolescence, and it was only when I figured out how to act that my adulthood kicked in. But to each their own, I guess.
The aforementioned Heather Nova banger “Heart and Shoulder” represents a rare original broadcast song that made the transition to the DVD and streaming versions of Dawson’s Creek. It’s always refreshing when that happens, partially because it allows me to indulge in some musical nostalgia but it also lets the scenes play out more organically without the distraction of an obviously poorly-mixed replacement tracks muddying up the drama.
Of course, there’s a killer music cue that’s missing in this episode: When Dawson and Jen are skinny dipping, the original soundtrack cut was Garbage’s exquisite “You Look So Fine,” one of the 10 sexiest songs of the ‘90s.
By the way, in that skinny dipping scene, it looks like James Van Der Beek is really whipping water pretty hard into Michelle Williams’ face. You’re just supposed to be playfully splashing, dude!
While the whole election storyline was kind of a waste for me, I did really like Meredith Monroe’s performances in the breakdown scenes. Sure, they’re soapy, but she’s able to wring years worth of real pathos out of that crying jag in the ladies room. Later, when she’s in a rocking chair staring out the window, she looks downright psychotic, which also sort of works.
Jack is kind of on the outskirts of this episode, trying to help out Andie and dancing around the idea of courting Joey. When he comes clean to Joey about his family life at the end of the episode, he says “It’s like my whole life is one big secret,” which is MAJOR FORESHADOWING.
Next week, the first part of a two-part cliffhanger that involves some really adroit storytelling and one of our couples having sex.