The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: High Risk Behavior
I sat for a long time trying to find a way into this episode that felt satisfying, either from a cultural context perspective or via a personal connection. Certainly there were options for both: this is the first official two-parter for Dawson’s Creek, although the end-of-episode cliffhanger is a little dramatically lame. And this is also an hour of TV I very vividly remember watching when it first aired: I was in a youth chorale that rehearsed on Wednesday nights, so I always had to record Dawson’s on VHS to then watch with my girlfriend and one of her friends on the weekends, but I dropped out of that chorale when 1998 became 1999, and though I was supposed to still wait for the weekends, I cheated and started watching the show live; this was the first episode since the pilot that I watched when it was actually broadcast.
But ultimately neither of those avenues felt all that satisfying, largely because this is a banger of an episode. Though it doesn’t operate as such because that’s not how TV worked in 1999, it is a hell of a Spring premiere (though in hindsight, the cliffhanger probably should have arrived before the holiday break so as to drive the teens crazy). I just really want to go through this thing blow by blow, so here we go.
We open with a pretty amusing bit of misdirection, as it appears Pacey and Dawson are confessing their love for one another and wondering aloud how their friendship will now manifest as a physical relationship. But just as it looks like Dawson is leaning in for a kiss, we see they are merely reading a scene from Dawson’s new (and terrible) movie script. (I’m not sure of the state of slash fiction on the Internet at the top of ’99, but there must have been people out there shipping Pacey and Dawson before anybody knew how to use the verb “to ship,” right?) Pacey is not quite as judgmental as Jen was last week, but he still finds fundamental flaws in Dawson’s approach to breaking down his teenage relationship with Joey. In a little blast of meta comedy, Pacey even invokes a common criticism about the show: “How many teenagers do you know who talk like that?”
Pacey says he found some very un-Dawsonish darkness in the script but takes DL to task for the project’s chastity. You see, Pacey thinks the two main characters (who we’re to understand are fictionalized versions of Dawson and Joey) should have sex, not only because it’d be logical for the way their relationship unfolds but also because tossing in a sex scene would make the movie more commercially viable. (Pacey’s not wrong: This episode aired at the height of the late ‘90s teen movie craze; in fact, both actors in this scene had big cinematic hits around the same time: the James Van Der Beek vehicle Varsity Blues opened the same week this episode aired, and two months later the world saw Joshua Jackson in the young adult Dangerous Liaisons rewrite Cruel Intentions.) Dawson says he’s actively being counter-intuitive, because having the characters have sex would be the safe Hollywood choice and he considers keeping them chaste the edgy alternative. He’s wrong, of course, and no one has the heart to tell him that the only reason he didn’t write a love scene into his script is because he’s a virgin who can’t drive (though he can row, I guess).
After the credits, we find Dawson and Jen at school trying to recruit people to audition for Dawson’s new movie. The audition montage we get later is pretty funny, but the idea of Dawson auditioning people at his high school really strains credulity. Capeside High is not that big a school, and while Dawson probably wouldn’t know everybody, he would at least know who the drama kids were (and would likely have brushed up against them as a guy who is theoretically still auditing a film class). Wouldn’t he just go to them directly? What are the odds a complete stranger to him is going to walk into that theater and actually wow him enough to get cast? I suppose it’s possible that Dawson is super-disconnected from the rest of the student body (he does only talk to like four people in his entire life), but this whole audition process seems like a waste of time.
Besides, both Dawson and Jen have vastly different visions on who should play the fake Dawson in his terrible new script. Jen pines for an Ethan Hawke type, a sort of unwashed cowboy pirate type of dude who is probably a mild delinquent but has an undeniable sex appeal. Dawson would prefer a milquetoast boy next door, all pluck and earnestness and dimples. He seems set in his ways, but his producer reminds him, “Sexy will always win out over nice.”
Meanwhile, a very weird scene unfolds wherein Pacey tells Andie that he got the results of his HIV test in, and luckily he’s negative. (Can you imagine if the producers decided in the midst of the twentieth ever episode of this teen drama that Pacey had contracted HIV from Tamara? That would have been ballsy, but also kind of pointless. Still, a wacky what if.) They dance around the idea of sex, with Pacey reminding her that he’s totally cool with waiting and Andie acting far hornier than we’ve ever seen her (and than her fresh dose of Xanax would probably allow).
The horniness continues with Joey, who we learn has been taking a life drawing class, and her sketch of a nude model is truly terrible (though I always liked that they couched Joey’s interest in art as a purely self-involved endeavor—they never presented her as a prodigy or anything, which is what a lesser show probably would have done). Dawson grills Joey about the presence of a nude man (and said nude man’s penis) in the room while Joey tries to draw, which is sort of jerkish of him. However, his approach to Joey’s drawing is far more reasonable than that of Jack, who comments on the shading and use of light and then spills chocolate milk all over it. Mortified, Jack comes up with a solution: What if he poses nude for Joey so she can re-do the assignment in time? It’s a proposal that says, “I would like to help rectify a problem I have caused, but I would also like to show you my penis.”
Meanwhile, Dawson and Jen weather a series of horrible auditions for Dawson’s movie. Some of the students trying out clearly cannot act, but also Dawson’s script is heavy-handed word salad and it’s no wonder nobody can get a complete sentence out while still sounding like a human being. Ironically it’s Chris who somehow wrings some meaning out of Dawson’s tortured prose, but then he does and sexually assaults Abby during their audition, which gets him dismissed even though we’re still two decades away from the Weinstein revelations. Chris does ask the same question Pacey had: Why don’t the two characters have sex? During their post-audition commiseration, Jen notes that she understands that the characters don’t do it because Dawson and Joey never did it, but Dawson deflects that once again by saying the script isn’t about him and Joey (which is such a weird denial, even for Dawson). She’s also bothered by the fact that she’s not in the script at all, even though she played a pretty major role in the drama that brought Dawson and Joey together (it’s called season one of Dawson’s Creek). Jen asks Dawson what he liked about her, and he gives her some sort of weird run-around about opening him up to stuff before telling her his script is “about romance, not sex,” to which Jen soundly and logically replies, “Who says sex can’t be romantic?” Which is something Dawson really should have come to on his own, don’t you think?
Meanwhile, Jack actually shows up at Joey’s house to pose nude for her life drawing class, but Joey can’t concentrate on her muddy charcoal un-masterpiece because she’s too busy grilling Jack about the first (and only) time he had sex (with his penis right there). Joey is uncomfortable with the human form and her own sexual urges but clearly gets off on the description of sex in the abstract (she’s probably really into erotic ASMR in 2019), so she forces Jack to try to put his sexual experience into words. He gives it a swing and tries to relate the whole scenario to art, but while I appreciate both lovemaking and the work of the impressionists, his likening the loss of his virginity to “the first time seeing Van Gogh’s Starry Night” doesn’t really track.
Still, even with Joey’s mildly intense pressure, Jack is still having the less creepy evening of the McPhee siblings. Earlier in the episode, Andie laid out her losing-her-virginity scenario to Pacey, which involved dinner at a French restaurant, a walk along the docks, and getting down at a bed & breakfast while Frank Sinatra plays on the stereo. Look, I’m not here to kink shame anybody, but that is the lamest sex fantasy I’ve ever heard. I know Andie is supposed to be a teenage virgin and doesn’t really understand the logistics of sex (or dates, really) but sex in a bed & breakfast is basically impossible (and more than a little uncomfortable). Plus: Sinatra? I totally believe Andie’s musical taste would be completely out of time, but nobody was talking about Frank in ’99 (though we were just coming out of a big lounge revival, so it’s entirely possible Andie decided that Swingers was her ultimate cultural touchstone in the same way a bunch of theater girls from my high school did when they took swing dancing lessons). Pacey sets up that very scenario for her, though notes at the end that he didn’t expect to bang as a conclusion. He mumbles something about fulfilling a fantasy without sex, but Andie freaks out because this whole thing is in fact creepy. (As I wrote in my notes: “Pacey pulls some Dawson shit.”)
That brings us to our final montage, which is really pretty masterful. When this episode originally aired, the song that dominated the final few minutes was Dave Matthews Band’s immortal “Lover Lay Down,” the song about fucking that teenage boys would learn to play on their acoustic guitars as an awkward means of seduction (until it was replaced by another DMB song). In the montage, we cut between our three couples: Pacey and Andie fumbling around the idea of having sex, Jack turning on the juice with Joey now that she’s seen his wang, and Dawson racking his brain over his script before he climbs into Jen’s bedroom window and interrupts his own monologue to make out with her. (Jen was asleep in flannel pajamas before Dawson invaded.) The whole thing ends with an unexpected TO BE CONTINUED, which sets up the cliffhanger we didn’t necessarily know was coming. “Who had sex?” became the minor “Who shot JR?” in the halls of my high school in January of ’99, and this episode—which 20 years later reads as just a ton of edging—set that up perfectly. “High Risk Behavior” is less good than I remember it, but I still was immediately overcome with anticipation for its follow-up (even though I know what the resolution is). That’s good TV.
In addition to “Lover Lay Down,” the original broadcast of “High Risk Behavior” featured bangers from Heather Nova (“Heart & Shoulder”), Swirl 360 (“Hey Now Now”), Chris Isaak (“Please”) and Sheryl Crow (“Anything But Down”). The music clearance budget on this episode alone would make a proper home video re-release basically impossible.
When Pacey and Andie are talking about sex early in the episode, Pacey refers to the dirty deed as “uninhibited scrumping” which was definitely the result of a writer trying to make a slang term happen. “Scrumping” caught on about as well as “fetch.”
There’s a weird scene early in the episode where Pacey intercepts Andie in a pharmacy where she is picking up her Xanax prescription. He doesn’t know she’s back on medication and plays it off as something she’s getting for her mother, though not before Pacey runs through a description of what the drug is and does. Were people still not that familiar with Xanax in ’99? I feel like it had fully entered the lexicon by then, even among teens.
Jack compares his posing for Joey to the famous “Draw me like one of your French girls” scene in Titanic (though with the genders swapped, obviously). That movie had come out over a year ago at the time of this episode’s airing but it was still very much in the zeitgeist: the double-tape home video was instantly one of the best selling releases of all time, and even by the fall of ’98 it was still kicking around a handful of theaters.
Not to get too into spoilers just in cast you’re watching for the first time, but we’re a month away from a major revelation about Jack. The writers had to have known where he was headed when this episode aired, and yet there’s not a single hint of what his secret is despite all of the rampant horniness in this hour.
Next week it’s “Sex, She Wrote,” which is an Abby Morgan-centered piece and is a confirmed banger.