The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: The Reluctant Hero
When Dawson’s Creek first premiered in January 1998, countless articles were written about the somewhat elevated language of the show’s teen protagonists. They were obsessed with self-analysis and casually tossed around dimestore SAT words that certainly felt out of place among their TV brethren, though not necessarily in actual high schools. That angle was used as criticism and praise in equal measure, but what it really drives home is creator Kevin Williamson’s general love of language.
Of course he loves words—he is, after all, a writer by trade. But we’ve all seen enough bad movies and middling television to know that not everybody who works with language actually has an affection for it. It’s that love of language—and the internal possibilities contained within, outside of the confines of normal teen drama plotting—that made the best moments of Dawson’s Creek essential. And even this tepid episode, which I ended with a note that simply read “BAD,” has enough indulgence in prose to keep it from being a total waste.
The episode is called “The Reluctant Hero,” and it poses a question that lies at the heart of the current crop of CW mask and cape shows: What makes a hero? Is it Pacey’s low-key empathy, Dawson’s swashbuckling romanticism, some combination of the two or a third thing the show doesn’t bother to introduce? There’s actually not much dichotomy in the two friends’ approaches, but the show sets them up as opposed entities in the cold open as Pacey chastises Dawson for idolizing Jimmy Stewart’s clear-eyed do-gooder in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Dawson, forever an idiot, says he believes that Smith’s brand of gallantry is not only possible but should be expected (both from our elected officials and from each other). But what he’s really wishing in this scene is for life in general to be more cinematic—not just because exciting and interesting things will happen, but because movies (particularly the Spielberg-helmed ones that Dawson adores) have a sense of order and righteousness that real life lacks.
I’m hard on Dawson because I recognize so much of my own psychological hang-ups in his character. I find myself perpetually asking the universe that things be settled, and I’m always convincing myself that if I just get past the next project, the next show, the next big event, then everything will be fine and things will finally be settled. But that relief never comes, and I am perpetually disappointed just like Dawson. The difference is that he is a fictional teenage boy and I am a grown man with a wife and a mortgage.
It isn’t so much that Pacey has a different plan of attack when it comes to being a hero, he just thinks Dawson’s approach is naïve. But later in the episode, Pacey is the one who operates in the most Stewart-esque manner when he reaches deep into his well of empathy to ease Andie’s mother out of an embarrassing situation. She’s mentally ill and getting worse, and she ends up in her housecoat wandering the aisles of a market and generally terrifying people. Honestly, it seems like the other denizens of Capeside are blowing everything out of proportion, though the market owner does note that this keeps happening (though what “this” is pretty vague). Rather than treat Mrs. McPhee as a patient or a problem, Pacey treats her like a human being and recognizes her underlying want to help out. He asks for a sandwich, and she obliges, which calms her down and gives everybody an out to leave the store. It’s a remarkably human moment that further codifies Pacey as the most righteous member of the Creek cast. Jimmy Stewart—or at least his idealized fictional variation—would be proud.
That’s not to say that Dawson’s approach doesn’t have merit as well, though his rescue of Jen is a bit more heavy-handed. During that same cold open, Pacey tells Dawson that he has a habit of taking in “stray dogs,” and that he is drawn to hopeless cases in an effort to save them. As if on cue, Jen makes her way into Dawson’s bedroom via Joey’s ladder and collapses on the bed in a drunken heap. This has apparently been happening on a regular basis (Dawson has a protocol set up for when she barfs), and it’s an extension of Jen’s continued relationship with Chris. Dawson is more than happy to help but, in his very Dawson way, also delivers a healthy dose of side-eye. “Don’t judge me, Dawson,” Jen tells him after he rolls his eyes at the idea that he accompany her to another kegger. “Just because I’m finally enjoying myself don’t act like I’ve been lost to the other side.”
Dawson does judge her, though that doesn’t stop him from tagging along at the party so that he sulk soberly and then swoop in to pull his Superman routine at the right time. A better episode would have found Dawson saving Jen from a totally banal situation and casting him as an overbearing narcissist with a savior complex, but instead Jen gets way too hammered and gets taken upstairs by a dude named Todd so he and Chris can double-team her. Dawson literally carries her out of the party and they argue about their mutual unhappiness, a revelation that is interrupted by Jen vomiting all over a white picket fence (a deeply ironic image she immediately comments on). Dawson tells her how special she is, but Jen’s self-esteem is completely obliterated. “If you weren’t so special, you wouldn’t be so miserable,” Dawson notes.
In the end, both Dawson and Pacey end up being pretty heroic, though Pacey is slightly less self-conscious about it. The big problem with Dawson and his approach is that a lot of his instincts are fundamentally good, and he recognizes what it takes to live a moral and ethical life (like when he gives Joey half of his prize money for winning the junior division at the Boston Film Festival for Sea Creature From the Deep). But he also expects the people around him to recognize and reward him for such actions, and when he doesn’t he pouts like a child. Pacey acts out of good-natured instinct and does not expect anything in return, which makes him a far more ethically sound human being than his best friend. The show doesn’t do a great job of driving that point home, but that’s the dichotomy at play here, and it’s a lot more subtle than a lot of teen shows.
While that internal conversation about the nature of goodness is interesting, this is a real nothingburger of an episode. Pacey’s grades are in the toilet (again), Dawson is mad at his dad for having complicated feelings about his marriage (again), and Joey and Jack continue to dance around the idea of a relationship (again). There’s some table-setting, like the suggestion that Andie may be on her way to a breakdown herself and that Dawson may also be due for a dramatic change, but ultimately “The Reluctant Hero” is a mostly dull meditation on heroism and little more.
Or, as I wrote in my notes, “BAD.”
When did Dawson get a Needful Things poster in his room? We’ve seen him break from the Spielberg tradition in the past (mostly nodding to other stuff Kevin Williamson worked on), but Needful Things is a 1993 adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. It’s not particularly memorable and doesn’t seem like the sort of thing Dawson would be into, so I’m at a loss.
On the streaming and DVD versions of this episode, the closing montage features a song preserved from the original broadcast: Goo Goo Dolls’ “Acoustic #3,” which came from their 1998 album Dizzy Up the Girl (that’s the same album that had “Slide” and “Iris”). It’s lovely.
In the background of one of the high school scenes, I caught a glimpse of one of those old READ posters that used to fill up the walls of school libraries (the one in this episode featured Shaquille O’Neal). Do those things still exist? I don’t spend any time in school libraries so I have no idea.
Having won money to make another movie, Dawson asks Joey if she’ll produce with him again. She declines, and Dawson is strangely cool with it (I mean, he doesn’t immediately throw a tantrum, which feels like progress). Jen steps into the role of producer for Dawson’s next movie, which will be based on his relationship with Joey, star Rachel Leigh Cook, and be terrible.