“A Perfect Wedding” (season 2, episode 18; originally aired 4/28/1999) and “Abby Morgan, Rest In Peace” (season 2, episode 19; originally aired 5/5/1999)
It's a happy accident that Dawson's Creek gets a handle on Abby Morgan just in time to leave a lasting impression. Jen goes through so many phases in a school year that not even Jesse Pinkman buys the timing, but Abby’s been more subtly inconsistent. Is she the harmless, bored wannabe of “Detention”? The Machiavellian misanthrope of “The Election”? The self-pitying loner of “Uncharted Waters”? They’re different sides of the same two-headed coin, but they never quite add up. Until Mike White’s final two scripts for the series, that is.
On his way to meaner pastures, White finally set fire to Capeside. The two big constraints of network drama, especially such a buzzy show as Dawson’s Creek, are that characters can’t be too terrible and plots can’t be too crazy. A writer can play with his toys, but he has to put them back where he found them. And then Jack comes out. Ever since, the season has been a growing snowball. So in these White-scripted episodes, the world’s most predictable frill convention takes place while a teenage girl gets drunk, knocks her head on a pier, and falls to her death in the ocean. And it’s barely tragedy: The editing even suggests the wedding is more important than Jen’s rescue attempt. What's more, the funeral of this depressed teenager concludes with the happy moral that the great equalizer doesn’t automatically wash away the stench. Jesus.
Obviously White isn’t solely responsible for the plotting. But it’s no accident that his name is on the scripts that resolve Abby into a unified person instead of a collection of antics and a final-act whine. White’s first script for Freaks And Geeks, “Kim Kelly Is My Friend,” takes this teenage girl who has been nothing but awful toward heroine Lindsay and finds the bundle of insecurities underneath. The core of his current series Enlightened is that his obnoxious protagonist exists in a quantum state, constantly alternating between self-knowledge and self-deception. So it’s no surprise that “Abby Morgan, Rest In Peace” sees Abby as a genuinely complicated human being at last. White understands that Abby is a lonely depressive crying for help, but he also knows that Abby had a day job as a smiley sociopath. In a way, Abby is made whole by composite photography from each of the regulars: Jen sees a Holden Caulfield type gone awry, Pacey sees a warlord, Andie sees a necessary Other. They’re blind men with a gargoyle, but together, they pretty much nail it. Abby Morgan was a monstrous hell-bride. She had her virtues (well, virtue) and she had her reasons, and her death is only sympathetic in the way that all such accidents are. The person won’t be missed. And that’s the real tragedy.
The desperate plotting doesn’t stop with a young girl’s death. Abby’s ghost appears to Andie, so strap in. It makes a sort of teen-soap sense, considering that Abby’s malice is what prompted Andie’s last episode. And it’s foreshadowed by this great beyond-the-grave appearance by Abby as Dawson tries to re-edit his film. In the tense silence of a showdown with Rachel Leigh Cook’s character’s character, Abby suddenly breaks and looks right into the camera. “I’m sorry. She has food in her teeth,” Abby laughs for the last time.
In other high-stakes gambles, Grams evicts Jen, because Jen thought Abby’s eulogy would be a good time to wrestle with theodicy, or rather to play dead for it. Jen also has a drunken riff on “Imagine” that builds to the diary punchline, “The only truth that I know is pain!” And all of this started because, one morning out of the blue, Jen 14.0 decided that nobody accepts her, telling Abby, “When I think back on the best times that I’ve had this year, I’ve had them with you.” [Footage not found.] That’s the downside of the gang’s slow integration: Jen can half-plausibly whine that she doesn’t have friends, and all those scenes with Ty and Grams in the past few episodes corroborate her story. Luckily, after about an hour of Dawson’s Creek straining to recreate the sparks of Joey’s midnight jail visit, Abby’s death finally builds to something real: Jen apologizes to Andie after the funeral, says she blames herself, and regrets her eulogy. Andie resorts to her trusty rationalization mantra, and both walk away feeling a little better about the authenticity of their reactions to Abby’s death. It’s not how I made friends in high school, but whatever works.
Joey’s father is on his best behavior for May Sweeps, so Joey compensates with a serious freak-out about his return. It’s great that Joey’s cathartic jail visit doesn’t magically heal all wounds, but this whole story is a bad Xerox. The meaningful piano is even more desperate than the plotting, and it’s getting difficult to remember when Katie Holmes had that live-wire energy. Dawson’s Creek just really, really wants Joey’s reunion with her father to wrench hearts, and the only thing more forced is Andie’s faux aversion to weddings. True to Jen’s eulogy, Abby puts the lie to that mess in her farewell scene. She’s sitting on the docks, bundled up for warmth, the camera looking her in the eye against a melancholy midnight blue. She passes the bottle to Jen, looks down for a beat, and says, “I don’t think I’ll ever be happy.” As Monica Keena plays it, it’s a matter of fact. There’s no insistent ivory. Just the sound of ships’ bells, waves crashing, crickets in the distance: The real world. And a young girl lost in depression.
- I know Capeside is the continental daddy-issues capital, but it’s getting comical that the only term for “dad” on this show is “father.”
- Pacey and Andie are still adorable. “Too sentimental for you? The girl that just yesterday was brought to tears by a Nike commercial?”
- Joey always talks about Jack like she’s in a comic book and has to exposit his superpowers. “I ran into Jack, and with his typically intuitive insight, he was able to calm me down.” He of the super-sensitivity later bestows soul-mate status on Dawson and Joey. Who saw that coming?!
- The subplot about Dawson failing to talk down the bride with cold feet is a long way to walk for a great joke: Dawson opens her door to let Jack try, but she’s gone. And then we hear a flush.
- Seriously, the wedding could not be a bigger waste of time, and cutting back to the bubbly denouement after Jen jumps into the water is in the running for television’s most callous editing choices of all time. Andie’s just pretending to hate weddings? To be cute? Jack just stands there being the gay best friend, but not too gay, right? Joey dances with Dawson, thanks him, loves him, kisses him, keeps kissing him? Um, hate to break up the party, but a girl is drowning! Nobody cares about the state of Dawson’s love life right now.
- Jen’s grieving and young, but she is way up on that horse for most of “Abby Morgan, Rest In Peace.” “Leave it to Abby. Even in death she’s still exposing hypocrisy.” Sorry, but that isn’t what Abby was doing with her life.
- The other kids are more confused. They all laugh nervously about how weird Abby’s death is. Jack was her last kiss. She’s the star of Dawson’s movie. Andie may be the only person in history to have seen Abby’s vulnerable side. Pacey’s the only one who’s completely unsympathetic. “She was a hideous abomination, and the world is better off without her.”
- Gail’s moving to Philly, because her piece on Girls Today won an award and earned her a correspondent position. In case you weren’t sure if romanticism was still steering this ship.
- Mrs. Morgan is the real heart-breaker here, especially in her appeals to Andie. “She talked a lot about you.” Obviously there’s a fair amount of projection that I’m bringing to this tertiary character’s few lines—specifically The O.C.’s Julie Cooper asking Ryan to tell her about Marissa—but the look on her face when nobody wants to speak in Abby’s memory is overwhelming.
- Next week: Mr. Leery messes up Dawson’s plans in “Reunited” and Mr. Potter and Mr. McPhee mess up everyone else’s in “Ch… Ch… Changes.”