“High Risk Behavior” (season 2, episode 10; originally aired 1/13/1999) and “Sex, She Wrote” (season 2, episode 11; originally aired 1/20/1999)
Another day, another entirely new dynamic on Dawson’s Creek. Jen, who a month ago was drunkenly hooking up with some sailor and a month before that was head over heels for Dawson and a month before that was the self-possessed new girl in town, is now running Dawson’s movie like a model business student. Shy Jack’s posing naked for a safe-for-work drawing that’s supposed to help Little Joey Potter get comfortable around boy-parts. Abby, who publicly insulted Chris just one episode ago, is now so close to him as to be his co-conspirator. And in the span of an act break she goes from refusing to audition for Dawson’s movie to being nearly off-book. It’d be one thing if this discontinuity had some discernible purpose. For instance, I don’t believe that every teacher at Capeside has as much disdain for the students as they seem to, but I do believe it might feel that way to Dawson. Besides, it’s hilarious when an English teacher barely conceals his irritation with Dawson and calls Joey and Abby by their birth-certificate names. But this selective continuity exists purely to tell stories that wouldn’t naturally occur. Surely Abby and Chris aren’t the only people at Capeside hovering around the Leery gang. Whatever happened to Scott Foley?
At least all this contrivance sets up a two-parter with its fair share of highlights. “High Risk Behavior” pairs everyone off and waits for them to have sex, and “Sex, She Wrote” reveals that two of the couples couldn’t stick the landing. There’s a metaphor in there: “High Risk Behavior” may be mired in Dawson’s Creek, which is to say it’s stuck belaboring how Dawson’s afraid of sex between montages of establishing shots, but it’s swimming in inspired moments. Like the opening scene, where instead of watching a movie, Dawson and Pacey are performing one, a romance, and the show plays it straight, so to speak, like it’s dipping its toes in the water. The camera pushes in on Andie through a pharmacy aisle, sneaking up on her like Pacey. And the church bells peal as Joey tells Dawson she’s growing up. There’s a playful momentum to the episode, partly thanks to the camera movement, whirling around the yard as Dawson and Jen pre-cast or flying overhead as Jack melts into the crowd. But the energy also comes from the narrative construction. In between Jack saying sex is scary and Joey asking the logical follow-up, there’s a whole montage of the other couples moving closer. Like playing with a Newton’s cradle, the writers literally pause one subplot and its energy transfers through the others and back again.
But “Sex, She Wrote” might be the least fun episode about sex in television history. “High Risk Behavior” is full of angst and chivalry, too, but it also has Andie’s dream date and Jack posing naked and Dawson rewriting his own history. The morning after, on the other hand, is all awkward conversations and moody arguments. Pacey won’t even talk to Andie, and he somehow doesn’t realize that sends the wrong message. Dawson and Joey are totally hung up on each other even as they pursue other people. And Abby’s stirring the pot for her English project, because that makes sense. The episode is a classic whodunit complete with perfectly timed thunder crashes, except it replaces the thrill of the mystery with a bunch of people who like each other acting like they don’t.
It’s interesting how the six main characters pair off sexually. Pacey and Jen have some experience. Joey and Dawson are deathly afraid of sex. And Jack and Andie are in between, open to sex without being all that experienced yet. But only Andie and Pacey go through with it. Meanwhile, the scaredy cats are both apparently willing to lose their virginity. Unfortunately, Jack can’t get it up unless he’s talking about Edvard Munch, and Jen, in her infinite wisdom, knows better than Dawson what he wants. In fact, both of the experienced kids pull that condescending card on their partners, although Pacey gets the best of both worlds: He has sex with Andie and then tells her that she should wait a while before a reprise. Indeed, if these little power games are part of the relationship now, then postponing physical intimacy might be best.
Dawson’s Creek used to know how to temper its hero’s romanticism, but lately it seems like the show has surrendered entirely. Sex isn’t just a big deal. It’s everything. For Jack, it encompasses all of art history. For Joey, it requires the right person. For Pacey, it’s the most life-changing experience he’s ever had, and this is after he slept with his teacher. Dawson and Joey are each happy the other didn’t sleep with someone else; that would sully the purity of their romantic spirit quest. Even city girl Jen, the writers’ favorite tramp, knows that having sex with the guy she wants to have sex with would be wrong because deep down he doesn’t really want to or something. Speaking of Tamara, what happened to the show that threw caution to the wind and treated statutory rape like any other swooning infatuation? Suddenly it seems like having sex with someone other than your One True Love could turn you into Abby Morgan. It’s almost irresponsible to offer such grave, one-sided advice. Irresponsibility can be great for television, but it’s counterintuitive for after-school special moments like, say, a two-part episode about losing your virginity.
And after all that sturm und drang, Abby opts for summer school over humiliating her non-friends. It’s such a confounding moment that it feels like more discontinuity. But it’s not. It’s another piece in another long game that the writers are playing, slowly threading it through the year. Abby doesn’t audition for Dawson’s movie because she hates his group of friends. She’s reaching out in her own damaged way. Now she’s atoning. She doesn’t have to say the words “I’m sorry,” and she doesn’t have to openly acknowledge what she’s doing, but she’s lonely, and for some reason Jen and the gang don’t hate her enough to avoid her. Falling on her sword feels like more pat after-school nonsense, but with the benefit of a doubt it’s a telling step in a story that is far from moralistic.
- Meta overload this week: Dawson thinks the edgy choice is not to have sex, and then, like magic, he doesn’t. If waiting for your one true love isn’t edgy, I don’t know what is. Also, Pacey’s criticism of Dawson’s script is seriously grating, faux self-deprecation on the part of the writers. “I guess if I had a flaw it’d be that I’m too smart sometimes.” Gag me.
- I love that Dawson’s first two scenes in “High Risk Behavior” are about people telling him he’s too ascetic. In case it isn’t clear where this episode is going.
- Only Pacey would try to be charming with the line, “The results of Pacey Witter’s HIV test.”
- Really, the scene between Dawson and Joey in the yard is just lovely. Dawson asks about the model, “Does he, like, talk or anything?” “Oh, yeah, he sings, tells jokes, does a little soft-shoe.” It’s Joey’s typical kneejerk sarcasm, but it’s not defensive anymore. It’s softer, purely in it for the humor.
- Jack examining Joey’s nude drawing: “Everything seems to be in proportion.”
- “This is a nude man, Jack. I can’t just recall it from thin air.” 1999 was a simpler time, but, as I recall, not that simple.
- Jason Behr earns his paycheck with that flamboyant bow after his audition. Great button.
- It’s not necessarily discontinuity, but when Jen asks what Dawson liked about her (when he like-liked her), he includes skinny dipping. Maybe it’s a confession?
- Jack says, “Art is about a world of uncertainty, and that makes it scary.” This whole two-parter shoots for the Guinness World Record in teenagers punching above their weight.
- Worst drawing yet? And, on the subject of sexual disappointment, it bears repeating that Jack didn’t have to be naked for that drawing. The audience doesn’t need to see Joey’s assignment, so showing a drawing that could have been accomplished with the use of briefs pointlessly contradicts the narrative.
- More Pacey advice on sex. “When you’re really ready, you’ll know.” “This thing is too important” for Pacey to call it sex, apparently.
- I loved the bookend shots of Joey and Dawson outside the main entrance to the school, framed between pillars against the red brick.
- Two striking shots in throwaway montages: the low-angle shot from a boat pulling into shore and the time-lapse sequence of storm clouds just after Abby says, “The plot thickens.”
- The whodunit should have been more fun, but it just doesn’t make sense. Why would Jen, for instance, stay in the room? Why would anyone? At least it leads to that great scene of Jack and Jen trading confessions. I love the image of the desks in a circle with pointy legs sticking out and Jen and Jack at the top mirroring each other. “Those things never cooperate” is the most compassionate approach to sex of the week.
- Honestly I thought I was reaching like crazy when I saw the pattern in early season one of episodes ending by people watching something they shouldn’t. But voyeurism has proven itself to be a sturdy theme. “I like the way you see me.” That tears it. Joey likes how Dawson writes her in his movie. The watching is all about the camera.
- Next week: The boys go fishing with their fathers while the girls have a day with Gail in “Uncharted Waters,” and Dawson starts shooting his movie in “His Leading Lady.”