“The Scare” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 5/5/1998)
Now that’s how you make a lame-duck episode. The kids make some nominal progress toward sorting out their romantic entanglements—and that light serialization justifies the production order that places “The Scare” before “Double Date,” which is the sequence on the DVDs, rather than the original airing order—but mostly “The Scare” is about giving Dawson’s Creek a structured environment to indulge in some harmless fantasy (and some potentially harmful reality) with a Scream-inspired episode set on Friday the 13th.
The mood of “The Scare” is sufficiently creepy even if self-consciousness ensures that Joey and Jen are never in any serious danger. In fact, recognizing Scott Foley’s phone voice and knowing the extremes to which Dawson will go with his haunted house makes it easier to get caught up in it. Horror movies are fun. There’s a certain amount of bloody-but-solid ground and certain inevitable, meaningless deaths—the rules as Scream or The Cabin In The Woods would call them. And that’s what makes it all the more creepy when Ursula tells her campfire story or when The Ladykiller asks Joey for directions. Those aren’t part of the plan.
The episode is a bubbling cauldron of unsettling and equally unrelated moments and scenes shot vividly by director Rodman Flender. When some guy approaches Joey, alone in the backseat of a car at a gas station, to ask for directions, she reaches to hold the front seat and the reflection of her arm on the window slithers across his neck. Later, Flender delivers a subjective shot of Dawson and Ursula from outside in the bushes, Black Christmas-style. “The Scare” is an episode all about the camera slowly pushing in on worrisome spaces, and the best shot of the hour is this early establishing shot of Jen’s house obscured by thick tree trunks and a muted palette, the camera pushing in as a ringing phone interrupts the peal of a piano.
And somehow, the scares mostly make sense. For instance, in the closest the episode gets to death by stabbing, Cliff nearly scares Jen into slashing Grams, but everyone survives, and the audience gets an exciting setpiece that perfectly fits the Scream formula. Every time Jen paces past the window I got tense, and then the Williamson Girl banter (“The Ten Commandments, long story”) set me back down. And the scene requires very little suspension of disbelief. Jen’s apparently less trusting than Joey, and she’s on edge because of the card in her locker and the killer at large. Meanwhile Cliff’s trying to out-Dawson Dawson to win Jen’s love, while Dawson fed Cliff the absolute worst intel with which to woo Jen. The motives make sense, nobody got hurt, and the scene was better than Scream 3.
In between all these frights, the kids pair off and get to the juicy stuff. Dawson and Jen are still navigating their post-romance relationship, but Cliff is making inroads with Jen (and Grams!) too. Better still, Ursula sorts out Dawson after knowing him for five minutes. And Pacey both flirts with Joey, consciously or not, and says out loud that she’s in love with Dawson, both examples of the show’s understated successes. By which I mean: First, Dawson’s Creek quietly realizes a world where people wrestle with their own relationships but clearly see those of others. Second, Dawson’s Creek simmers its long-term storylines beautifully in the background, the standout example being Pacey and Joey’s feelings toward each other, finally graduating from childhood cooties to something more adolescent.
- It’s Friday the 13th this weekend, because I definitely planned this. Definitely.
- I Know What You Did Last Summer bookends the episode. First, it’s the cold-open movie for Dawson and Joey, but at the end, the immortalized image of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s suspicion appears over Joey’s shoulder, just in time to let her know that the creepy moments aren’t over.
“Double Date” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 4/28/1998)
How many carnies is Dawson going to have to murder for people to stop treating Svengali Jr. like the apotheosis of the nice guy? Both Joey and Mary Beth say something along the lines of “current evidence to the contrary, you’re one of the good ones.” Sure. Ignoring every time he’s used other people for his own personal pleasure including the events of this episode, Dawson’s a real sweetheart. “Double Date” is impressive in many respects, including how it lets Dawson descend into the muck. He’s not an irredeemable villain. He’s a kid. So why all this equivocation about how Dawson shits rainbows? The dissonance between the writers’ dialogue and their plots only makes him look worse.
That said, I haven’t been as giddy at the end of an episode since the premiere. The direction is motivated! Joey and Pacey go snail-hunting! And Dawson gets called out by three different people, even if one of them is a confused Jen still in the middle of deprogramming. Mary Beth doesn’t care enough about Dawson and his group of friends to bang his head against a pole, and Jen’s silence in both “The Scare” and “Double Date” suggests she’s still under hypnosis. But Pacey isn’t joking at the end. He’s able to say what he says because Dawson’s his best friend, and he’s saying it for Dawson’s own good, and it’s not that loaded from Dawson’s perspective. But Pacey has spent the day kind of getting a crush on Joey and kissing her and getting laughed at, albeit in a friendly way. The camera pushes so close to his serious expression that his head is too big for the frame. Joshua Jackson’s hunched over a bit so his eyes are shadowed, and the collar on his dark fleece is up at attention. “Is it Jen or is it Joey? Do you like the blonde or do you like the brunette? These questions are not gonna go away, Dawson.” And, as the episode makes thoroughly clear, he’s not the only one affected by the answers.
What’s most striking about David Semel’s direction in “Double Date” is the portraiture, like he’s capturing these characters at frozen moments in time. During Mitch and Gail’s fight, they’re only in the same shot when they have to be, if you catch his drift. Mitch is framed over his newspaper, and Gail is framed through her enormous, curly cowl of hair. Hence that final-act shot of them hugging in the frame of the doorway, together again. In marine biology class, Pacey and Dawson are shot—separately, despite sitting next to each other—around the sides of their fish tank, a narrative metaphor for the animal kingdom of high school these horny teenagers find themselves in that also serves as an interesting excuse to fill the frame with moving colors (which is the glorious M.O. of the episode). Joey and Pacey get to coexist in the frame, nudge-nudge, although sometimes they’re shot through shark jaws: They row through the epitome of serenity (framed by silhouetted branches and dangling moss) and later trek through the cold reality (obscured by a mess of reeds), but are often connected. They get their individual portraits—Joey on the rowboat, Pacey looking through the rear-view window—but even in those scenes, they’re looking at each other, which is more than you can say for most of the other major pairings.
The carnival takes up the majority of the episode, and for good reason. Movies are nothing but dancing lights and colors, and the carnival serves as an evocative backdrop for the characters. Mary Beth removes Dawson from that vibrant world to call him out in a parking lot. Colorful balloons augment Jen’s surprise at having to ride the Ferris wheel with Dawson. They start out in a two-shot, but Jen won’t look at him. They’re suspended, and eventually all those blurry lights and Dawson’s unrivaled charisma lull Jen into some tacit admission of vague romantic guilt of her own—to wit, leading on Cliff while still semi-pining for Dawson. It’s gross, but it’s the tail-end of a scene where she won’t even look at the goofy-puppy hero, Dawson “One Of The Good Ones” Leery, and when it’s over, she isn’t exactly dying to get back together. And in Dawson’s defense, it’s understandable for him to be upset that Jen broke up with him because she needed space and she’s already going on dates (although it’s hard to know how long “already” is in this case). If only he held himself to the same standards.
“Double Date” keeps delivering the goods. Pacey and Dawson have this magical, almost bittersweet, slightly awkward conversation in front of a carousel about whether it’s okay for Pacey to kiss his best friend’s other best friend (all the while knowing that Dawson and Joey aren’t as platonic as they let on). Everything that can be oblique in their individual shots is for what’s probably the most expressionistic moment of Dawson’s adolescence so far, when the romantic yearnings of other people crash in on his own rainy-day dreams (the sort of dawning realization that other people exist known as “maturity”). He consents for a two-shot, then reneges in a one-, and you can feel Pacey’s sad, slow turn in your stomach. Almost immediately Dawson corrects himself and sends Pacey off, and David Semel closes on this wide-shot of Dawson standing still as the carousel races on behind him—La Ronde!—reminiscent of a time-lapse Scrubs sequence without the time-lapse. Which leads to the aforementioned scenes where Pacey kisses Joey and later throws Dawson’s imperative back in his face. “Double Date” takes its time deflating its folk hero, but the final act is an stunning torrent of cold water.
- Fantasization motif alert: Joey fantasizes about Jen starting to date again, mostly to tease Dawson but also to briefly escape to a world where he’s available.
- Another great portrait: That close-up of Pacey’s eyes over the negative space of the back of his mid-term, which he got a 32 on. And another: That close-up on Dawson when Mitch asks if there were any phone calls.
- When Dawson tells Joey he wishes he were taking her to the carnival, the Katie Holmes half-smile makes its grand reappearance! “All things considered, I kinda wish you were, too.”
- I love Mary Beth for the first sentence here alone. Dawson says, “It’s not what you think.” Mary Beth says, “Well before you tell me what I think, let me tell you. I think it’s pretty obvious you’re still hung up on her.” Also she thinks Scott Foley’s eyes smile when he talks. Go, Mary Beth.
- Did you pick up on how cold it is in Capeside? Because this is Massachusetts, not North Carolina. No way could anyone mistake this setting for North Carolina. No, siree, this is Massachusetts in the fall.
- Predictions for the future: Pacey says, “You don’t have to worry, Jo. You’re gonna make it out of here. You’re gonna go to some great school and send me postcards back here, where I’ll be tending bar or pumping gas.” Without spoiling, I loved that exchange.
- Movie Topic Of The Week: It’s inescapable. What’s your favorite scary movie? I have three standbys, but right now I’m leaning toward Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre for classics and Rob Zombie’s Halloween II for 21st century offerings. Those bad guys are basically real and unstoppable.
- Next week: Joey gives a YouTube-worthy performance at a “Beauty Contest,” and all the romantic angst comes to a head in the season finale, “Decisions.”