“Uncharted Waters” and “His Leading Lady” (season 2, episode 12 and 13; originally aired 1/27/1999 and 2/3/1999)
“Uncharted Waters” and “His Leading Lady” have the same problem. They’re both nakedly designed so that the characters can explicitly declare their motivations at this point in the narrative. Someone must have been watching Bergman that week. But the episodes are stuck on the outside of the characters nonetheless. Even Dawson, whose personality so completely dominates the episodes that one of them is a painstaking recreation of his own life, is saying the words without evoking the feelings. It’s like high school Brecht.
The episodes are full of that give-and-take balance. The characters finally clarify what they’ve been thinking lately, but the confessions aren’t earned. “Uncharted Waters” splits the cast by gender and sends the guys out on location where they’re stuck together to interrogate their dynamic while the girls are on a more stagey set than ever and have no credible need to be in the same room. No wonder Pacey’s father-son talk is way more moving and insightful than the Joey-Jen truce. Why is Abby Morgan even at the Leerys’? It’s great to see just how self-aware she is in the end, but the writers couldn’t even supply the thinnest explanation for Abby spending an afternoon with people she hates for a timely, hard-hitting news story on “teenage girls as the new consumer phenomenon,” much less why Joey, Jen, or Andie would tolerate her.
Then, after “Uncharted Waters” gives the girls the forum to talk about what they’re feeling and forces the boys to hash out their differences, “His Leading Lady” laughs to itself and drops Dawson’s autobiography. The whole boring affair is designed so that Dawson can tell his stand-in Chris, Capeside’s flattest performer, how Dawson felt during the salient scenes, so in turn Joey is pushed to tell Dawson how she felt, too. At the beginning of the episode, Joey’s hilarious-looking art teacher reminds the class that art isn’t just about representation but expression. Dawson may not know better on his quest for verisimilitude, but the producers should.
Still, I have been asking to understand the group dynamics, and a fluffy newscast and an awful student film are a small price to pay to see the group finally starting to cohere (possibly even with Abby). At first Joey snipes at Jen because Jen has been usurping all of her roles in Dawson’s life—girlfriend, producer, surrogate daughter to Gail—but it turns out all that anger really comes from Joey respecting Jen too much. Okay, then. The point is Joey and Jen are going to try to be friends now.
Dawson’s grudge against Jack is more fun because it doesn’t make much sense, so the walls come down more easily. Dawson says he can relate to Jack’s father abandoning their family, and Jack is all, “Your father moved up the street. My father’s gone.” Then Dawson sees Pacey get a cold attaboy from Mr. Witter, and finally he arrives at the obvious conclusion that his life is pretty good in a sappy closing scene. Regardless, Dawson gives Jack a jock-nod so I guess they’re cool now.
Abby is the craziest and most fascinating. She’s as self-aware as Dawson thinks he is, understanding not just that she provides the external force that unites the group but also that, deep down, she wants to be a part of that group. Andie finally gets to show some backbone: “You have it mixed up, Abby. You trash us. You’re mean.” Abby’s story is barely—and never has that word born so much weight—sympathetic, but it’s still nice to see that Andie isn’t buying what Abby’s selling. And then Abby offers Andie a ride home, so they’re besties now.
Later, after another frustrating subplot about Andie being crazy and irrational and Pacey suffering her moods out of true love and divine nobility, they wind up saying, “I love you.” Like much of these two episodes, that should be a big moment, the first time any teenage characters have reached that point (right?), but the clumsy storytelling mitigates its power. Moreover, now that Pacey has a fulfilling relationship, a sturdy support system, and good grades, he’s awfully close to being flawless.
And that cold war between Dawson and Joey wraps up in some shouting, some serial-killer expressions, and eventually an explication of the show’s romantic spirit. It’s all about transcendental love. Dawson and Joey may not be eternal romantic partners, but they will always be soul mates, at least according to them. “I know we’ll always be connected. I know that our lives are destined to be intertwined,” Joey says. Dawson finishes the thought: “But we have to move on.” Fair enough. The gang is copasetic for the first time in the history of Dawson’s Creek. The ride might have been bumpy, but hopefully the destination’s worth it.
- Again the direction is nicely imaginative, full of tight focus and meta-camerawork. There are so many crane shots that it feels like Dawson, our god, the author, dropping in on his town to play with his congregation. The fishing trip is genuinely immersive, and the film shoot emphasizes how this whole show is seen through Dawson’s eyes.
- Speaking of which, Devon, the acting student played by Rachel Leigh Cook, tells Dawson: “My psych professor would say you are suffering from some sort of latent desire. The need for someone to watch you watching.” Which would sound more pretentious if it weren’t corroborated by all the references to voyeurism on this show.
- “Uncharted Waters” opens with Pacey mock-suggesting his future lies in darts. Later he tearfully tells his passed-out father that he might be college-bound after all. Pacey’s used to self-deprecating humor, but he has enough self-esteem to see that things are looking up.
- I love the moment where Dawson tells Pacey that Mr. Witter’s crack about flipping burgers is obviously a joke. On the one hand, it suggests Dawson has no clue that other families aren’t as supportive as his. But it also suggests that Pacey is exaggerating, which is true for most of the trip. Mr. Witter’s a hard-ass, but on the boat and in the bar, he seems pretty genuine in his desire to see Pacey succeed. He doesn’t have much hope for that, however, and he’s indefensibly cold, but their relationship isn’t as cut-and-dried as Pacey lets on.
- Pacey explains to Dawson how their families are different: “You can just go up to your dad and say, ‘Gee whiz, pop, I have a problem, let’s talk about this, heart to heart, man to man.’”
- If the point of turning the cameras off is to bond, why does Gail leave the girls alone in the kitchen?
- Everyone worships Dawson and Joey in these episodes. Pacey calls him “the fair-haired embodiment of perfection” and Joey’s Hilarious-Looking Art Teacher is impressed by her work. We've seen her drawings, guy. No wonder Dawson doesn’t know how to take constructive criticism.
- Abby defends her decision to tell Gail about Good Will Humping: “Unlike some people, I do have some morals.”
- Pacey brings the truth: “It is your job to love me no matter who I am or what I become because you’re my father.”
- Dawson looks amused and Joey looks annoyed in the cold open of “His Leading Lady,” but what else is new?
- Grams—that older lady, formal, super Christian, you remember—introduces Jen to some guy named Ty. (What is it with all these shortened nicknames?) After the movie shoot, Ty takes Jen to a party, which is code for a Bible reading. “Hey, everybody, Ty’s here!” is an actual line. The Creek’s representation of Bible studiers isn’t all that flattering (not that it’s excessively grotesque, either), but still: What a dick. He doesn’t even know what Jen’s favorite psalms are yet.
- It’s great to see Grams again, if only so she can tell Jen how proud she is of her granddaughter running that movie set, but Bessie is still just a name that gets mentioned, and Bodie must have been chased out of Whitesville altogether. At least we get to spend time with such delights as Abby, Chris, and Devon!
- We need to talk about Pacey’s velour shirt. And Andie’s overalls and Joey’s Hilarious-Looking Art Teacher (who was this close to supplying this week's image). Costuming Emmys, please!
- Jack gets refreshingly feisty: “Somebody needs to tell Oliver Stone over there that this whole war is over.” Also he’s dating Joey now. I think these kids are gonna make it.
- Dawson tells Devon as Sammy about Sammy who is Joey. “You’re an angry girl, that’s part of the essence of who you are.” So it’s not just self-consciousness this week. There’s even exposition about how characters see one another. Still, it’s interesting to learn that Dawson thinks of Joey as essentially angry and loves her anyway.
- Next week: Jack has a secret in the pivotal two-part “To Be Or Not To Be...” and “...That Is The Question,” and Pacey is knighted for his chivalry.