“Beauty Contest” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 05/12/1998)
Change doesn’t often happen all at once. People reach big monumental moments, settle back into routine, and gradually grow. On television, that can be read as inconsistency, but Dawson’s Creek has made it clear that these kids are ever-so-slowly evolving, even if it's sporadic. So "Beauty Contest" opens, after racing through the gauntlet of “Double Date,” with the usual. Dawson and Joey are watching a movie in his bedroom. The foursome hangs out at the Icehouse. Joey’s back to hating Jen for no real reason. But things aren’t the same, even if old habits die hard. Though Dawson doesn’t seem to have residual resentment toward Jen, Michelle Williams makes it clear Jen isn’t totally cool with Dawson.
The prevailing theme of the last two episodes of season one is growing up, but Dawson doesn’t move past his one brief, selfless moment in “Double Date.” He finally cottons onto the idea that his kid sister is a young woman who is not biologically related to him because she gets dolled up to impress him. Cue Jen and Pacey: “You really think I’m that shallow, huh?” she says. “No, I think you’re that human.” Okay, Dawson’s letting himself be human. At the very least, it’s hard to deny that he spends two episodes trying to appease someone else, whether or not his motives or actions are pure. It’s not the selflessness of that temporary gesture of humility in “Double Date,” but if you squint, Dawson looks a little bit wiser than he did in the premiere.
Still, when we’re meant to invest in the romance of Dawson and Joey, she’s right. This—the pageantry, the chivalry, The O.C. audition—isn’t them. What is them, unfortunately, is Dawson’s chalkboard-scratching sensitive-voice. That thing could provoke Gandhi to violence. Between that and his parted, shiny-apple lower lip, the romantic scenes are a challenge. Dawson is just so intensely ignorant. I don’t entirely blame James Van Der Beek or the writers, since the character has a habit of being an annoying twerp, but if everyone could stop singing Dawson’s praises for a moment—Jen puts their break-up entirely on her own shoulders, and I still haven’t tracked down my right eyeball—it might give the audience room to see him clearly.
But Joey is a character I get. I’m not saying she’s always a joy to be around, but I feel for her, and she’s pretty funny, and Katie Holmes is so good lately that she’s already bumped James Van Der Beek into the second-lead status from which he will never recover. (Seriously, Dawson spends “Beauty Contest” in the wings and “Decisions” in his bedroom, while Pacey escorts Joey to the climax.) Joey even calls Dawson out, as when he says he would never laugh at her and she scowls, “You just did.” So approaching the romance from Joey’s perspective, framing it less as something these two crazy kids are working through and more as an unrequited desire from a girl who says she knows she’s not pretty and feels unloved, both with shattering sincerity, that approach helps translate the romantic fantasy to audience members like me. I can get swept up in Joey standing in front of her mirror feeling good about herself. A reprise of her pointed pageant number “On My Own” is the icing on the cake.
- In “Beauty Contest” and “Decisions,” characters emphasize the cinematic side of the Dawson-Joey romance. It’s always about how the subject looks at the object, as opposed to how he feels about her or how they mesh intellectually.
- In another voyeuristic resonance, not to mention a reversal, Jen watches Joey and Dawson's verbal dance on the docks.
- Pacey and Jen are very good this week, he entering the pageant and planting seeds about being the disappointing child and she grappling with The Love Triangle. Apparently, Jen has glommed onto Joey so intently because she’s never had any girlfriends. This may or may not have some bearing on season two.
- Dawson says, “Very funny” to Joey’s face about her entering a beauty pageant. I repeat, Dawson's best friend is entering a beauty pageant, and the Teflon teen tells her, "Very funny."
- Even when she’s arguing with Dawson, Joey’s bantering with Pacey, calling him “a D-student with a Julius Caesar haircut.” Meanwhile Pacey tells Dawson he hasn’t seen Joey, “Not since our torrid night of naked face-sucking.”
- See, sour Joey is fun: “Wait a second; I have to smile?”
- During “On My Own,” there’s a great close-up of Dawson and Jen, first entranced, then turning toward each other, then looking back, both of them waking up to unexpected and opposing emotions.
- Joey knows what she’s doing: “Without me, his world will go on turning / The world is full of happiness that I have never known / I love him / I love him / I love him / But only on my own.”
“Decisions” (season 1, episode 13; originally aired 05/19/1998)
It’s winter in Massachusetts, I guess, and the first season of Dawson’s Creek naturally closes with maximum self-consciousness—a cliffhanger in an episode about resolution (and lack thereof). But it’s such a closed-off, practically un-analyzable moment that “Decisions” is far more interesting for how it concludes a chapter than for how it begins one. Dawson kisses Joey impulsively, but is he over Jen? Is he acting out of fear? Is this just a kiss or the start of something new? For all that and more, see you next season! For now, it’s pure instinct, and I can empathize with Joey finally getting something she wanted. In fact, she gets the whole romantic fantasy she’d never dream of admitting she enjoys: a big, dramatic test, a sudden, sweep-her-off-her-feet kiss, and a silhouetted make-out in the window of a pastoral dollhouse. What it means is still up in the air, but as a capstone for a season of simmering, “Decisions” is a florid beauty.
You can tell this is serious melodrama because Sarah McLachlan and Edwin McCain pop up within minutes of each other, McLachlan passing the torch to McCain over a sunrise that’s frankly trying too hard. Three enormous emotional beats occur within a 12-hour period, and the one person basically unaffected, Pacey, spends the episode as such a disappointing child that he can’t even wrangle his domestic despair into a story arc. It’s not a group cry, but it’s hardly fun and games.
The thing is, from an outsider’s perspective, Joey’s relationship with her father and Jen’s with her grandmother are way more important than a long-suffering crush on Dawson. If there’s catharsis in all this incident, it’s in that surprisingly weak-kneed moment of Mr. Potter asking Dawson what his daughter is like, in that pan from Joey clasping her father’s hand through a chain-link fence on up to their tearful faces, in that wrenchingly human collapse of Grams into Jen’s arms in church. This isn’t personal animosity toward Dawson. Dawson’s arc from oblivious singer of Joey’s praises to whatever he is at the end is more of a stepladder anyway. Joey has had to fight to reach that climax. She also had to struggle to achieve that glimmer of reconciliation with her father. Jen has spent the whole season in a standoff with Grams. Those are stories.
Coming-of-age begins with accepting you aren’t the only person who matters in the universe, and Dawson does move in that direction. Even more powerful is Jen, stepping into church like it’s a horror movie, taking a seat next to Grams. There’s also a bit of reminding that explains Grams’ intensity this year: She’s spent the past three months coping with the sudden loss of her long-time companion. Jen being there at her side is a sign of growth, of willingness to lay down arms and do something she doesn’t want to do for family. On Pacey’s advice (which he can't even fulfill on his own front)—again we find the core belief of Dawson's Creek that it’s so easy to see the problems of others and so hard to face up to your own—Joey tells her father that he hurt her, which is so much more difficult that carrying around that resentment. But she puts herself out there even further when she asks if he loves her and thinks about her. That chain-link hand-clasp is the nicest thing Joey could do for someone who will treasure it forever. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Season one has its weaknesses, its Tamaras and Billys, but the master narrative of teen romance and awakening, marital strife, and conflicting values is an impressively thorough construction that leads, in deliberate fits and starts, to this logical conclusion, a delicate set-up for season two. The cliffhanger, though, may have more meat than it seems. If Dawson is meant to gradually accept that the world is not a movie he can control, this grand, romantic gesture—which he creates for Joey, his audience—represents a complete regression from the eye-opening, stomach-churning carousel moment. If the season’s would-be climactic moment isn’t obviously connected to niggling concerns, it’s a little disquieting when you get down to the season’s thematic progression. But only a little. There are still five more seasons on this journey to adulthood.
- I love that this week, Jen's the one misdirecting her anger toward Joey instead of vice versa. Jen’s hilariously excited to hear Joey might be leaving for a whole semester. Not to spoil, but that might be the happiest moment of Jen's life.
- R.I.P. Gramps Lindley. On a related note, it's shocking to see how much sprier Mary Beth Peil is on The Good Wife over a decade later.
- Boy, having to choose between a boy and spending a season in Europe is such a trope now, and nobody ever chooses correctly!
- Doug concludes his least enjoyable season by pulling Pacey over to, I don’t know, read him the riot act or something. Apparently Pacey didn’t pass any of his midterms. Not even English!
- More Dawson selfishness, as if my case isn’t strong enough: “I don’t want this to affect your decision about France, but I would really miss you if you left.” Yeah, that’s not going to affect her decision.
- Pacey doesn’t get much to do, but as usual, he hits his material out of the park. That bit about overhearing his dad tell Doug, “At least I have you” hits hard thanks to the way Joshua Jackson underplays it. And it’s not nothing that Joey’s the only person he’s told that to.
- Michelle Williams is also great in the last two episodes. I particularly like the way she nervously giggles as she tells Dawson about how she’s losing everyone in her life.
- Dawson searches all over town for Joey, but of course, she’s in his closet, a place of childhood contentment.
- TV Topic Of The Week: What’s your favorite cliffhanger? Ideally this would be something you experienced as an actual cliffhanger, say, by having to wonder all summer what’s going to happen now that Captain Picard has been assimilated rather than immediately playing the next DVD. Spoiler warning for Battlestar Galactica: My favorite cliffhanger is almost certainly the second season finale, but I'm apparently in some kind of minority for loving New Caprica and wishing it were around longer. That "summer" between seasons was endless, and the promo the network finally aired for the third season is definitely my favorite TV trailer.
- Next week: Speaking of cliffhangers, no review. We'll all relive the summer of '98, wondering what's going to happen with Dawson and Joey while we blast "The Boy Is Mine" and watch Armageddon in cargo pants and puka shell necklaces.
- The following week (July 31): Season two begins with new students (Andie and Jack!), new drama (Abby Morgan!), and new styles (frosted tips!) in the portentously titled one-two punch of "The Kiss" and "Crossroads."