Will they or won’t they?
Will the two attractive young leads who bicker, banter, and bait each other eventually fall into bed together?
That’s the quintessential question when it comes to television romance, and almost unequivocally—especially on network television—the answer is: Of course they will!
Eventually. Not until the last season. Because everyone still remembers what happened to Moonlighting after Addie and David finally did the deed.
This is the tried-and-true formula for TV romance, on soaps, dramas, sitcoms. However, once upon a time, in an idyllic little town where all the teenagers spoke in multisyllabic words and were painfully self-aware, something different happened. Dawson’s Creek debuted January 20, 1988 with a simple premise of four teens coming of age amidst lots of hormones, and gained attention immediately for the hyper-verbal dialogue rife with self-analysis. On this show, fifteen-year-olds frequently said things like “I just think our emerging hormones are destined to alter our relationship and I’m trying to limit the fallout.”
The two main leads were childhood best friends Dawson Leery, a movie-obsessed dreamer, and Josephine “Joey” Potter, a chip-on-her-shoulder tomboy. Their close relationship was being challenged by the added complications of “breasts and genitalia” and a slightly mysterious new girl in town, Jen Lindley, who’d caught Dawson’s eye. Rounding out the quartet was Dawson’s other best friend, mouthy class clown Pacey Witter.
The major plotline of the first season was whether Dawson would choose the alluring newcomer or his spunky soulmate. And like the rest of the audience who watched that first season, oh, was I rooting for that poor little Joey Potter! She was snarky and full of bravado—tagging along on Dawson’s first date with Jen and oh, so wrong-headedly but outrageously baiting them both with little verbal digs:
Jen: (turning) Hey, Joey, I love your lipstick. What shade is that?
Joey: Wicked Red. Uh, I love your hair color, what number is that?
Dawson: (giving her a look) You’ll have to excuse Joey, she was born in a barn.
Jen: That’s okay, uh Joey, I just do highlights.
Joey: (nods) So, uh Jen, are you a virgin?
Dawson: That’s mature!
Joey: Well, ’cause Dawson’s a virgin and two virgins really make for a clumsy first experience, don’t you think?
Dawson: (moving next to her) You’re going to die.
Joey: I just thought I’d help, you know (looking at Jen), cut to the chase.
Jen: No, it’s okay, Dawson. Yes, I am a virgin. How about you, Joey, are you a virgin?
Joey: Please, years ago. (smiling knowingly) Trucker named Bubba.
Okay, so she wasn’t particularly subtle, but aside from the sass, the writers were clever enough to show and Katie Holmes (yes, the future ex-Mrs. Tom Cruise) was expressive enough to play Joey as also heartbreakingly vulnerable. At the end of the pilot episode, she curls up in Dawson’s closet, a comfort-seeking childhood habit, and laments that things have changed so much. It was impossible not to root for Joey and hope Dawson would wake up and smell the cappuccino.
Despite the obvious OTP-ness (One True Pairing) of our leads, though, there was a little spark of something between Joey and Pacey. It was obvious from their first scene together in the pilot, where they bickered their way through a rehearsal for a monster movie Dawson was shooting (and we all know what “I hate you” meet-cutes usually lead to, right?). Then there was a midseason episode when they got paired up for a biology assignment that ended up with wacky snail-hunting hijinx…and falling-in-the-lake hijinx…and Joey undressing under a blanket while Pacey tried to catch a peek in the car mirror….and, ultimately, a surprise kiss from Pacey that confused our poor Joey more than she expected it would.
Still, she and Dawson were the soulmates, the ones meant to be, and the first season finale ended with Dawson definitively choosing Joey. Show creator Kevin Williamson and his writers didn’t know if the WB network would pick them up for a second season, so they brought the story to its natural conclusion.
However, in season 2, the problems began. As a couple, Dawson and Joey were…kind of miserable together. The writers clearly had no idea what to do with them since they’d paired them up so early, so there were all kinds of bad attempts at creating conflict (most notably Joey’s short-lived fling with newcomer Jack McPhee, who came to realize he was gay). And when our leads finally started to get back together at the end of the season? Dawson ruined it by getting Joey’s ex-con dad sent back to prison!
Enter season 3. In the premiere, Dawson—who’d had his head (and other body parts) turned by a wanton high school stripper (yeah, the show had taken some melodramatic turns by this point)—flat-out rejected Joey’s attempt at forgiveness via seduction and sent Pacey after her to look out for her. Bad move, D. Bad move. The episode ended with P&J sitting on the end of the dock, her head on his shoulder. And that’s when things got interesting.
Throughout the third season, Joey and Pacey slowly grew closer and closer. Their emerging friendship and connection with each other was wonderfully written and acted (aided perhaps by their offscreen relationship as a one-time couple). It was also slowly and convincingly built, which was rare for TV. They had romantic moment after romantic moment: Pacey helping Joey’s family start a bed-and-breakfast, Joey taking Pacey’s side when Dawson (who’d turned into a whiny, entitled jerkwad by this point) punched him jealously, P&J dancing a tension-filled tango when our quartet found themselves taking dance lessons for a chance to win scholarship money.
Then the real relationship twists and turns: surprise kissing when Joey called Pacey to rescue her from a bad date, a stealthy snuggle when they—whoops!—had to share a bed on vacation, a fireside dramatic standoff/kiss that proved that Joey had feelings for Pacey too, then a torturous split when Dawson finds out about their secret fling. They even have an angsty, sad, and passionate dance at the prom, where Pacey unequivocally proves he’s the guy for her with a heartfelt speech about how he remembers the bracelet she is wearing belonged to her mother because HE REMEMBERS EVERYTHING. And finally, finally, we get to that romantic staple: THE GRAND GESTURE.
Pacey is making summer plans to take a boat trip around the world and in a desperate final move, he buys Joey a wall. (She’s a painter, and had been symbolically wanting a bigger canvas.) And on the wall, he paints in huge letters: ASK ME TO STAY. Be still my heart, right ladies? I mean that is some GRAND GRAND GESTURING. And finally, slowly, painfully, our little Joey wises up, tells Dawson it’s not to be, and runs after Pacey, literally sailing off into the sunset with him on his boat…the TRUE LOVE.
I mean…it’s pretty tough to top that in angsty teen romance. Pacey was literally the world’s best TV boyfriend. And more than that, he’d evolved completely as a character. Introduced as a wisecracking sidekick, Pacey had gotten to show his vulnerable and sensitive side. His girlfriend before Joey was mentally ill and Pacey stood by her and championed her through tough times. He was neglected and insulted by his family (hell, even his parents forgot his birthday!) who deemed him a failure, but he himself was an excellent mentor for a nine-year-old boy for a short arc in the third season. Pacey was the underdog you couldn’t help but root for.
But of course…it was only season 3. The show went on to run three more relatively disappointing seasons, and early into season 4, Pacey and Joey broke up (again due to manipulated conflict by the writers). But from time to time over the remaining seasons, they still certainly had their moments. One memorable episode had the two of them getting locked together in a department store and basically flirting all night, her shaving his terrible facial hair—much to the delight of fangirls everywhere—and even some smooches! Alas, ’twas but a one-night stand. All was reverted to status quo in the TV world soon, with Dawson and Joey having another brief hook-up/relationship shortly after.
But…when the time came for the show to end, in a special extended episode that saw the characters moving five years into the future, Joey found herself faced with the same dilemma all over again: Dawson or Pacey? Her idealistic dreamer of a best friend, or the sexy, down-to-earth guy who made her blood sing with passion? In the final moments of the finale, we get our somewhat shocking answer: the writers had her choose Pacey.
As a fan of their relationship, it made perfect sense to me. They had passion and chemistry and, most importantly, they made each other happier people. It was an ending that had been earned by all that had come before it. Dawson and Joey were still soulmates and best friends, but romantically, Pacey was the one for her. Still, a fair number of fans who were still pulling for the title character to get the girl were shocked and disappointed by the outcome.
Ironically, one person who wasn’t? Dawson himself. When some of the cast reunited at Los Angeles’ Paley Center for Media in November 2009 for a reunion and panel discussion, James Van Der Beek’s answer when asked about the resolution of the love triangle was: “I think the relationships probably played out the only way they could have.”
Well said, Dawson, well said. And you didn’t even need multisyllabic words to do it.
This article was first published on HeroesandHeartbreakers.com on July 5, 2011.
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