Will they or won’t they?
Will the two attractive, young leads who bicker and 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 Maddie 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, 1998 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, a movie-obsessed dreamer, and Joey, a chip-on-her-shoulder tomboy, whose close relationship was being challenged by the added complications of “breasts and genitalia” and a slightly mysterious new girl in town, Jen, who’d caught Dawson’s eye. Rounding out the quartet was Dawson’s other best friend, mouthy class clown Pacey.
The major plot line of the first season was how Dawson would choose between 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 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.
But despite the obvious OTP-ness (One True Pairing) of our leads, there was a little spark of something between Joey and Pacey. 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?) to 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 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. The 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 later turned out to be pretty spectacularly 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 three. 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 so wonderfully written and acted (aided perhaps by their offscreen relationship as a couple), and it was (rare for TV) slowly and convincingly built. 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 was forced to take dance lessons for an upcoming wedding
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 three. The show went on to run three more relatively disappointing seasons, and in season four, Pacey and Joey broke up (again due to manipulated conflict by the writers). From time to time over the remaining seasons, they certainly had their moments. Then finally late in the show’s final season, the writers paired them up in a memorable episode where they got locked together in a department store. They bicker-flirted all night, Joey shaved off Pacey’s disastrous facial hair—much to the delight of fangirls everywhere—and the episode ended with kisses and falling asleep in each other’s arms! Alas, t’was but a short-lived affair, sending Joey back into pinball mode shortly after, bouncing between love interests as she tried to make up her mind about who she really wanted.
However, the seeds had been planted, and four episodes later came the show finale, a special extended episode set five years into the future, where Joey found herself facing 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.
Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.