Jul 5 2011 10:45am

The Power of Pacey: How Dawson’s Creek Switched Ships Mid-Stream

Dawson’s Creek posterWill 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.

TV Romance

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.”

Dawson and JoeyThe 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. 

The Romance Leads

Pacey and JoeyBut 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.

Pacey and Joey DancingThroughout 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.

Romance Twists

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.

Dawson and Joey college yearsBut 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.

Romance Fan

Pacey and Joey hammockAs 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.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I really loved the IDEA of Dawson/Joey, I remember. It was so cute that first season, Dawson's cluelessness and Joey's mooning.

But I think the moment Pacey kissed Joey, it was all over for me.
Tara Gelsomino
2. Taragel
@redline_ I got totally on board the P/J ship after the S2 finale. I wrote my first fanfic about them getting together! Ha. And then the show actually made it canon! I was so pleased. ;)
Heather Waters
3. HeatherWaters
Wait, what happened in the S2 finale to make you ship them? The S3 finale was when they took off on the True Love together, right? It's sad that I'm confusing my timeline when I JUST watched seasons 2 and 3, lol.
Tara Gelsomino
4. Taragel
@redline_ Yes, it was S3 when they left together. I don't know what tipped me over into shipping them so much. I did love the snail ep and when he took her to see her dad in prison, but that was S1. I think I just was disgusted with Dawson. Hee!
Tara Gelsomino
4. Taragel
@redline_ Yes, it was S3 when they left together. I don't know what tipped me over into shipping them so much. I did love the snail ep and when he took her to see her dad in prison, but that was S1. I think I just was disgusted with Dawson. Hee!
Jill Slattery
5. JillSlattery
What a delightful walk down memory lane this was! I LOVED Pacey and Joey. Looooooooved. I think that Pacey/Joey is one of the most perfectly executed ships in TV history (lofty praise, I know, but I really believe it).

They developed their relationship over an entire season so it felt earned and special and REAL. The writers telling us that Dawson & Joey were soulmates was very, very different than seeing Pacey & Joey grow as a couple. I think that every Glee writer and producer should go back and watch season 3 of DC to see how it's done. Give us relationships that matter between characters that grow and change! The power of the Pacey, indeed. ;-)
6. Daybreak
First off, I love your articles. I get so excited to click over here. :-) Just wanted to say that first. :-D

Still, she and Dawson were the soulmates, the ones meant to be, and the
first season finale ended with Dawson definitively choosing Joey.
Yay! I so loved this little ship. But as I thought about this more I realized I really loved Joey. I thought I loved Katie Holmes but after recently watching Batman Begins, I think, nope I loved Joey. :-) And I guess I figured she'd loved him for years. She deserved to win.

newcomer Jack McPhee—who later turned out to be pretty spectacularly gay
Yes! Didn't that guy star on Lost later?

You make some interesting points. I think by season 3, I was losing interest in the show itself and I just stopped watching it regularly. I had never liked Pacey--way too smug--so I missed his and Joey's hookup. Mostly I just missed Joey. She seemed so smart and interesting in the beginning but then I feel she lost that. Didn't she turn down the opportunity to go to France at one point?

And on the wall, he paints in huge letters: ASK ME TO STAY.
I just saw that recently as someone's LJ icon. That is a sweet gesture. Very them.

In the end, I watched the last ep and rooted for Joey and Dawson because they were soul mates. I was younger then and thought that soulmates belonged together.

I'm older now. I still don't like Pacey. I kinda wish Joey hadn't chosen either of them and had ended as a single, successful business woman. She seemed like a prize to be won by that point and I think younger Joey would have hated that.

I don't think I liked Pacey or Dawson. But there is a small part of me that still misses young, fifteen-year-old Joey Potter. You know me, I cling to the old. :-)
7. Taragel
@Jill "The writers telling us that Dawson & Joey were soulmates was very, very different than seeing Pacey & Joey grow as a couple." WORD, girl. WORD. I can't say how much I love a relationship that is really truly earned with a nice slow pacing. Especially if the characters start out as enemies or even quasi-enemies. I need some friendship and trust-building and all that good stuff in the middle, before I can believe they're in love. It is still the best romantic relationship I've seen unfold on TV, for my money too.

@Daybreak Ah, yeah I fell out of love with Joey herself in Season Two. She got so moody/whiny all the time and lost almost all of her original spunk. But she was far far more insufferable when with Dawson than with Pacey who at least brought out some of her fighting fire. I think Pacey was smug in the first season but by S3, he had changed very much. They really showcased his (sad) family life a lot more and he had that vulnerable side that he kept well hidden behind the bravado and charm and laughter (a bit like a certain space pilot we both love!) :)
8. Cindy Sangalli
I like to divide the seasons up and pretend it has 2 different endings...Dawson and Joey kissing in "The Perfect Wedding" (season 2 ep 18) felt happily ever after. They still had amazing chemistry and the developing that had transpired was convincing. It just made sense. Breaking them up after that turned it into being more right for her to develop with Pacey and their eventual happily ever after in the season finale. Their chemistry was epic and caused me to root for them. This way we can all be satisfied. Two endings that just worked! Watch them both in one night and tell me what you think. sangalli10@gmx.com
Lana Baker
9. lanalucy
I don't remember any one single moment that had me thinking JoeyPacey, but I do remember that I very quickly didn't think she belonged with Dawson. Dawson was such a rag. Just whinging all the frakkin' time.

I loved Jack, and though that entire relationship became an awkward moment for Joey, I loved that they let Jack be gay and have boyfriends and not make him some prancy queen.

But back to Joey and Pacey, I pretty much rooted for the two of them starting sometime in season 1. Dawson never had a chance, in my book.
10. slbright
I've been very sick for the last week and it has brought me into a mood for a Dawson's Creek marathon! I forgot how much I love this show! Ecspecially Pacey and Joey together :) I was wondering where the picture of Joey and Pacey dancing is from? I don't recall which episode. Had a blast reading this though, such a wonderful trip down memory lane.
Heather Waters
11. HeatherWaters
@slbright -- Glad the post cheered you up and hope you enjoy your rewatch (and that you feel better!). I think that picture of Joey and Pacey dancing might be from Season 6, episode 18, "Love Bites," according to this episode guide.
12. taragel
Wow logged on here randomly following an old link and so glad to see peeps are still finding/enjoying this post!

@CindySangalli Unfortunately, I was way annoyed with Dawson by the end of season 2--but I would say the end of the first season with them finally getting together was very sweet! So the S1 finale was a good one for D/J fans and the end of the show was great for P/J ones. And I liked too that they very clearly stated that Joey had a different kind of love (no less important) for Dawson as her best friend.

@lanalucy Hey you! Hee. I didn't realize you read this! Jack was great, he was kind of awful in S2 because the writers didn't know what to do with him but he really came into his own later, and his friendship with Jen was really fun too.

@slbright Hope you feel better! Glad this hit the spot. I bought the whole series on DVD a while back when it was on sale, but I haven't yet cracked into it. A little afraid it won't hold up to my memories of it! ;)
Rakisha Kearns-White
13. BrooklynShoeBabe
The first half of the 3rd season was completely disasterous and my husband and I almost threw in the towel on DC. Then, the relationship bewteen Joey and Pacy began. Then it was on like Donkey Kong. The Anti-Prom episode is my most favorite DC moment and perhaps my top 3 favorite TV moments. I just watched it again recently as it is streaming on Netflix. No matter how many times I watch it, when Pacy says "I remember everything," I just about die. I could have stopped watching that show at that moment.
14. The Viewer
I hated Joey from right the start
I dont think Dawson or Pacey deserve such a punishment as Joey is
What I hated in the ending is that Dawson is still obssesed with his "Big Romance" with Joey
I think he should have ended up with Pacy sister she was perfect for him
15. demarco0204
I really wish joey & dawson ended up together. Even after being apart for long periods of time they like magnets to each other. No matter the issue they would always love each other. Although I do like pacey he the most real person on the show. Still was going for Dawson & Joey.
16. ttylthomas
I am P/J all the way. I agree that the way the writers built up the relationship between Pacey and Joey was awesome. They had friendship, fire and passion and I love that amidst all the foolishness and crazy relationships, they ended up together and all three were friends. My fave TV romance!
17. Blue Maria
I am kind of a 'dawson's creek dork' so have lots to say! First I have to say though that there was no time when the 'quartet' had to take dance lessons for a wedding. Joey wanted to do it for a chance to win money. Anyhoo, one of my favourite relationships on the show was dawson and joey as FRIENDS. romantically they just didn't fit and kissed like siblings. And they dated twice but it only lasted a couple months each time so they both spent a helluva lot more time pining and analyzing what their being together meant that actually being together. joey says to pacey in the fourth season something like "me and dawson are stuck in his room at 15 forever having the same conversation. but we grew up-we grew up together." Which is one reason her and pacey work well. and so much chemistry, like that prom moment others bring up. my fav season is 4, I love almost all the episodes and love pacey and joey's relationship. sad how dawson and pacey lost eachother though. and i also wish dawson had ended up with gretchen, but if that had happened they wouldn't have been able to do the 'love triangle resolved' finale. they all had to come into that finale single for it to work, so someone would inevitably be left alone. gee i wish i could spend this energy writing/doing something that matters more but i loved this show, when it was good. It could be really bad sometimes, but that's another post!
18. DCFan
In S1 I was able to accept D/J because it seemed like a natural resolution. If the show wasn't picked up for S2, it still would've been a fitting conclusion to see him FINALLY take the blinders off. But as we saw in S2, D/J were a pretty boring couple. Plus, how do you root for such an unlikeable character like Dawson? I know he was the title character, but the guy is such a TOOL.

Pacey was always my favorite character and when they took the show in that direction, I was immediately rooting for P/J. Not only was it well developed, but they had far better chemistry. It made sense for them to wind up together in the end because the show demonstrated that D/J were always better off as just friends.
19. ijustscrapedmyknees
In S1 I shipped Dawson and Joey so much but was so frustrated at how bad the two were with communicating with each other. I mean, how did Joey ever think she would get Dawson to pick her over Jen if she didn't let him know how she felt about him? And Dawson was so ignorant that I found myself questioning whether or not I was up for another five seasons of it. But whatever, they got together and I was all "Yay!" And then they broke up and I was all "Aw!" The only reason I kept watching the show was because by that point I had fallen head over heels in love with Pacey. Ugh, why are the best guys never real! His relationship with Andie during S2 was so sweet and I loved them as a couple. And then you have the rest of the characters whinging and moaning about their lives which kinda made me not like any of them except Andie and Pacey anymore. And then Andie had to go because of her mental health and then she came back after cheating on him so they broke up. So now Pacey starts falling in love with Joey and I'm just thinking both "No no no no no Pacey just no she's so annoying why??" and "Awwww look at Pacey all in love" simultaneously. And then, yay, they get together but of course stupid Dawson - who by this point I've come to hate - ruins it and Joey is so irritatingly loyal and so crushes Pacey's heart and ack. But wait, she's changed her mind again! And they sail off into the sunset (literally). S4 was my favourite, with Joey and Pacey together and getting to see their relationship actually work, unlike every single other relationship ever on Dawson's Creek, and I actually started liking - I'd even go so far as to say loving - Joey again. Whether that was because Pacey brought out the amazingness in her or simply because she was with Pacey (and I just love everyone and everything to do with Pacey) I don't know, but things were good. Then they broke up, then in S5 Pacey and Audrey got together - who I also loved. Pacey was really good at picking girlfriends, okay - and Joey was all college-y, and then in S6 she slept with Dawson because yep, that's still not over, and then it was the end of Pacey and Audrey and then HOLY CRAP JOEY'S DRUNK AND ASLEEP AND PACEY'S STILL IN LOVE WITH HER OH MY GOD and then the department store yaaay but gahhh no Joey's ex comes back and she's all "Sorry Pacey, no can do" and then the finale where she still can't freaking make her mind up already until the very end when they're together. And all that made me realise that I didn't really ship Pacey/Joey, however much I rooted for them. I hated Dawson and I loved Pacey, so I wanted him to win. But I really disliked Joey towards the end, so when they lived happily ever after I was left feeling unsatisfied. A lot of people who've said that Dawson didn't deserve Joey are right, but I also believe that Joey didn't deserve Pacey. I would've been so much happier to see him end up with Andie, when she came back in the season finale, or Audrey, or just anyone who was actually awesome enough for him. Alas, TV writers hate me, so it was not so.
20. bainf
Was reading an article about Where are they now from 90's It was full of DC stars. Only watched episodes here and there, as I was getting a bit old for teenrom and too much Dawson whining for me, ended up here as curious about the finale wrap up. Well written article that sums up their relationship and the grand gesture. Like many many shows, there must be conflict and resolution to keep shows bubbling along. Some lazy writers go too far by introducing love triangles and several super hot options to the point you just go, sheesh, keep it in your pants already or something like that. This show managed to stay true to the core love triangles and internal rather than external conflict options. As for who to choose, lead characters in shows often come across as aloof since the shows plot revolve around them mainly and partners are secondary stories and it is always to hard to picture them as a couple (Greys anatomy reminded of that) Too many personal conflicts to be capable of something better. Therefore Pacey was a logical choice, plus Van der beek got uglier and uglier and we want to see beautful people together(its true)
21. TaniaD.
Dawson's Creek jumped the shark so fast. Season 1 was perfect, 13 amazing episodes. The end.
S2-S6 was like a long worst sequel. I loved Dawson & Joey very much but, to be honest, I don't care was happened in series finale because truthful Dawson's Creek died many years before.
22. Tiffany Witter
Hello ! I am a HUGE Creeker and I'm also a Jacey lover ! I LOVE this article! I just wanna say that the 4 of them ended up dancing tango wasn't due to a wedding , but due to the fact that Joey wanted the Starlight Scholarship and Pacey needed tutoring ! Jen and Dawson just ended up crashing their dance lessons lol !!
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