how dawson’s creek taught a generation to emote

The highest highs and lowest lows of a series about kids that talked fancy and sobbed often.

by Anne T. Donahue
26 January 2018, 12:46pm

There’s a moment in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You where an overprotective father forbids his youngest daughter from going to prom. “Can we for two seconds forget the fact that you’re completely unhinged and discuss my need for a night of teenage normalcy?” she pleads with him.

“What’s normal?” he bellows back. “Those damn Dawson’s River kids, sleeping in each other’s beds and whatnot?”

Well, precisely. Dawson’s River (nay, Creek) ushered in a new, emotional normal.

January 1998 marked the premiere Dawson’s Creek, a mid-season teenage melodrama about a 15-year-old boy named Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek), his friend Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson), and Joey Potter (Katie Holmes) -- the too-cool BFF he’d yet to fall in love with. The series took place in the fictional east coast town of Capeside and immediately submerged viewers in the most sensational brand of nonsense. Within the first episodes, we learn that Pacey is sleeping with his grown-ass English teacher, that Joey’s dad is locked up in prison, and that the New Girl™ in town (Jen Lilley, played by Michelle Williams) has escaped New York amidst sexual scandal. And for six seasons, the show went on to explore themes of infidelity, socioeconomic strife, birth, death, substance abuse, recovery, sexuality and ATM vestibule hold-ups (arguably when Dawson’s jumped the shark), but none of which held a candle to Crying Dawson, the scene-turned-gif that sprung from the character’s break-up with Joey. Mainly because we have all been Crying Dawson, emoting out of frustration and selfishness and the fact that most of the time, life just isn’t fucking fair.

So, in celebration of Dawson’s Creek’s inception twenty years ago, here are 10 moments in which the Leery gang taught us to be emotional.

10. In which Dawson Leery wept on the dock
By the end of season three, many magical moments had come to pass: Dawson’s parents were getting remarried, Dawson was in love with Joey, and Joey and Pacey realised they were in love with each other. (Shout-out if your teen summers consisted of far less drama and way more vodka coolers.) Which breaks Dawson’s heart. And so, after telling Joey to spend the summer sailing with Joshua Jackson, Dawson breaks down and sobs, creating a meme for all generations by embodying the feelings and frustrations that come with breaking down in public and in no way being able to stop.

“Children,” he said to us silently with each heaving sob. “You are not alone.”

9. In which Mitch Leery dies by ice cream
On his way home from buying milk in season four, Dawson’s dad does what I’m sure 99% of us have: he uses an ice cream cone as a drumstick and jams along to an Uncle Kracker classic. Unfortunately, dude drops his ice cream and instead of waiting to pick it up with a napkin after getting home like a normal person, he attempts to pick it up with his bare hands (was he going to eat it?!) and drives into an oncoming truck, dying.

Which gave way to many emotions on our part: the sadness that comes with being betrayed by ice cream, the frustration at Mitch’s stupidity, and the feeling of disappointment that accompanies a grown man loving a bad song so much that he’d use a scrumptious dairy treat as a drumstick instead of as a microphone -- of which the cone was the perfect size. RIP Mitch.

8. In which Dawson replaces his love of Steven Spielberg with a poster of John Lennon
I mean, sure. In an attempt to better know himself, Dawson Leery commemorates a foray into early adulthood by taking down his Steven Spielberg posters and replacing them with the John Lennon Imagine masterpiece -- despite never hinting towards having feelings for The Beatles at all, but okay.

Because who among us hasn’t done the same? Who hasn’t, in the throws of deciding they are going to be different, rejected our pasts and marched towards a present we knew wouldn’t stick, but look: we’re trying. Who hasn’t attempted to be “interesting”? “Artistic”? “Someone who has a lot to say about John Lennon’s work”? Exactly. In that moment, Dawson was the embodiment of our worst possible selves; a teenage answer to the people we become after going to college for two weeks and reading three chapters of Infinite Jest. And you do not know disgust until you remember lecturing friends about what they didn’t “get” about John and Yoko’s relationship. Which you only realise when you remember this moment.

7. In which Abby dies
In season two, Capeside was rocked by tragedy: bad girl Abby Morgan got drunk and fell off a dock and drowned. And granted, Abby was the best and worst. She hated everyone. She talked shit with relish. At one point, Jen slapped her in the face, and it was bananas. So in Abby’s short, two-ish season life, the girl did what she wanted and asked permission about it never, making her better and more interesting than everybody else in that one-horse, one-creek, pastel town. And then she died. And through her death we learned that life is cruel, that not all that glitter turns to gold, and that upon the passing of a universally hated person, everyone who knows them will eulogise their lives like they were goddamn saints.

Which is a tall order for a series about kids that talked fancy. But if you didn’t cry at the unfairness of Jen breaking down post-funeral to paint Abby as the person she was (full of resentment, hatred and complications), you’d yet to grasp the full impact of untimely death. Also, the full impact of actress Monica Keena no longer being on the show despite being one of the best things about it.

6. In which Pacey and his grown-ass teacher have an affair
There is disgust, and then there is the type of disgust that comes with an ice-tipped teenage Pacey Witter having sex with his English teacher. But such was the dynamic between 36-year-old Tamara Jacobs and the 15-year-old student whose virginity she takes. No thank you. Goodbye. Never @ me, how dare this show.

If only we’d known then that so many relationships we’d be introduced as grown-ups to would make us feel equally grossed out, regardless of their legality.

5. In which Joey is held up at gunpoint by a mugger who dies
There comes a time in every TV viewer’s life where they fall to their knees like Willem Dafoe in Platoon and scream “Why?!” as their worst fears come to light.

Enter: the season five episode in which Joey is forced to clean out her bank account by an ATM mugger, but ends up accompanying him to the hospital after he’s hit by a car. There, she sees the similarities between him and her own father, finding compassion and forgiveness for the man who gave her PTSD while sitting vigil beside him before he passed.

Which, like, okay. But more importantly, absolutely not. But adulthood means disappointment. It means learning that what we love will let us down. It means deciding to call time on something that once made us happy, and making peace with the knowledge that while we may love something, we may not be in love with it anymore. Heartbreak like a whisper: the Joey Potter-and-the-ATM-episode story.

4. In which Joey and Pacey finally have sex
After returning from their summer boating adventure, Pacey and Joey face Dawson’s questions about the status of their sex lives. And worse still, we have to wait until episode 14 of season four for Pacey and Joey to finally do it -- and then longer still before Dawson actually finds out.

Which bring about a lot of feelings. First, the feeling of “Oh hell yes” when Pacey and Joey finally go for it on the senior ski strip. Second, the feeling of “How dare you?” that comes with Dawson posing any/all questions about Joey’s virginity. Lastly, the feeling of “Come the fuck on” that accompanies a game-changing moment you know is far more loaded than just two teens hooking up. Welcome to the scope of full of personal relationships, they are a minefield (and Dawson is a little baby bitch).

3. In which Pacey loses his shit at prom
Following a season of highs, lows and a lot of pained expressions, Pacey finally breaks down at prom and confronts Joey about what he sees are unrealistic expectations. And reader, it is terrible. It is awful. It is a train crash next to a car crash next to Dawson Leery crying on the dock. It is a moment in which you want to transport yourself to wherever they are and say, “Stop talking” like Don Draper. It is horror. Pure horror.

And it is a lie. Because proms are never that interesting. At most, they are a school dance that some kids manage to sneak alcohol into before piling into a rented limo and camping on mushrooms for two days.

2. In which Andie takes ecstasy to celebrate getting into Harvard
Speaking of mushrooms, lest we forget the season four episode in which Andie takes ecstasy at a rave, which react negatively with her antidepressants. Which, like, fair. But there’s the feeling of “Oh girl, no” and the feeling that comes with realising you’re being hit over the head with an anti-drug message so subtle you swear it’s a rave unto itself. It is a feeling of dread and of cringe and of wishing you were anywhere else but in this moment. It is the universal feeling of wondering where it all went wrong. It is the feeling of wishing you’d just gone to Burger King by yourself instead.

It is the feeling we got in Mean Girls when the coach explains how sex works. Especially since this episode was way better when 90210 did it and called their drug U4EA.

1. In which Jen dies
Okay fine fuck you, let’s weep.

dawsons creek
michelle williams
James Van Der Beek