“Baby” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 02/24/1998)
It took a few weeks for the seeds to sprout, but Dawson’s Creek is finally discovering the advantages of filling Dawson’s time with something other than his thoughts. “Hurricane” is the first wave to crash, distracting us with Mitch and Gail while quietly setting up “Baby,” another episode that throws everyone into the Leery household and asks them what they think about religion. Only this time it’s more of an ensemble piece. After a funny cold open in which Joey and Jen leave Dawson alone with his movies, Dawson spends most of the episode on the sidelines. Mitch and Gail are offstage entirely. Instead, Grams and Bessie drive the action, and Jen and Joey get lost in their own personal dramas. Ignore the robotic editing, and “Baby” is quite a model for Dawson’s Creek.
The plot is a standard having-a-baby-in-an-elevator trope, but at least it’s determined by the specifics of Capeside geography—that it’s a small town that requires rowing to get from the Potters’ to the Leerys’. That funny wide shot of Joey and then currently in labor Bessie rowing across the screen in silhouette completely sells the contrivance. And the jokes keep coming! Bessie chews out the ambulance dispatcher and Joey quips, “I’m sure they’ll be right on their way.” Then Grams opens her door to find Joey at peak scowl. Grams dismisses Dawson and his awful baby video with a quick, “Mr. DeMille, you can do something useful and get us some large towels and washcloths, please.” The levity really brings out the tension—so does the non-Dawson handheld camerawork and the sun going down—and for a moment, it actually feels like Bessie or the baby might be expendable from a narrative perspective. Everything is humming, from the comedy to the pathos to the silence of Dawson, and I haven't even mentioned how, all this time, Pacey is movingly saying good bye to the Tamara arc.
What any of this has to do with believing in God is beyond me, but for Grams, even a calendar is an opportunity to glorify her lord. Inasmuch as everyone can always grow up more, Grams is basically the fifth kid in this coming-of-age, but while she’s supernaturally judgmental, her big winks to Dawson about forgiveness in “Hurricane” and her endurance in “Baby” reveal a willingness to see outside of herself, which not everyone in Capeside shares. It’s a little disappointing that she takes this experience of Jen helping her deliver a baby with complications as a chance to pester her granddaughter about religion, and excuse herself from putting any pride into words. But at least Grams and Jen both see past their own stubborn positions for a moment. Baby steps.
“Hurricane” also sets up Pacey’s side of “Baby” by giving him an episode full of brotherly bravado before “Baby” reveals the disappointment underneath. His story starts with a typical Pacey mistake—he talks about Tamara to Dawson in the bathroom without smelling the smoke originating from one of the stalls—and Capeside’s cutest couple becomes Capeside’s hottest couple. Pacey immediately deflates, and the rest of the episode highlights how alone he is as wanders around town in his scarlet shirt. Joey tries to comfort him, Doug just scolds him in the scene that seems to hurt the most, and Tamara leaves him. Joshua Jackson practically redeems the story, even as it ventures into triteness with that sun-kissed good bye and the moonlit coda. He’s just a kid, and he had success for once, and now he’s back to being the sidekick to Dawson Leery. But the best part of a strong episode is that Pacey single-handedly wraps up the Tamara subplot with no loose threads, so Miss Jacobs can vanish without a trace and Joshua Jackson can start to play with the rest of the cast.
“Detention” (season 1, episode 7; originally aired 03/03/1998)
John Hughes was going to come up sooner or later, but I tend to side with Jen on The Breakfast Club: “That movie stunk.” “Detention” is so chained to its Breakfast-Club premise that it demands a lot of sudden turns in 40 minutes, like an act dedicated to developing bad blood between Pacey and Dawson and some apparently latent feeling of Jen being hated by all of Capeside. Another frustration of the gimmick is that it keeps Dawson from lending a shoulder to Pacey after everyone found out about Tamara the week before, although the freighted glances make it clear that Pacey is still reeling. So “Detention” isn’t a very smooth ride. But it’s a lot of fun, anyway.
The merits of John Hughes’ cinema aside, his sympathies led to teenage stories without any dismissive adult knowingness (though even in that respect, the only thing Hughes has on Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan is the good fortune of hovering in recent memory). Dawson’s Creek comes from that same mold. It’s absurd for a sophomore to feel behind the pack sexually, but it’s also believable, and “Detention” takes Dawson’s insecurity seriously. The episode even points out Joey subtextually saying, “I’m right here,” every time Dawson talks about being the last virgin in the world. True to its origins, “Detention” gets at a lot of the simmering tensions of the central foursome once it stops contriving the crucible.
Enter Abby Morgan, resident troublemaker. She has her own problems, such as excessive tardies, but for now she exists solely to stir the pot, and Monica Keena savors every delicious moment. She treats the main characters like entertainment—more voyeurism!—forcing Dawson to own up to his feelings of inadequacy, getting Joey to step up to the edge of confessing her crush on Dawson, and getting Pacey to admit to masturbating in the bathroom at school. Joey’s near-confession scene is the most intense, notwithstanding Dawson’s earnest puppy face. Joey’s natural state is wry snark, and suddenly she’s tearfully wrestling with serious feelings in front of everyone. Katie Holmes nails it: She can’t meet Dawson’s gaze, she can barely find voice for what words she can say, and she’s a delightfully ugly crier. Where was this Katie Holmes in that awful, catty gym scene?
She doesn’t end up confessing, and Dawson’s too dim to realize where she was going. So everyone else gets to air their grievances, however manufactured (I’m looking at you, Miss Popular Football Players Like Me But I Don’t Fit In), and in turn forge stronger relationships. But Joey is still adrift, to be rescued in another installment. On the bright side, where Pacey winds up wandering the beach alone, Joey’s angst is spectacularly central to the show. If any subplot demands repercussions—aside from Abby Morgan’s overflowing gossip bank—it’s Joey’s big moment.
- Did any first-time viewers worry for the survival of Bessie or the baby? The pregnancy is intense enough that I could see that direction opening up, at least until Grams starts praying, but I’m a gullible viewer.
- Not that it’s beyond the pale for even popular teenagers to feel socially dissatisfied, but where did all that Jen stuff come from? Her social life so far includes a group of friends, a boyfriend, and going to the dance with a popular football player. Maybe she’s just having one of those days. How else to explain calling Dawson Leery your godsend?
- Speaking of having a bad day, you can tell Joey’s out of it when she pulls a Dawson: “When did everyone become so obsessed with sex?”
- Joshua Jackson has been uniformly impressive so far, especially in the recent episodes. When Dawson tells Pacey about Gail's affair at the video store, Pacey’s reaction is refreshingly natural. And that was nothing compared to his low-key, simmering work in “Baby” and “Detention.”
- Meta alert: Joshua Jackson talking about The Mighty Ducks: “Emilio Estevez, he was in those duck movies, remember? God, those were classics.”
- Movie Topic Of The Week: Take your pick, but I’d love to know how you define “classic.” Pacey and I seem to have different criteria.
- Mike White, who wrote “Detention,” talks about his experiences at Dawson’s Creek on the DVD commentary for “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” from Freaks And Geeks. He specifically emphasizes the welcome change from the magazine-ad soap of Capeside to the stomach-pit reality of Freaks And Geeks.
- Oh, Dawson: “When movies get too unrealistic, it depresses me.”
- Another episode, another accidental revelation of Joey’s deep subtext, this time in a joke to Dawson about how Pacey has a bigger bicep.
- Next week: Jen’s ex visits to round out the love rhombus in “Boyfriend,” and Dawson lets off some steam in “Roadtrip.”