“Parental Discretion Advised” (season two, episode 22; originally aired 5/26/1999)
The thing about Dawson’s Creek going season-11-crazy in its second season finale is that it’s not half bad at it. Last week I was too busy staring at my eye sockets to notice the enormous bag of white powder, but Mr. Potter is dealing cocaine this time instead of marijuana. Also, Jen’s suicidal, the Ice House burns while the regulars study, and Joey pulls a surprise sting on her father—with Bessie just outside practicing her nuh-uh face with Alexander. That’s a far cry even from Andie seeing her dead brother; although both are Lifetime standards, only one swallows up the entire series. Dawson’s Creek is so internal that every little glance is open for discussion, but “Parental Discretion Advised” attacks everyone from the outside.
This doesn’t look or feel like Dawson’s Creek as we know it, at least not until the reconciliation tour at the end, but it’s a striking example of what Dawson’s Creek could be with a little more soap in its genes. Gail is taking the job in Philly after all, having changed her mind once between episodes, twice during the finale, and eight more times during the credits, just as Mitch is changing his mind about a relationship with Gail because, above all else, Dawson’s Creek is a show about bad timing. Pacey’s so depressed about Andie leaving that he turned in two finals without writing a single word, which seems like overkill, but his father sometimes gets angry and slaps him, so maybe there are bigger fish to fry. Jen is suddenly fascinated by suicide to such a worrisome extent that she doesn’t even pretend to back off when Jack calls her on it, leading to the funniest shot in the series so far: A cutaway during the fire of Jen entranced by the writerly flames beckoning her to the sweet release she wouldn’t get for another four seasons. And Joey takes out all her paternal frustration and disappointment on Dawson, who spends the episode standing up to adults and getting the wind knocked out of him for his troubles.
Dawson’s Creek going to 11 might be a catastrophe if it didn’t look so good, but it’s just as occasionally well-made as usual. Take the post-fire chat at the Leerys’, a scene about Mitch and Gail encouraging Dawson to do the hard thing, even if it means hurting Joey. It’s a scene of smudgy shadows and brown lighting and tight framing, like a swamp pulling Dawson in. It helps that he’s covered in soot. Then there’s Gail’s goodbye scene, a ridiculous piece of bullshit after the double-date antics that’s totally redeemed by the wistful performances and the image: Mitch looking at the dirt, Gail looking into the distance, the two of them sitting side-by-side without touching on an overcast day that nevertheless backlights the big tree behind them with an autumnal gold. This is still Dawson’s Creek, which means an acoustic ballad will abruptly fade out as soon as conversation starts, but it almost gets away with the florid melodrama on style alone.
But “Parental Discretion Advised” tries so hard to get a reaction that it doesn’t really earn anything from me beyond a distanced, measured respect. The Joey arc is so insular that executive producer Paul Stupin admits as much on the DVD commentary. Considering this episode takes place in a universe where Joey wearing a wire fits right in, I totally believe that Joey would take every step of her path here. I just don’t think much of it stands up to scrutiny. Dawson, on the other hand, I barely believe in any scene—and not just because his performance parodies teen soap, especially opposite Katie Homes’ furious naturalism—but his arc makes perfect sense. The Dawson-Joey breakup is so schematic that the episode opens with a discussion of love overcoming any obstacle just so Joey can subvert it at the end. When Dawson asks, “Will you always love me, no matter the circumstances?” it’s the cheesiest scene in the world until you remember that Dawson is sitting on a time-bomb that he found through sheer accident. Dawson’s reversal of fortune is so obvious and unearned (and, again, poorly acted) that it’s hard to get invested.
Pacey is a different story. That slap in the alley is the hardest I’ve seen on television outside of The Real Housewives, and I am so not on board with Mr. Witter’s “Way to be a real man” guide to parenting, but their final-act reunion at least approaches something that looks like catharsis. It helps that Joshua Jackson plays Pacey like he’s been transported from a 1950s Hollywood melodrama to the emotionally open ’90s, so classically pent-up but dependable for a flood when the time comes. The scene also feels more like the usual Dawson’s Creek, all daddy issues and emotional confrontation. In a realistic universe, Mr. Witter seeing his son through Andie’s eyes, feeling proud of Pacey for once and arranging for him to retake his finals, doesn’t even begin to decelerate the years of emotional (and apparently physical) torment. But on Dawson’s Creek, it’s enough. What finally puts the scene over the top is the presence of Andie. I was more excited about her long phone chat with Mr. Witter than I was about anything else in the episode, and that was before I knew she asked him to hug Pacey for her, two big season-long stories coming together to wrap Pacey up and tell him that life sucks but maybe it’ll be okay in the long run.
Only the first part applies to Jen, but she throws out just enough warning signs that Jack forces her to bond with him over self-loathing and acceptance and upper-middle-class homelessness. The suicidal instinct feels like the latest outfit the writers are trying on Jen, and like so many of the others it never really fits. But Jen bonding with Jack does connect, perhaps because it’s universally relatable, but also because it’s one of the few unadulterated bright spots in “Parental Discretion Advised.” Getting to know a new friend, connecting with someone on a deeper level than snarky jokes about Dawson’s hair, helps diminish the loneliness that haunts Jen—especially in the wake of Abby’s death. Insofar as the season is about the group coming together, Jack and Jen forging a friendship is one of the most important milestones of the finale.
But for as much as everyone’s come together, the season ends with a surprising amount of fragmentation. Mr. Potter’s off to jail again. Gail’s off to Philadelphia, leaving Mitch to hook up with the rest of the Capeside faculty. Andie is still seeking treatment in Providence, but at least Pacey’s pulling things together at home. And Joey tells Dawson, “I know that I will never forgive you,” because he poured reality all over her happy-family fantasy. There should be tension, but I don’t feel it. Even in 1999, it’s hard to imagine anyone being seriously concerned that the two main characters would be apart for long. But as long as we’re pretending, it sure was nice to see Pacey helping Joey out of the burning Ice House. Season two may have a hollow cliffhanger, but it sets up a glorious season three.
- Joey prefers thwarted romances. “I’m sorry, but sad stories are just more powerful.” On the evidence of “Parental Discretion Advised,” I’d have to disagree.
- Mr. Witter barges into a study session. “What are you doing here, Pacey?” “We’re, uh, signing a peace treaty.”
- Love how Dawson takes the lead in getting Mr. Potter out of the fire even with Mr. Witter there. Mr. Witter even evacuates before they do!
- Greatest scene in Dawson’s Creek history: Dawson asks to have the room at the police station, and everyone obeys.
- Pacey punches his father with the line, “Andie did more for my life in six months than you did in 16 years, you rotten son of a bitch.” What I love about that line is that the season bears him out. Pacey has completely turned around since falling for Andie, which makes her departure that much more painful.
- Gail calls her decision “the unplanned route,” a beautiful phrase for a trite story. The two actual grown-ups are in the same kinds of teenage plots as everyone else, but you can feel that they have so much more history.
- Jen’s ultimatum is Dawson’s Creek in a nutshell. The first part is a little righteous and entitled, though at least half deserved. Then Michelle Williams immediately pivots from the usual moodiness to this devastating nakedness when she asks Grams to acknowledge how much she’s been through.
- Finally, Jen tells Grams that she’s a package deal with Jack, and Grams gets closer to the season-one finale than anyone else with a simple quip: “Well, I’ve been meaning to clean out your grandfather’s room.”
- Bodie Watch: Still serving lunches at the Milford Academy, I guess.