“The Election” (season 2, episode 9; originally aired 12/16/1998)
Everything that makes Dawson’s Creek what it is comes together in “The Election.” There are big, cartoonish sequences that overshoot melodrama by a mile. There are sensitive moments of heightened naturalism drawing on decades of teen fiction. The episode is self-conscious to the point of sentience. There a bunch of little duets, but they all revolve around one another. Supporting characters reappear with motivations transparently designed to service the main cast. At times it’s a work of disposable aesthetics, and at others it’s quietly beautiful. It broaches new territory, but everything feels inevitable. There’s no resolution, but the episode is overflowing with hints about the future. It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times—it’s adolescence on Dawson’s Creek.
The election for student council president is coming up—and not a moment too soon, what with it being spring semester and all—and Andie wants to run with Joey. But except for some talk about Walkmans in study hall, this election has nothing to do with being a liaison between the students and the administration. This is a high-stakes crazy train where Andie can go look up Joey’s GPA somewhere and Abby can dig up dirt on Andie’s mom. No wonder Joey says, “I don’t do student government.” She’s not being her typical, scowling self. The Capeside High student council elections are Machiavelli’s dream, only with words as the weapons, since this is still Dawson’s Creek.
The election story has one basic purpose—to out Ms. McPhee’s mental illness (which would never happen if the writers treated this like a real school election, hence all the high-stakes antics)—but it affects so many characters. It forces Jack to stop interviewing for this part and finally get past that façade. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see him lash out at Joey, misplaced though his vitriol is, and his scene with Andie is so good it almost makes up for their being apart all these episodes. The story tries to get Joey to step up, though she doesn’t really know how, which is interesting in its own right. Joey’s a little more unsure of herself lately, a refreshing change of pace that silently mirrors Dawson’s story. Instead Pacey gets to play white knight. Par for the course this season, but Pacey’s subplot in “The Election” never feels reheated, in part because this time he’s helping Andie directly and in part because it contributes to Pacey’s long-term arc of gaining some self-esteem. If he gets to pull a smooth and simultaneously ridiculous sting on Abby Morgan in the process, more power to him. And the outing lowers Abby to a less redeemable position, which certainly has some bearing on her future.
The scene itself is admirably realistic. Abby goes full bitch in this speech about how “we have hard evidence” that Andie’s mom killed Andie’s brother in a car crash and how mental illness is hereditary (implying what, that Andie could be a danger to her fellow students?), and everyone is just quiet. No loud gasps or judgmental extras. Dawson looks shocked at Jen. Pacey tries to support Andie from the stands. Soon enough a teacher interrupts Abby, and naturally Abby responds like a little girl. Andie just freezes and tears up. Unfortunately, it’s such a humiliation that Andie has a heart-breaking depressive episode. The fact that Andie, of all people, can’t bring herself to deliver a speech over the loudspeaker shows exactly how serious it is. Pacey tries to cheer her up in the bathroom, which is great for what it is, but the best scene comes at the McPhee household.
Shot through Andie’s bedroom window, she’s sitting there in her rocking chair looking out and Jack walks in behind her. “I finally got mom to bed.” They’re like parents of newborns. Just like Joey (and to a lesser extent Jen), they’re raising themselves. But then he steels himself to say something really difficult. Finally, Kerr Smith shows us some of the burden he carries. “Your highs and lows are becoming really intense lately… I think maybe it’s time you went back on your medication.” Andie says she’s fine, and he can’t even argue. It’s that painful, that tender. Meredith Monroe is the life of Dawson’s Creek right now, and seeing Andie genuinely unable to bounce back hurts. The closing-montage phone call to Pacey is almost as wrenching as the scene where Joey visits her father at the fence, intensely sad but lined with this relief. At the risk of numbness, Andie’s taking her medication to level out.
All the while, around the edge of that story is Dawson’s, which starts out with enough levity to balance but winds up nearly as moving. For once Dawson is elated to walk in on his parents just as they get past the “But I didn’t order a pizza” portion of their porn shoot. As usual, the blocking of Mitch and Gail in the Leery kitchen is preposterous but expressive, here forcing Mitch to be just about physically inside of Gail when he goes to reach for a towel. You read that right. This is a scene in which Mitch needs a towel, they both get sprayed with jets of water, and clothes come off. I wasn’t joking when I compared the scene to a porno. So far, Mitch and Gail are the only couple having sex on this teen drama this season. Interesting marketing tactic.
So Dawson gets all excited about this turn of events until his father tells him it won’t happen again, that it was an old pattern and Mitch is trying to change his actions. Cue Jen, his teen sponsor. All that babble about Dawson being too smart for his own good is eye-roll-worthy, even for this show, but it’s a flat way of setting up that final dichotomy. Dawson’s finally tired of thinking through everything and worrying about consequences. He wants to lose some inhibitions as long as it doesn’t involve drinking and he gets home by midnight and he finishes his homework in time. Jen, the show’s standby total mess, is once again drafted into service, but this time to a totally different end. Jen and Dawson go skinny-dipping in the first act of a horror film, and when he kisses her, she recoils. She genuinely doesn’t want him romantically anymore, and she certainly doesn’t want to ruin their friendship again. After a generous coping period, Jen finally shows that spine she had when she first slo-moed her way into Capeside.
And then comes the kicker: Mitch finally serves Gail divorce papers. I don’t know why Jen is reading a book on the floor in front of her kitchen sink—my guess is one too many theater classes on using space—but it gives her and Dawson this weird, uncomfortable position for this weird, uncomfortable moment. Dawson isn’t sure if he should be mature and self-aware (since his parents will likely be better off) or if he should let himself feel shocked and hurt. It’s one of the most resonant moments on the series, speaking to self-consciousness (of both cutely postmodern cinema and adolescence) and a universal quandary. Can I be selfish about this? The currents of Dawson’s Creek are sweeping everyone to a more selfless place, but the goal isn’t the extreme of self-denial. Jen hugs him sideways. He thanks her for being there. She says, “Thanks for letting me.” And they sit in silence, like Joey and Dawson once did while her mother was dying, and like Jack and Joey are doing at that exact moment.
- Just one episode this week, because there’s a two-parter coming up that would have been split across reviews otherwise. Last week I was kicking myself for not making “The All-Nighter” the one-off, but “The Election” proved plenty meaty on its own. Next week, back to the two-a-days—or two-a-weeks as the case may be.
- Seriously, this episode (and review) are brimming with foreshadowing, from the obvious upcoming changes to more subtle plot points down the line.
- Dawson defends his writing: “It’s supposed to come from a naïve place.”
- Dawson says, “I’m raw, dark.” Jen says, “In theory maybe. All I’m saying is you lack the proof and facts to back that up.”
- It takes Abby all of two seconds to shriek at Joey for a menu.
- Pacey, Andie, and Joey in a nutshell: “What’s so sexy about me?” Pacey asks, leaning in to kiss Andie. Then Joey sits down behind him and grunts.
- Jen vicariously stealing an Urban Decay lipstick (or trying to, anyway) is a little less pointed than when Abby did it. But it does make me long for a scene in which Jen gets to react to Abby’s behavior here.
- New pick-up line: “Your hyperawareness is disarming.”
- New band name: Little Miss Perky And The Convict’s Daughter.
- After a scene that blatantly suggests porn, Dawson walks in on his mother scrubbing the kitchen spotless. “Be careful, honey. I just mopped the floor.”
- The scene outside the lake as Jen and Dawson talk about how alive he feels and what to do next is shot like a reprise of their breakup scene in season one, which is to say close-ups against a black night sky over the water. It’s probably coincidental, but those are the only two scenes in the series thus far shot like that, and both are heightened moments shared by Dawson and Jen.
- Abby looks crazy in the loudspeaker scene, right? Bold red lipstick, shellacked curls, and two pink pom-pons in her hair.
- Kenny’s triumphant return is pretty passive. He’s basically there to receive Pacey’s high-five in the fantastic parting line, “School’s yours, pal.”
- Next week: All the couples start to, um, harden in “High Risk Behavior,” and Abby Morgan investigates a steamy note, murder-mystery-style, in “Sex, She Wrote.”