“To Be Or Not To Be…” (season 2, episode 14; originally aired 2/10/1999) and “…That Is The Question” (season 2, episode 15; originally aired 2/17/1999)
“To Be Or Not To Be…” and “…That Is The Question” mean so much to me that I was nervous to revisit them. This wasn’t just a coming-out episode but the coming-out episode when I was young, a two-part coup about growing up gay at a time when being gay on the broadcast networks was something that usually happened to middle-aged adults and recurring guest stars. There’s so much more to gay life than drama and trauma, but there’s a place for those classical weepies, too, and for 1999, this is quite a spotlight. The first episode asks whether Jack is gay, and the second ignores his answer and asks how to deal with it. Jack is the focus, as Mr. Peterson makes him read a revealing poem aloud in class, but the episode traces the fallout like barium coursing through the body. Every character has a unique role and a unique relationship to Jack. That’s why everyone had to make up in the past two episodes. Those bonds need to be in place for this. What’s more, the episode evokes more gay-adjacent issues than Tobias Fünke: single-sex parenting (Jack and Andie), a double life (Ty), bullying (Mr. Peterson). The only thing missing is a deadly STI, but there’s plenty of time for that.
Kerr Smith’s performance justifies all kinds of contradictory opinions, but his over-the-top confrontation with Jack’s father nails the overwhelmed feeling of coming out. He just can’t hold it in anymore. Neither could I, the first time I teared up since Joey saw her father. Good, old-fashioned catharsis. Jack then goes into Dawson mode, recounting a psychological narrative in flowery teen language, but the emotions are so resonant it’s hard to watch. Once again, Dawson’s Creek does a fantastic job planting the seeds for this scene, not just with all the hints about Jack having secrets and being sensitive but how Jack feels enormous pressure to be the together one in his family and how he gets stuck in his head. What makes less sense is that he couldn’t spontaneously change the pronoun in his poem (and maybe skip the “frame strong” part), but that’s a McGuffin anyway. Jack is obviously trying to confront his homosexuality, and it was bound to come out sometime.
The next morning at school, where it says “fag” on his locker, he’s already feeling free. What I remember most vividly about first coming out to my friend, other than the night itself, is walking into school the next morning feeling like a new person, even though only he and I were aware the world had changed. The scene looks like the usual, but it’s charged with that rejuvenation. Nothing about Jack’s external circumstances are different (except for Mr. McPhee’s expulsion), but now that Jack feels better about himself he’s ready to make peace with Pacey and Joey.
For most of “…That Is The Question,” Katie Holmes and Kerr Smith live up to the script by trying way too hard to convince each other that Jack and Joey are sexually attracted to each other, but Holmes finally proves why she should be the lead star of a teen drama in the final scene. Dawson’s Creek hasn’t done a great job of establishing Jack and Joey as head-over-heels for each other, but Holmes is so raw and rusty that I completely understand what Joey’s feeling. This isn’t about her, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect her—dramatically—and a breakup is a breakup. She goes running into Dawson’s arms in the final scene, a return to the trusty overhead bed shot, only this time Joey’s in the fetal position and Dawson’s trying to comfort her.
Dawson comes off the worst in this episode, or at least the most self-interested. After a delightful opening scene that casually, silently pokes at the group dynamics among Dawson, Pacey, and Jack, Kid Spielberg spends the next two hours trying to wrest Joey from his romantic rival. His scenes are all about being able to read Joey’s eyes (more for the voyeurism file). He stands there gawking at Jack’s locker and professing just enough concern for the guy to persuade other people to talk to Jack in his stead. There’s a lengthy bathroom break in which Dawson tells Joey, “You are extremely sexual,” and “Your sexuality is in everything you do,” and “You’re blossoming.” Naturally Joey finds her Cyrano irresistible. She’s already taken his advice and asked Jack point blank if he’s gay. The funniest thing about these episodes is that “…That Is The Question” overrules Jack’s answer. At the end of part one, Jack has done everything short of leaking a sex tape to prove he’s straight, but by the time part two rolls around, everyone is operating under the assumption that he’s probably gay. What a perceptive structural comment. After all is said and done, Dawson gets exactly what he wants, but it’s an open question whether Dawson’s Creek is aware of its hero’s selfishness yet.
Jen is the least integrated in part one, but by the end it’s clear what this whole Ty situation is about. For all of “To Be Or Not To Be…” Ty is an affable dork who just happens to go to church and—gasp!—drink alcohol sometimes. Everyone treats him like that’s the height of hypocrisy (which is itself—ah, never mind), a characterization that never really jibes with Ty’s on-screen life. But taken as a metaphor for homosexuality, the heightened response makes a lot more sense. Ty isn’t leading a double life that’s eating away at him; Jack is. The other purpose of the Ty character is to provide the conservative Christian response to Jack’s outing that Grams is too glorious to parrot. Speaking of flawless characters, good, old, conservative Grams always seems to know just how to win over progressives, doesn’t she? Jack’s outing takes a whole episode to get to Jen—another remarkable feature of the slowly forming bonds among the group—but finally someone shows the repressive social response to gay people for what it is: a selfish, immature little boy. Ty being Ty, he insists that he’s willing to change his mind, so he and Jen ride off into the sunset.
Back to the center of the episode, the Pacey storyline acknowledges and addresses my complaint about his recent flawlessness. My eyes popped out of my head when Jack tells him, “I didn’t need a hero. I recognize it’s an addiction of yours but this is one instance where you should have just kept your nose out of it.” Jack is trying to deflect attention, but he’s right: Pacey is a knight. Only, his quest here isn’t as noble as it seems at first. As he confesses to Andie on the dock, Pacey stands up for Jack in part because he’s the reason Mr. Peterson called Jack out in the first place. He’s also standing up for himself in a moving display of self-esteem: He finally proves himself academically, and still the system treats him like a case of social promotion. Beyond that, Pacey and Andie are both too stubborn to see past their own grievances with each other, so they wind up apart at a time when they could each use some support. Now, that’s more like it. There’s just enough tarnish on his armor that Pacey’s righteous crusade is an unabashed fist-pumper. “No, sir, that is spitting in the face of the entire educational system.” Infinitely more fulfilling than standing on a desk.
That he proves Mr. Peterson is in violation of codes of conduct, and collects evidence, and distributes his report to the entire school board is the pile of cherries on top. Not only is Pacey doing the right thing by forcing this asshole to be accountable to a higher authority, Pacey’s showing himself what he can do if he puts his mind to it. So what’s with that conflicted ending? Why is Pacey apologizing to Mr. Peterson, and why is Mr. Peterson praising Pacey? This is more painful than watching Dawson talk about Joey blossoming. Great, one last lesson. Pacey is compassionate to everyone except the authoritarian asshole who made a gay kid cry in class. Cue the sentimental piano. That chink in Pacey’s armor compromises the entire journey. So now Pacey feels bad about indirectly forcing a teacher’s early retirement, and Mr. Peterson’s off to live out his life in peace a few months before he was planning to anyway. If I have one complaint about this episode’s democratic spirit, it’s this final poisonous thought that we should have boundless tolerance for the abusers, too. Go fuck yourself, Mr. Peterson.
Finally, the McPhees. At first Andie is credibly chilly about the prospect of Jack being gay, clearly internalizing their father’s demand that Jack keep his head down. That might be why her gradual realization of the Grams worldview—Jack needs support no matter what his sexuality—is the most moving to me. At last there’s something Andie doesn’t immediately know how to handle. But the scene where she nimbly tells Jack she’s there for him, that he’s not alone, and that she loves him is beautiful, both for the sentiment and the almost comical diligence with which Andie says exactly what needs to be said. You know she read some pamphlets. When Jack finally locks into place, all the uncertainty around Andie evaporates, too. She banishes Mr. McPhee to Providence and makes up with Pacey. As special guest stars go, Andie and Jack are really pulling their weight.
Looking back, “To Be Or Not To Be…” and “…That Is The Question” aren’t just great statement episodes, although that’s certainly why I took to them when I first saw them. They’re quintessential Dawson’s Creek. Everything is filtered through a particular subgenre. The structure of the story takes after the structure of the relationships as an earthquake ripples outward, and it doesn’t get as schematic as the previous few stories. And the long-term narrative makes investments and withdrawals for all six main characters. Throw in Grams, a confirmed Bessie sighting, and no Abby Morgan, and the final arc of season two is looking up.
- Did I miss the Hamlet reference?
- Dawson thinks writing is a chance to open up a private part of yourself that you’d otherwise stifle. Which is why his writing is all about public events that he’s talked about to death.
- Best sight gag: “Big Dick” in the word search on the walls of the English classroom.
- Edmund Kearney is really good at twirling that mustache. His performance is one outrage after another. Smirking at Pacey outside the principal’s office might be the least prickish thing he does all week.
- With that in mind, I called Ty a dick for springing a Bible study on atheist Jen, but that was just a first impression. Here he seems okay, at least after he gets the Grams smackdown, but maybe my charitable opinion is colored by the preposterous accusations of hypocrisy from all the leads.
- We’re supposed to believe that Joey Potter wouldn’t aggressively correct those guys in the cafeteria? Maybe she is changing.
- Always with the meta: “Tonight on a very special episode of Capeside High.”
- Striking stylistic moment: After that quick glimpse of Pacey and Andie tearing down copies of Jack’s poem in the hallway, suddenly we’re in class, the camera low among the students, hearing the disembodied voice of Mr. Peterson. As Mr. Peterson zeroes in on Jack, demanding he finish reading his poem, the camera closes in on Jack, too. Evocative, effective work.
- I don’t get the “gay elephant” joke, but I already barely listen to Dawson as it is.
- And then Dawson goes and says, “In my lifetime, Pacey, I will never be ashamed of you.” This kid’s giving me whiplash.
- The only thing funnier than Joey’s “Hey, Jack, are you gay?” is the triumphant makeout that follows. Hooray! He’s not gay!
- I lied. The soap-opera hug when Andie sees her father is practically parody. Close-ups of every single McPhee, then a wide shot, then one last close-up of each character before commercial, all while Andie’s holding a hug.
- It’s not funny that someone tagged “fag” on Jack’s locker, but the whip pan and the slam sound effect are just this side of an anvil dropping.
- If “couldn’t be seedier” is the goal of the night club set, someone failed.
- Nobody in history has enjoyed hanging out alone in the front yard more than Jen.
- Next week: Dawson gets drunk on his birthday in “Be Careful What You Wish For,” and a psychic advises the kids about the future in “Psychic Friends.” Yes, seriously.