Aside from the infamous Dawson Leery ugly-cry, Dawson’s Creek is best remembered for its cerebral teenage protagonists making hyper-articulate speeches about their feelings. You know that aphorism, “Nobody talks shit about my family but me”? This was how it felt, as a weary ride or die fan of The Creek. However, when spunky ingenue Joey Potter hooked up with charming sidekick Pacey Witter in the “Cinderella Story” episode of Season 3, it was such a creatively strong storyline that it demanded Dawson’s be taken more seriously.
The Pacey-Joey relationship wasn’t plagued with the dysfunctional darkness of its teen genre peers Buffy and Spike, and they possessed the kind of compatible longevity that was missing from all of Rory Gilmore’s romantic partnerships. Their screwball dynamic, coupled with actors Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson’s untapped chemistry and an intricately plotted courtship subverted everything expected of the show. It unsurprisingly still resonates with so many millennial women who grew up watching the series. There was a time when we had come for the angst, but now we were staying for the romance.
During the spring of 1999, Dawson’s Creek had nose-dived from critically acclaimed coming-of-age drama and WB tentpole in its debut season to campy melodrama with its second season efforts. Aside from the genuinely touching coming-out storyline for new cast addition Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith), Season 2 was just a lot of confusing Dawson and Joey back and forth and long-time viewers were over it. Dawson’s was Kevin Williamson’s (Scream, The Vampire Diaries) brainchild and after giving up his mantle at the end of the second series, a whole new team, including a multitude of women staffers, joined veteran Greg Berlanti (You, Riverdale) in the writer’s room and began throwing out ideas for Season 3. It was Berlanti’s lightbulb moment to have well-established frenemies Pacey and Joey kiss and as their arc began to unfurl, Dawson’s Creek was resuscitated.
In the Season 3 finale, “True Love,” which aired 20 years ago, after a school year’s worth of ignoring her feelings for him, Joey comes to tell Pacey that she is actually in love with him. Perhaps it’s self-isolation delirium, but the episode is still an exhilarating watch. In a character-defining line, she muses that she and Dawson have been “trying to stop each other from moving on and growing up, but not you.” Some of the most memorable episodes of Season 3 feature storylines where Good Guy Pacey is supporting and encouraging an emotionally untethered Joey. Think episodes: “A Weekend in the Country,” where Pacey helps Joey and sister Bessie get their B&B business off the ground and “To Green With Love,” when he rents her a wall to encourage her artistic passions following the mural she painted for a school project getting defaced by a bully. As cheesy as their descriptions might sound, these were actual exciting episodes!
Sarah D. Bunting, the writer and co-founder of seminal recap website Television Without Pity, remembers that time and tells Jezebel, “[Pacey and Joey] was a very appealing package for viewers. They had fun! Dawson/Joey was so angsty and Dawson’s Creek, for all its other failures as a believable portrait of teenagers, did figure that out and try to turn the ship. We wouldn’t have expected Dawson’s to even try to reconfigure the triangle, but they did.”
It’s impossible to talk about Pacey and Joey without first acknowledging Dawson and Joey. As much as the latter were like family to one another in the show’s formative seasons—Joey had a notoriously difficult home life (her mother had died of cancer, and her father was a convicted drug dealer)—there was always an unhealthy level of codependency between them because of it. Dawson came across as the type of guy who would describe young women like Joey as “beautiful but completely unaware of it” (in fact, this might have been an actual line in the show) as if she was a thing he could guide, not a human girl with agency and feelings. “[Pacey] sees Joey for who she is and thinks she’s awesome,” Sarah says. “It’s not this scripted idea like it is with Dawson. [Pacey and Joey’s relationship] was a much more mature, less manipulative idea of love than what Dawson was offering.” Dawson, who was naturally supposed to assume the piece’s hero role, had become so unlikable by Season 3 (and sometimes even Joey, too, by association) that majority viewer consensus was to root against him.
Take the brilliant multiple-perspective episode, “The Longest Day,” which sees the Capeside gang finding out about Pacey and Joey’s relationship one by one in an explosive turn of events. Once clued-in, Dawson plays on Joey’s anxieties about her sexual inexperience, lecturing her that Pacey will expect sex. It’s manipulation we have seen from him before. During one of their many attempts at coupledom in Season 2, Dawson refrains from encouraging Joey to take her dream opportunity of studying in Paris because he knows she won’t risk forfeiting time with him. When the all-encompassing love triangle unravels in the back half of the third season, it’s deeply upsetting to see Joey so miserable because she’s scared of losing her family in Dawson if she follows her heart to be with Pacey. “My primary feeling [after Joey chooses Pacey] was gratification that Dawson was being humiliated and also respect for the show, for realizing that what the show had thought of as its core romance—Dawson and Joey—was not nearly as watchable as Pacey and Joey,” Sarah reflects. “They also didn’t have nearly the sexual chemistry. It simply wasn’t credible that anyone would opt for Dawson over Pacey, except out of misplaced guilt.”
As teenage fans, we recognized that although theirs was a strong example of a healthy relationship filled with passion, support, and mutual understanding, it really wasn’t about Joey choosing a guy to date, it was about what she wanted for her own life. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that in its conception Pacey and Joey getting together was ever thought of as too polarizing. “You can’t do that!” Season 3 writer Jeffrey Stepakoff recalled in his book Billion Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek. “Joey is Dawson’s girl. Remember, they are soul mates and that is the closest thing we have to a franchise around here!” It was a bold move for a show that relied on specific narrative formulas which mostly limited its characters. Joey Potter could be an infuriating combination of timid and stubborn and Pacey Witter an irking, perfect TV boyfriend, but their symbiotic relationship was a compelling stroke of genius. That’s all I could ever ask of a nostalgic teen drama, which would undoubtedly be remembered as simply soapy without it.
Lauren Pinnington is a freelance pop culture writer, teen drama aficionado, and typical Scorpio.