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20 years ago, Dawson’s Creek introduced a love triangle that changed teen soaps forever

It’s not a good show, but it did one thing right.

Katie Holmes, James Van Der Beek, Michelle Williams, and Joshua Jackson in a promotional shoot for Dawson’s Creek Getty/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Twenty years ago this year, Dawson’s Creek moped its way onto television screens across the country — its adolescent, angst-filled heart pinned to the sleeves of its oversized ’90s button-downs as they flapped in the wholesome Cape Cod air — and became a phenomenon.

Along with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the series came to define the brand of the fledgling WB network. It was celebrated on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (where the cast has returned this week for a 20th anniversary edition). Its premiere drew 6.8 million viewers, the highest ratings in The WB’s history. TV Guide created four different collectible covers featuring the four leads. In ads for the show, the young cast looked as fresh and wholesome and white as a J.Crew catalog, probably because they also all appeared in the pages of a J.Crew catalog. Beautiful young people in beautiful romantic turmoil was Dawson’s Creek’s game, and the series was in it to win it.

But the real reason we remember Dawson’s Creek 20 years later is something that happened 19 years ago, in the fall of 1999. That’s when a flailing creative team — almost entirely new to the show after a massive staff turnover — was working desperately to come up with new ideas for a show that was quickly running out of story. To save Dawson’s Creek, they had to fundamentally change its formula.

That’s when Dawson’s Creek went from being about title character Dawson and his earnest, possessive love for Joey to being about Joey herself, torn between Dawson and his best friend Pacey.

And in making that change, Dawson’s Creek found itself moving away from the old-fashioned teen love story that reigned supreme in the ’80s and early ’90s, and toward a kind of romance that would become increasingly popular among teen soaps over the next two decades. It moved away from a love story built on the unshakable, unquestionable belief that women belonged to men and that was all there was to it — and toward a love story that could at least gesture at valuing women’s agency and independent worth.

The Joey-Pacey-Dawson love triangle was a desperate move from a desperate writing staff

James VanDerBeek, Joshua Jackson, and Katie Holmes on Dawson’s Creek
Were we ever so young?
Warner Bros.

When Dawson’s Creek began, it was firmly centered on Dawson himself (James Van Der Beek). Dawson was a stand-in for showrunner Kevin Williamson, then fresh off the Scream franchise, and he was the sun around which the rest of the show orbited.

Dawson was a Spielberg-obsessed film nerd living in a WASP fantasy of a Cape Cod town, and he was torn between his obvious attraction to cool girl Jen (a wildly underused pre-Oscar-nominations Michelle Williams) and his unrecognized love for Joey (Katie Holmes), the scrappy tomboy from down the creek. It was a classic Madonna/whore love triangle: Jen (gasp!) had had sex, whereas Joey was a virgin and had a chip on her shoulder about it. (“I lost it ages ago, to a trucker named Bubba,” she once snarked.) Dawson had another best friend, too: an underachieving jokester named Pacey (Joshua Jackson), who spent most of season one getting seduced by his English teacher in a deeply uncomfortable storyline.

By the end of that 12-episode first season, all of these plots had resolved themselves. Pacey’s English teacher left town. Dawson and Jen broke up because Dawson couldn’t handle the idea that Jen wasn’t a virgin. Then Dawson realized he was in love with Joey and they kissed. There was nowhere left to go.

But the show was a hit. The WB ordered another season, this one with 22 episodes. Dawson’s Creek had to go somewhere.

Instead, it sort of flailed.

Season two of Dawson’s Creek can best be described as a body in protracted, slow-motion distress. There’s a plot where Dawson’s parents become swingers, and a plot where Jen accidentally murders a girl with champagne, and one where Joey has to send her father to prison by wearing a wire. There are a few bright spots — like new character Jack McPhee’s coming out storyline, which was revolutionary for the time — but mostly, it’s chaos.

And it was reportedly chaos behind the scenes as well. Stories weren’t developed on time, so production fell behind schedule. Actors were cast late and received their scripts late; sets were built late. Nothing gelled.

Williamson quit halfway through the season. The WB brought in fresh blood. And one of the young writers the network hired was then-27-year-old Greg Berlanti, now the head of The CW’s superhero empire.

In his book The Billion-Dollar Kiss, former Dawson’s Creek writer Jeffrey Stepakoff describes how Berlanti came up with the plot twist that would save the show. Berlanti, he says, had a simple pitch: “Pacey kisses Joey.”

What? I remember thinking. “You can’t do that. Joey is Dawson’s girl. Remember, they are soul mates, and that is the closest thing we have to a franchise around here.”

But Greg was so impassioned, as was his usual state, that he jumped up, grabbed a cheerful color marker from Tammy, and drew a triangle on one of the boards, writing “Pacey” at one point, “Joey” at another, and “Dawson” at another. “No, I’m serious,” he said. “Pacey kisses Joey. Think about it!”

And that’s when it hit me. Of course! A love triangle. Heresy is exactly what the show needed. Not only did we have a story, we had a story engine, a dramatic problem that would create many other stories.

Perhaps because it was clear to everyone in the writers’ room that the Joey-Pacey-Dawson love triangle was going to have to carry the show through the rest of its run so they’d better pull this off, Joey and Pacey’s season three love story is the only storyline on Dawson’s Creek that might be called aesthetically pleasing. It’s an exquisitely paced slow burn, one that reveals new depths to its characters and makes them both more complex and more sympathetic. It is still satisfying to watch in 2018.

And in 1999, it did its job. The Joey-Pacey-Dawson love triangle would ultimately power the show through its remaining four seasons. It was a tireless story engine, a well of dramatic conflict that would never run dry — even when Joey wasn’t dating either boy. She would date Dawson only in seasons two and six, and Pacey only in seasons four and six, but nevertheless, from the season three finale onward, every one of Dawson’s Creek’s season premieres and season finales would revolve around the love triangle and its fallout. Every major episode could be advertised with one of two taglines: either “Who. Will. She. Choose?” or “Her choice. Changed. Everything.”

That advertising copy is silly, but in a way, it’s true. The Joey-Pacey storyline did change everything — starting with the way Dawson’s Creek thought about sex and ownership.

The central idea of early Dawson’s Creek was that Dawson basically owned Joey, and everybody knew it

James VanDerBeek and Katie Holmes on Dawson’s Creek
Young Katie Holmes’s crooked smile is just as charming as you remember.
Warner Bros.

Stepakoff’s description of his knee-jerk reaction to the idea of a love triangle — “You can’t do that. Joey is Dawson’s girl!” — is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also telling. Dawson’s Creek was very much built around the idea that Joey was Dawson’s girl; that she was his property, and he was entitled to her.

Throughout the series’ run, multiple characters lecture Joey repeatedly on the idea that she should be with Dawson, including Dawson’s aunt(!), who both the show and Joey herself seem to believe is owed an explanation on Joey’s love life. Joey sacrifices a trip to Paris when Dawson wants her to. She organizes her entire life around him. Their first breakup is prompted by Joey’s realization that she has nothing in her life besides Dawson.

So the introduction of the love triangle fundamentally destabilized the show. It suggested the possibility of a universe in which Joey did not belong to Dawson, an idea to which everyone involved (even Pacey, whose crush on Joey kicked off an existential crisis) reacted with deep and profound horror.

That horror is perhaps best summarized by a plot line in season four in which Joey, newly admitted to her dream college, finds out she has not received enough financial aid to attend and does not want to take out crippling student loans to make up the difference. (At the time, this decision was roundly mocked by fans, but in retrospect, good thinking, Joey Potter.) Dawson, having recently come into some cash, offers to pay Joey’s tuition for her.

The offer prompts Joey to burst into guilt-stricken tears. She has something to admit to Dawson, she says: She’s no longer a virgin. She slept with Pacey.

“It wasn’t fair of me to let you go on thinking that things were still the same,” she says, “that —”

Dawson completes the sentence. “That I was the most important person in your life.”

It’s worth noting that Dawson and Joey have been broken up for two seasons at this point, and she’s been dating Pacey for nine months of show time. Nonetheless, both Dawson and Joey treat the idea that she might have slept with someone else as a kind of theft.

The subtext of the moment is not hidden: The thing Dawson was buying is no longer for sale, and that is horrifying. The world might as well be falling apart.

The Dawson-Joey storyline was consistently built around the idea that Joey belongs to Dawson, and that if she doesn’t, he can buy her. In Dawson’s Creek’s first two seasons, this was the central mythology of the series.

This romantic values system is fundamental to a certain kind of pop cultural romance, in which sex and love and ownership are messily intertwined, so that when a man chooses to fall in love with a woman, he takes ownership of her. A woman, in contrast, has no choice: She falls in love because she is loved, and in so doing, she cedes ownership of herself.

Under this system, a woman who has sex with multiple partners suggests either that she has multiple owners or — horrors — that no one owns her but herself, which is threatening and monstrous behavior that must be punished: hence the many tragedies of Jen Lindley, whom Dawson’s Creek repeatedly shames for her wanton ways; hence the adulation of Joey, who repeatedly maintains that she will lose her virginity only to the right person.

This is the romantic values system that undergirds love stories like that of Ross and Rachel or Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court or Chuck and Blair: stories, as Julie Beck wrote at the Atlantic, in which “romance requires a man’s desire, but not necessarily a woman’s.”

These stories can be profoundly satisfying, but part of the pleasure and the romance of the formula comes from its suggestion that when the heroine falls in love with the hero and they have sex, she is at last paying him what he is owed. With Dawson and Joey, that belief went from subtext to text — but adding Pacey into the mix was designed to destabilize that assumption.

With the Joey-Pacey storyline came a new interest in Joey’s agency

Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson on Dawson’s Creek
Pacey wore some truly terrible shirts over the course of this show.
Warner Bros.

The Joey and Pacey love story was not a complete break with this romantic formula. Throughout its buildup, it drew most of its power from Pacey’s chivalric and unrequited yearning for Joey: There were lots of lingering close-ups on Pacey watching Joey sleep (this seemed less creepy pre-Twilight and Edward Cullen), and he delivered lots of significant monologues about his repressed and tortured feelings.

Joey’s feelings, meanwhile, remained opaque. But that opacity did not significantly impede the power of the story — as Beck wrote at the Atlantic, our culture cares more about men’s romantic longings than about women’s, so Joey didn’t need to yearn the way that Pacey did for their love story to work.

Nor did the story entirely avoid the idea of Joey as a prize for Pacey to win. Viewers rooted for Pacey and Joey to be together not because they thought Joey loved Pacey more — her feelings had to remain ambiguous for the love triangle to work — but because they thought Pacey deserved her more than Dawson did. Structurally, as the Joey-Pacey storyline took over the show, Joey stopped representing the prize that demonstrated that the world revolved around Dawson and started representing the prize that demonstrated that Pacey had become a better man than Dawson.

Instead, what really changed was the show’s aesthetic interest in Joey’s agency. The Dawson-Joey storyline took its strength from watching Joey repeatedly sacrifice herself and her agency to please Dawson — giving up a trip to Paris here, ceding all interests he didn’t share there — while the Joey-Pacey storyline was repeatedly organized around Joey’s choices and agency.

“During this whole process, we’ve managed to miss the point, because the point is not how I feel. It’s how you feel. So how do you feel?” Pacey asks early in their relationship. “I can’t be the one that’s always initiating this. I can’t be the one who’s always giving you the answers.”

Their relationship would be built around Joey deciding to accompany Pacey on a boat trip down the East Coast, Joey deciding that she’d rather attend her dream college than stay with her boyfriend in the town where they grew up, Joey deciding to leave both Pacey and Dawson behind and finally take that trip to Paris, all while Pacey cheered her on. In the later seasons of Dawson’s Creek, Joey may have been a prize that demonstrated Pacey’s worth, but Pacey showed off his worthiness by encouraging Joey to prioritize her own choices.

In the 20 years since Dawson’s Creek premiered, teen soap after teen soap has embraced the Joey-Pacey template. They start off with a love story that depends on the heroine sacrificing herself again and again to a chiseled-jaw romantic hero — and then suddenly switch halfway through to pair the heroine with the hero’s charismatic best friend instead.

Veronica Mars had Veronica go from Duncan to Logan. Teen Wolf sent Lydia from Jackson to Stiles. And one of the most recent examples, Riverdale, made the switch in record time, by sending Betty from Archie to Jughead well before the end of season one.

These storylines never quite succeed in allowing the heroine to have value as her own person: Consistently, she is treated as a structural prize offered to the romantic hero whenever he proves that he is a good enough man. But it’s now something of a TV trope that the hero must prove his worthiness by prioritizing the heroine’s agency and giving her the ability to make her own choices. In the world of teen soap opera love stories, that’s a genuine step forward — and it was pioneered by Dawson’s Creek.

Update: This story was originally published in January 2018. It has been updated to include the Entertainment Weekly 20th anniversary edition.