The Shift from Dawson's Creek to Joey's Creek
“Dawson’s Creek” really should’ve been called “Joey’s Creek.” I know I’m not the first person to have this thought, but it’s one worth examining nonetheless.
In our 2009 interview for the original TeenDramaWhore, executive producer Paul Stupin explained the show’s origins to me, detailing how creator Kevin Williamson “pitched to me a bunch of characters living on the same creek” and “pitched to me the characters of Dawson and Joey and Jen and how that triangle would work.” But by calling the series “Dawson’s Creek,” it was implied that Dawson was our way into this world and that he was our protagonist. The first promotional posters for the show made that clear too.
Not only was Dawson front and center among the cast portraits, but he was also pictured literally holding court over the creek. The pilot also established the three other main characters in relation to him: the female best friend (Joey), the male best friend (Pacey), and the new girl living next door (Jen). But the pilot also made an interesting choice: The episode didn’t end on Dawson. It ended with Joey, floating away on the creek. Perhaps that was our first hint of who our true protagonist would turn out to be.
Next consider the central dilemma in season 1’s finale: Will Joey leave Capeside and go to France? It’s not Dawson with the decision to make; it’s Joey. In the season 2 finale, Joey’s in control there as well — it’s she who ends their relationship after Dawson pressures her to turn her father into the police. And what’s the crux of the season 3 finale? It’s whether Joey will ask Pacey to stay or whether she’ll embark on a summer with Dawson. Are you sensing a pattern? It’s Joey, Joey, Joey.
Now let’s skip ahead to season 5. Episode 5.15, “Downtown Crossing,” features no other main character besides Joey. That means Katie Holmes is the only cast member to appear in every single episode of the series — all 128 of them. And the episode is effectively a deep character study drawing on Joey’s past with her father and the woman she has grown to be in spite of him. Season 5, of course, also deals with Dawson and the passing of his father, but it’s a storyline that’s shared among the characters, unlike this one-episode Joey / Katie tour de force.
What’s more is the series begins featuring Dawson less and less. In addition to James Van Der Beek being MIA from the aforementioned episode, he’s also absent from episode 5.09. Then in season 6, he doesn’t appear in episodes 6.07, 6.12, 6.15, or 6.19. So much for Dawson being the main character!
But perhaps there’s no greater evidence of the series’ evolution than the penultimate episode, “Joey Potter and the Capeside Redemption.” The title alone makes clear this is Joey’s story, not Dawson’s, as does the all-important ending. We finally see Joey in France and the episode ends with a voiceover monologue in which she reflects on her journey and that of her friends. It’s not Dawson bringing the series to a close (before the finale’s five-year time jump), but Joey.
“I can’t swear this is exactly how it happened,” Joey tells us, “but this is how it felt.” In other words, this is Joey’s life we’ve been bearing witness to all this time — not Dawson’s. In our 2010 interview, co-producer Gina Fattore even told me that this episode was originally “intended” to be the series’ last, and that they wanted the installment to work as a closer even if no one saw the final two hours that Williamson returned to write.
As I noted above, I’m not the first person to realize that “Dawson’s Creek” is really the saga of Joey Potter and not of Dawson Leery, the character whose name is in the show’s title. But it’s worth pointing out that the evidence of this isn’t only in the actual text of the episodes as I’ve laid out above, but also in fan reaction. While Dawson was designed to be the series’ male lead (and, again, the main protagonist), the amount of viewers who are utterly turned off by him seems to grow exponentially each year.
In 2014, a BuzzFeed contributor put together a list titled, “19 Times Dawson Leery Was The Most Annoying Part Of His Own Show.” And just days before the series’ 20th anniversary in 2018, a Vox article deemed Dawson “insufferable,” and pointed out, “If you google ‘Dawson Leery,’ you will quickly learn that people love to hate Dawson Leery.” That same year, Insider included Dawson in a roundup of “20 of the most unlikable and annoying main characters on TV,” writing:
“When a show is called ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ you’d expect its writers to find a way to make audiences give a darn about Dawson or his creek. But that’s really not the case with Dawson Leery, who is easily one of the most unlikable protagonists in TV history.”
Furthermore, as someone who keeps an eye on tweets about the show, I can tell you not a month goes by without someone posting about how much they despise the character.
This is different, of course, from being an entertaining villain. It’s also different than being an anti-hero, one of the most popular television archetypes of the 21st century. It’s viewers openly rejecting the show’s supposed protagonist. Sure, Joey has her critics and haters too. She’s flawed in her own ways. But when looking at the totality of “Dawson’s Creek,” it’s clear who this creek really belonged to: one Miss Josephine Potter.
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