Thoughts

Why Joey Potter is the (true) protagonist of Dawson’s Creek

It is a truth universally acknowledged in storytelling that in order for your protagonist to be relatable and to drive the story forward in a compelling way, they need to have a goal that they’re working towards, something tangible that they want to achieve. The purpose of a story is to take the reader/audience on a journey with the protagonist, who is the person driving the story forward to its conclusion, and a satisfying/happy resolution comes about when they achieve said goal. The goal itself should be a tangible thing, an action the character is trying to achieve – for example, in Disney’s Moana, her goal is to restore the heart of Te Fiti. The goal should also be something that is clearly proclaimed by the protagonist. In musicals, this is obvious when the protagonist often opens the show with an “I Want” song. When we listen to the opening number of Beauty and the Beast (“I want much more than this provincial life”), or Aladdin (“If only they’d look closer, would they see a poor boy, no siree, they’d find out there’s so much more to me”), or Hamilton (“I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal, trying to reach my goal, my power of speech unimpeachable”) we know what it is that these characters want, and what it is that they lack (freedom, wealth, power). The things they lack are directly related to what they want, and are what are standing in the way of them achieving their goal.

Which brings us to the second part – obstacles. In order for a story to hold the audience’s interest, there must be obstacles in the protagonist’s path towards that goal. Sometimes this is a literal antagonist who is working toward the opposite of that character’s goal, or wants to directly thwart them from achieving it (in order to achieve their own goal) – Jafar in Aladdin, Scar in The Lion King – but in a long-running television show, there’s only so long you can draw out that conflict before it becomes tedious to watch. (For example, in a TV show that is about fighting various antagonists, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there are a steady stream of ‘big bads’ (and Monsters of the Week) throughout seven seasons of the show, all of which Buffy eventually vanquishes. You couldn’t have drawn out Buffy’s rivalry with the Master for seven seasons. Also as a side note, it’s the characters that Buffy has a direct emotional relationship with who make the most compelling antagonists, notably Angelus in season 2 and Faith in season 3.)

In the case of Dawson’s Creek, which is about four teenagers in a small town on Cape Cod, the show doesn’t have an overt “chosen one” mission statement like Buffy does, and so the obstacles are not so much one particular person trying to thwart a character’s progress, but a series of outside influences that make their stated goal harder to achieve. 

In season 1, the show gave us four main characters – Dawson, the idealistic film nerd; Joey, the sarcastic tomboy from the wrong side of the creek; Pacey, the class clown and black sheep of his family; and Jen, the ‘bad’ girl next door. According to the show’s title, the protagonist is Dawson. He is the ‘main character’ that the show is named after. But is he the protagonist? 

Let’s break down each of these characters into their stated goals and obstacles. It’s important to remember that their goals should be plainly stated – could you write them an “I Want” song? – and quantifiable – will the audience know for sure and certain when that want has been fulfilled? Their desire should be something tangible, not a general concept like ‘to find peace’ but something that everyone, including those outside of that character’s internal monologue, can tell when they’ve achieved it. The obstacles they face also should be directly in the path of that particular goal. 

Dawson Leery 

GOAL: 
To become a successful film director, a la Steven Spielberg. Stated early in season 1 and carries through the entire show.

OBSTACLES: 

  • Simply put – he has none. Dawson has ample time to make short films, support from friends and family, and enough money and equipment to fund his filmmaking dreams. In the pilot he is declined the chance to get into his high school film class, but he talks his teacher into letting him sit in on the class (and ends up becoming an active participant). His friends act in and produce his movies for him, mostly without protest, he wins multiple film festival awards throughout the seasons, and the show ends with him in Hollywood, making a successful TV series and getting a meeting with Spielberg. (There are, at times, implications that Dawson is not a particularly good filmmaker, but the show never commits to this idea; instead, those who diss his filmmaking efforts usually double back on their opinion and deliver unwarranted praise, or are painted as a villain for not believing in his artistic endeavors.)

Joey Potter

GOAL: Joey is unique in Dawson’s Creek in that even in season 1, she has not one but two clearly stated, tangible goals:

  1. To get out of Capeside and go to a good college. 
  2. To get Dawson to see her as romantically viable (not just his best friend).

OBSTACLES: 

To start with, we’ll focus on her obstacles for Goal 1: Escape from Capeside.

  • Lack of resources – Joey’s family is not wealthy, and she has to work at least one part-time job throughout her high school years (in season 3, she’s working before and after school, while still taking AP classes to get ahead). She needs to get good enough grades to earn a scholarship to college, because her family can’t afford to pay for her higher education, so she does as much extra credit as possible (see episode 1×10, amongst others). 
  • Lack of family support – her mom is deceased and her dad is incarcerated. She has a loving but contentious relationship with her older sister Bessie, who is her legal guardian. (Bessie herself is an unmarried mother with a “black boyfriend” – the show, particularly in season 1, places great emphasis on the word black, although they shy away from stories overtly about racism especially in relation to Bodie – and while he’s a great guy, he is mostly absent from the narrative.) This family obstacle is directly tied into her goal because Joey provides her sister with help in the family restaurant (S1-2) and B&B (S3-4) as well as childcare for her nephew (S1-4), making her plan to leave town something that would potentially make her sister’s life more difficult, and one she feels guilty about at times.
  • Class & reputation – Joey’s family is working class, and has a bad reputation around town (this is an idea hinted at early on that the show doesn’t particularly commit to, but she’s definitely from the ‘wrong/poor’ side of the creek, not to mention her father’s known drug dealing and infidelity.) This obstacle is directly tied into her desire to get into a top college so that she can move up the socio-economic ladder. She’s not simply satisfied with going to a state school to get her degree – she wants to prove, both to herself and the wider community, that she’s worthy of going to one of the best schools in the country. 

Obstacles in the path to Goal 2: Get Dawson to see her as more than a friend

  • Jen Lindley. The way the show pits Joey and Jen against each other is a disappointment throughout the series run, but it’s particularly evident in season 1, when Jen and Dawson are dating. Joey is extremely jealous and caustic towards Jen. After Jen and Dawson break up, Joey and Jen almost become friends, but the writers don’t know what to do without a love triangle, so they steered Jen back towards wanting Dawson again almost immediately, which continues this antagonistic relationship between the two girls. 
  • Dawson is an idiot. He simply cannot see what’s in front of his face. 
  • Joey also gets in her own way here with her fear that if something romantic does happen between her and Dawson, it will ruin their friendship, aka the only stability she feels in her life. So she’s emotionally torn between her desire for him, and her need for that stability. This is something that comes up again and again in relation to Joey and Dawson, but it becomes less convincing every time as we’ve seen Joey clearly grow up and move past the need for the security of Dawson’s friendship.

Personally, I don’t think this goal is particularly compelling, especially since almost as soon as she gets Dawson, Joey seems to decide she doesn’t want him anymore (fair). But it’s worth mentioning because her entire arc of season 1 is focused on trying to get Dawson to see her as something other than his best friend. Her emotional breakdown at the end of 1×07 spells this out to everyone except Dawson (see above, bullet point 2). The show thinks it’s asking “Which girl will Dawson choose?” in S1, but since he doesn’t even realise that he likes Joey until the penultimate episode of the season, it’s clearly her story arc, not his. Also, when he does discover his feelings for Joey in 1×12, she rejects him, redirecting the narrative back into her corner.

Pacey Witter

GOALS: In season 1, Pacey wants to have sex. He succeeds in this goal within a couple of episodes, although the whole thing is icky because he has sex with his much older teacher, a terrible storyline that thankfully gets wrapped up quickly (1×01-1×06). Beyond that, Pacey’s goals are arbitrary. One could argue that his ultimate goal is to find love, but I don’t think that’s something he is searching for in black and white terms, and it’s not something he states outright that he wants. We know that Dawson wants to make movies, that Joey wants to go to college – Pacey starts the show strictly in sidekick territory. It’s also not a tangible goal – love isn’t a permanent state, and while Pacey’s overall arc in the show is to learn to love himself, it takes him until the series finale to get there, and even then feels like an afterthought in service of Joey’s plotline. 

Pacey does have a few goals, but most of them end up being in service of others – he wants to ‘save’ Andie (which he fails at, not that he could ever actually succeed as it’s not up to him to save her, something the show thankfully realised on its own) – he wants to be with/love/support Joey, which he does, but at the expense of his own happiness by the end of S4 – he wants to be successful and make money in S6, but that’s a storyline that only appears in that season and is one he ultimately fails at. Pacey is rarely allowed to succeed at anything. His most compelling goal, in my opinion, is simply to rebuild True Love and sail her down to the Florida Keys. This is something he wants for himself, and that he achieves. It occurs only in season 3, is not built up to in S1-2 nor mentioned again in S4-6 except in passing (in 4×22 we get the line “If I were lucky enough to own a sailboat again…” but that isn’t really about wanting to have another boat, it’s more about affirming a possible future relationship with Joey).

OBSTACLES: 

Despite his lack of tangible, quantifiable goals (especially early on in the show), Pacey has a ton of obstacles. 

  • Unsupportive family – Pacey has a very unhappy home life, with an abusive alcoholic father who tells him that he’ll never be any good at anything, and an unsupportive, disinterested mother. Pacey’s home life is expanded on a little in later seasons, but we don’t meet his mother or see inside his house until 4×12, by which point he’s ostensibly the show’s romantic lead. His older brother Doug pulls a gun on him in 1×05, and Pacey barely flinches in response, indicating that “he does this stuff all the time”. While the Pacey/Doug relationship changes over the seasons, it’s always a little contentious and they’re never really friends. Pacey does have a good relationship with his sister Gretchen, but she doesn’t appear until season 4, and never returns in S5-6. She also dates Dawson, who by that point is Pacey’s ex-best friend/borderline nemesis, which complicates things somewhat. 
  • Sexual abuse – in season 1, Pacey is easily manipulated by his teacher into having a sexual relationship with her. (Sure, he starts out being the one trying to seduce her, but he’s fifteen and she’s in her mid-thirties. The fact that it ends up happening is not his fault, she’s the adult in this scenario.) His trauma around this is never explored in the show, except to be used as a punchline.
  • Lack of support from his friends – Pacey’s supposed best friend is Dawson, but Dawson is not a very good friend to him for the most part, and that friendship falls apart when Pacey and Joey begin a relationship. Joey is not very friendly to him either for the most part in S1-2. Pacey isn’t really allowed to have any meaningful friendships outside of romantic relationships (he’s friends with Jen and Jack, but there is never any emphasis placed on these) and when Dawson says that Pacey will end up “friendless and alone” the show genuinely means it. (Inexplicably, since Pacey is a great friend to everyone and Dawson is a terrible friend, but the narrative insists that the show revolves around Dawson, who deserves zero friends.)
  • Poor grades in school – Pacey is smart but unmotivated in the classroom, which culminates in him barely graduating high school. He gets support from Andie (S2), and encouragement from Joey (S4), but his grades are not important to him, except that his failures exacerbate his lack of self-belief. 
  • Lack of self-belief – due to all of the above, Pacey suffers from low self-esteem, a lack of self belief, and depression in season 4. This is an obstacle that ultimately derails his relationship with Joey (S4). 

Jen Lindley

GOALS: Nothing tangible. Ever. What does Jen want from life? Where does she want to live? What does she even study in college? Nobody knows. One could argue that Jen wants to belong and feel accepted, but again that’s not really a tangible goal, and she never really achieves it. She acknowledges this ongoing lack in her final speech in the finale, prior to her untimely death. Jen’s entire story is a tragedy.  

OBSTACLES: 

  • Lack of family support – from her parents, who kicked her out for being ‘slutty’ and because she knew something her father didn’t want her to tell anyone (although she does eventually have a loving relationship with her Grams, this takes its time to develop and isn’t a stable relationship until season 3 onwards). 
  • Lack of self-esteem – this fluctuates wildly between episodes, let alone between seasons. Jen never, ever, has a satisfying romantic relationship, and ends the show as a single mother who essentially dies of a sudden heart stripe. (One could argue she is happy in her brief S5 relationship with Dawson, but a) I refuse to believe Dawson could make any woman happy, and b) she breaks up with him for a completely arbitrary reason, leading me to believe a) to be true.)
  • Bad reputation – Jen comes into the story as a ‘fallen woman/broken bird’ who has been living a wild life in NYC, and this reputation follows her to Capeside (and throughout her life, apparently). She wants to have a relationship with Dawson (presumably in an attempt to feel normal?) but her ‘wild’ past quickly derails their relationship when Dawson finds out she’s not a virgin, panics, slut shames her and then breaks up with her. Even though Jen has arguably less sex in the entire show than any of the other female characters, she’s still considered by the narrative to be the ‘slutty’ one, and is forever haunted by her past.
  • Trauma – Jen reveals that she lost her virginity to an older man as a drunken 12 year old. This is portrayed by the show as evidence of her wild ways, not as Jen being the victim of rape and sexual assualt. Jen eventually goes to therapy, but right when she starts to unpack her past, she quits therapy entirely, a decision the show seems to be fine with.
  • Depression / suicidal ideation – this is a storyline that pops up at least twice for Jen, once in season 2 during the Ice House fire, and once in season 4 on the prom boat (can’t blame her for that one, I’d have thrown myself off that boat too). Both of these moments are brushed past and never mentioned again, but are clear markers towards Jen’s depressive state.

I haven’t mentioned the other main characters here – Andie, Jack and Audrey – but the only one of them who really has a tangible goal is Andie (to get into Harvard). She also has obstacles (her mental health struggles, her family problems) but the show lost interest in her when they lacked a love interest for her in season 3, so wrote her out in season 4. Jack and Audrey have plenty of obstacles (Jack especially, although nearly all of his revolve around his sexuality), but neither have a clear achievable goal that they are working towards in the show, so I haven’t included them here.

I think what this breakdown shows us is that Joey is the show’s true protagonist. She is the one with clear, achievable goals, and with obstacles standing directly between her and those goals. From the pilot, we know that Joey wants Dawson to see her as romantically viable, and ultimately to escape from Capeside. She achieves the first goal at the end of season 1, providing a satisfying conclusion to her story arc (although arguably it works a little too well for her since he becomes jealous and obsessed with her from S2 onwards). She achieves the second goal twice, first at the end of season 3, when she sails away for the summer with Pacey, then again at the end of season 4, when we find out she got into Worthington, and will be moving to Boston in the fall. 

At the start of season 5, a new showrunner took over the show. It becomes clear when looking at those two seasons, that the show had realised that Joey was indeed the true protagonist – seasons 5 and 6 are very Joey-centric, and Katie Holmes was the only actor to appear in every episode of the show’s 128 episode run, including one season 5 episode in which she is the only main cast member to appear (5×15). Unfortunately, at the same time as the show came to accept this fact, it failed to realise why Joey had become the protagonist in the first place. Not only that, it went on to strip her of all of her goals and obstacles. 

You see, by season 5, Joey had achieved her number one goal, the one she’d stated outright from the start of the show. She was out of Capeside and at a good college. She had overcome her obstacles and achieved her dream. Yay Joey! So…now what? That’s clearly a question the new showrunner never asked themselves. Because in seasons 5 and 6, Joey has no clear goals whatsoever. She doesn’t even have a romantic goal like she did in season 3, instead fluctuating between a series of meaningless relationships with men she doesn’t seem to like very much. Not only that, all of her obstacles have vanished. 

Lack of finances seem to no longer be a problem as she wears an ever increasing array of designer clothes (Jen even makes a comment in S6 about how many coats Joey has).  In season 5, Joey gets mugged at gunpoint and robbed of her savings, but this doesn’t seem to have any effect on her storyline going forward (financially or emotionally). She does get a part-time job in season 6, but it barely seems to cramp her style or affect her grades. Her few academic failings are nearly all due to a series of unprofessional professors behaving badly, and every boy she meets falls in love with her, regardless of how she feels about them. She barely seems to remember her family back in Capeside, and all visits back there are fleeting. When she returns for Mitch’s funeral, his death is less about her loss of a father figure and more about her desire to allay Dawson’s grief. We get something of an attempted resolution to her own father’s storyline when he unexpectedly returns in 6×10 – which we don’t get any build up to, he’s just suddenly back for one episode, then he’s gone again – but we don’t get to find out how Joey feels about his return. We don’t see their initial reunion – the episode implies her father has been out of prison for a while, and she’s completely laissez faire about it. What? Huh? The laziness of the writing in S6 is unbelievable. (And that episode was written by Tom Kapinos, the S5-6 showrunner, which tells you everything you need to know about those two seasons.) 

Worse, season 5/6 Joey lost nearly all of the snark and sass that made us love her so much in the first place. Katie Holmes’ ability to go from scowling to intensely vulnerable and back again in the blink of an eye is surely what got her the role, and the way that Joey’s sass was toned down in later seasons (or used only for brief moments of comic relief) should be a crime.

But wait. Hold on. There was one more thing that Joey wanted – to go to France. Does that still count as a goal? Let’s discuss. 

Back in season 1, Joey had the chance to go to Paris on student exchange for a semester, but turned it down in favour of staying with Dawson.

This goal is almost never mentioned again until the end of season 5, when Joey is chasing after Dawson at the airport. She has to buy a plane ticket to get through security, so she whips out her credit card and buys a ticket to France. But in the season 6 opener, it’s revealed that she didn’t go. Instead, she spent the summer in Capeside, waiting tables at the yacht club and having nameless boys fall desperately in love with her, only for her to reject them out of hand. (Because of course she did.)

The ‘Joey wants to go to France storyline reappears again very late in season 6 when her boyfriend Eddie plans a trip around Europe for them both, but again, she doesn’t go, because she’s a realist who figures they can’t afford it (which, fair – also Eddie is a nightmare and would be the worst travel companion ever). Eventually, Joey ends season 6 by going to France by herself in 6×22, which would’ve been the series finale if not for the return of Kevin Williamson to shoot the ‘five years later’ grand finale.

While this is a nice resolution for a storyline that was started in season 1, it falls flat for two reasons. One, because Joey only ever sporadically talked about going to France, and the obstacles sitting between her achieving that goal were simply ‘because money’, which doesn’t seem to hinder her in any other way at any other time in S5/6, and two, because the show had just resurrected their most meaningful and interesting storyline – Joey and Pacey’s relationship / the love triangle – and then tried to tell us that the ultimate resolution of Joey’s story was “I choose neither boy”. Which could’ve been okay if the show’s beating heart didn’t revolve almost entirely around that love triangle, and if one of those boys wasn’t so obviously perfect for her and the other wasn’t such an enormous tool, leading the love triangle to read as meaningless because almost nobody wanted her to choose Dawson. (The way the show broke Joey and Pacey up the second time was so ridiculous that Katie Holmes couldn’t even look Josh Jackson in the eye while she delivered her lines. The fact that the scene is still heartbreaking is testament to their acting abilities and unparalleled chemistry, which the show repeatedly squandered.) 

Which brings us to the show’s true storyline – the love ballad of Pacey and Joey. From the pilot, where they’re bickering relentlessly; to 1×10, where Pacey realises he’s attracted to Joey and kisses her (only to be rebuffed); to season 3, where they develop a friendship that turns into something more; through season 4, where their relationship is badly written but still compelling due to the aforementioned chemistry; to the worst breakup episode ever (4×20) followed by the saddest post-breakup episode ever (4×21); to a season and a half of relationship amnesia where the new showrunner tried to pretend P/Jo meant nothing and D/Jo was still on the table; to the high point of S6 when those two crazy kids got back together for a few glorious episodes (6×14-6×18), all the way to the resolution of their storyline in the finale when they finally end up together and get their happily ever after. 

The show was supposed to be about the epic love story of Dawson and Joey, but it became the truly epic love story of Joey and Pacey. Even the show’s creator and originally D/Jo shipper, Kevin Williamson, realised that. It was the Pacey/Joey storyline in season 3 that revived the show’s lagging ratings. It was the love triangle between Joey, Pacey and Dawson – the love triangle which Joey, our protagonist, was at the centre of – that made the back half of season 3 so compelling to watch. As Pacey pointed out to Joey in 3×19, ultimately, it’s not about how he feels, or how Dawson feels, it’s about how Joey feels. As the promos went on to tell the audience relentlessly from that point onwards, it was her choice that “changed everything”. 

She was the one who drove the story forward. She was the one with clearly defined aspirations. She is the one we cheered for when she achieved them, despite all the obstacles the show threw into her path. 

Joey Potter is the true protagonist of Dawson’s Creek.