Dawson’s Creek was a hit WB series that aired from 1998 to 2003 and followed Capeside teenagers Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek), Joey Potter (Katie Holmes), Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson), and Jen Lindley (Michelle Wiliams) as they dealt with raging hormones, sexuality, friendship, love, and growing up in a small town. The best episodes of Dawson’s Creek were heartfelt, honest, and a bit cheesy.
Dawson’s Creek was a defining part of my younger days. I grew up watching the show and it helped define my over-the-top romantic fantasies, like having a wall rented for me. Pacey and Joey are my all-time favorite TV couple, but for this list, I tried to take an objective look at the best episodes and not just select Joey and Pacey moment ones. This list does contain plenty of those, but that’s mainly because I believe the series’ had some of its best moments when writing about the endless triangle.
Let’s take a trip back to Capeside and rank the top ten best episodes of Dawson’s Creek.
10. Detention, Season 1, Episode 7
Each member of the core crew, Dawson, Joey, Pacey, and Jen, find themselves having Saturday detention for various misconducts. They also end up there with Capeside High’s notorious Abby Morgan (Monica Keena). A cool thing about the early seasons of Dawson’s Creek was that it was full of movie references and parody style episodes. This was Dawson’s Creek’s attempt at The Breakfast Club.
The “Detention'' episode is full of Creek firsts, like Dawson and Joey’s official first kiss and the first episode featuring Abby Morgan, who later becomes a very important recurring character. It’s a very entertaining episode with the usual detention hijinks and even a funny mention of Emilio Estevez and The Mighty Duck franchise, which Joshua Jackson starred in for the first three films. The episode also has each character playing into their main character flaw from Season 1: Jen’s determination to not conform to Capeside standards, Joey’s tough girl-no nonsense demeanor, Pacey’s hypersexual nature, and Dawson’s insecurities.
9. The Scare, Season 1, Episode 11
“The Scare” is Dawson’s Creek’s attempt at a horror film-themed episode. Dawson continues his yearly Friday the 13th antics by trying to scare Joey and Pacey. Jen feels a little left out because he makes no attempts to scare her, and she worries that he may not want to be friends after their breakup.
Fun fact for those who aren’t huge Dawson’s Creek and Scream fans, the series creator, Kevin Williamson, wrote the screenplay for three out of the four, soon to be five, Scream movies, including Scream and Scream 2. This episode features a lot of fun nods to the Scream franchise, which had already released the first two movies by the time this episode aired. Williamson also wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, which is also referenced in this episode. “The Scare” includes a guest appearance by Scott Foley, who would later appear in Scream 3 and become part of another hit WB series, Felicity. This episode is just one of those very self-aware ones that’s heavy on pop culture references in a way that shows the series’ appreciation for the film geek fandom, especially the horror geek one.
8. Decisions, Season 1, Episode 13
Joey is given the opportunity of a lifetime to spend some time in Paris, but she isn’t sure what she wants to do. Meanwhile, Dawson has finally realized that he loves Joey and doesn’t want her to go. Joey also must decide if she wants to visit her father in prison.
“Decisions” focuses a lot on the future of Joey and Dawson. Will they finally make the move that takes them from friends to dating? We get a big declaration of affection by the end of the episode, but that’s not only why this is a good episode. It’s also a very emotional one as Joey finally confronts her father, Mike (Gareth Williams), about his past and how he betrayed his family. Joey opening up those wounds allows her to start a new relationship with him, which eventually leads to more heartache in season two.
7. The Long Goodbye, Season 5, Episode 4
Major Spoiler Alert if you haven’t seen Dawson’s Creek, this is the episode where everyone says goodbye to Mitch Leery (John Wesley Shipp). Mitch’s death is such an unexpected moment in Dawson and his friend’s world that each deal with his death in their own sad way. Dawson takes the numb approach to things until the flood gates open.
Structurally, “The Long Goodbye” is unlike any other Dawson’s Creek episode. It takes on a play-like quality with each of the original main characters and Dawson’s mom, Gail (Mary-Margaret Humes), remembering moments with Mitch. Instead of actually doing flashbacks, the show has Mitch appear to their current selves but you can tell by the way the moment is described that it exists in the past, like Dawson remembering receiving his first video camera from his father on his 12th birthday. It’s a somber episode but done very well.
6. Stolen Kisses, Season 3, Episode 19
Dawson, Joey, Andie (Meredith Monroe), Pacey, and his friend Will Krudski (Rodney Scott) go on a trip to see Dawson’s aunt Gwen (Julie Bowen). It becomes a trip down memory lane for Dawson and Joey, but it’s full of tension as Pacey and Joey try to forget their secret kiss and just be friends.
This is an important Dawson’s Creek episode because it introduces Will, who was used to start the Dawson’s Creek spin-off series Young Americans, which also starred Ian Somerhalder, Katherine Moennig, and Kate Bosworth. But the real reason this is an important episode is it ends with Joey and Pacey confessing their true feelings for each other and deciding to act on them, setting the show down a completely new path.
5. True Love, Season 3, Episode 23
Pacey has decided to set sail this summer and leave Capeside behind for a few months. Joey now must decide to ask him to stay and try to make a relationship work--hence picking him over Dawson--or to just play it safe and maintain things with Dawson.
“True Love” gave us the infamous Dawson cry face gif, so for that alone, this episode deserves to be in the episode hall of fame. The entire third season of the series leads up to this moment where Joey must make this decision and either release her fears and take a chance with Pacey, even if it means forever fracturing her friendship with Dawson, or play it safe. Teen me cheered so hard (internally) at the end of this episode.
4. To Be Or Not To Be/That Is The Question, Season 2, Episode 14 And 15
Jack (Kerr Smith) writes a poem that he’s forced to read aloud to his class. It sends the rumor mill off about Jack’s sexuality. This two-part episode focuses on Jack admitting to himself and others that he is gay.
In the late-90s, this episode was revolutionary because there weren’t many gay teen characters on network television. The way the episode handled Jack’s coming out and his character development was one of Dawson’s Creek’s biggest strengths. This episode may have allowed many gay teens to feel seen and comfortable admitting their own sexuality. Jack becomes a key member of the show in Season 2 and remains one until the series finale, and these episodes allowed him to start to establish his identity as a character.
3. Castaways, Season 6, Episode 15
Joey and Pacey make a quick Kmart run that ends with them trapped there overnight. The two then discuss their past relationship and their current friendship. Besides being an advertisement for Kmart, and the start of my desire to be trapped in a department store overnight, it’s also a really unexpected episode.
Taking notes from movies like Before Sunrise, “Castaways” has Joey and Pacey revisit their post-breakup relationship. Interestingly, after Season 4, the show kind of pretends Joey and Pacey weren’t madly in love and takes more of a friendship dynamic with them. However, in this Season 6 episode, it brings up that decision and why they have been so okay with just being friends now, and why no lingering feelings have come up. The episode confesses to viewers that they both still have those lingering feelings and decide to give it another go, only to take it away from us a few episodes later. This brief detour allowed two of the series’ strongest characters to remind fans why they’re so enjoyable together.
2. The Longest Day, Season 3, Episode 20
Pacey and Joey have begun their secret romance. They decide that it’s time to tell Dawson before he finds out on his own. “The Longest Day” takes several points of views, giving viewers a little more of the story with each person’s perspective. By the end of the episode, along with the trio, the viewers are taken on an emotional, devastating journey.
“The Longest Day” also includes some of the most memorable lines and best acting from the entire cast. You feel the weight of this decision and how Dawson, Joey, and Pacey have basically doomed their friendship.
1. All Good Things/Must Come To An End, Season 6, Episode 23 And 24
It’s the last time that viewers will see the Capeside crew as the show takes its final curtain call. Series finales are really hard to pull off. Most of the time, they result in fans being very mad with the outcome. The Dawson’s Creek series finale is one of those rare finales that works. It was emotionally riveting, gave almost every character a satisfying conclusion, and it offered plenty of surprises. These two episodes also had so many nods to previous episodes. It really felt like the crew wanted to do their best to honor the fans and Dawson’s Creek in the most respectful and loving manner.
The finale also made the bold decision to not go a predictable way, which helped make the ending so satisfying, at least to me.
Adult me can now see the many flaws of Dawson’s Creek, but I still adore it and would love another trip to Capeside to check in with Pacey, Joey, Jack, Jen, and even Dawson. For now, I’ll just have to revisit the series by streaming it on Hulu. Stream the entire series of Dawson’s Creek here.