You’ve seen the clip: James Van Der Beek dissolving into exquisitely artificial tears, his lustrous blond hair blowing in the creekside breeze as his face crumples like a discarded gum wrapper. It’s the reaction gif of absurd sorrow, of tragedy so overwrought as to be funny. It’s dawsoncrying.gif.
Crying Dawson ruled the internet comment sections of the late ’00s and early ’10s. It’s “on the Mount Rushmore of GIFs,” says TV critic Sarah D. Bunting. It was, for a while, the sight that greeted you if you navigated to a broken URL on the Huffington Post. Van Der Beek himself recreated the GIF in 2011 for Funny or Die and gave it a second life. Anyone who’s been even remotely online in the past decade or so knows it.
But Crying Dawson has a secret history — one that most people who saw the GIF would never know.
Dawson wept in the season three finale of the angsty teen soap Dawson’s Creek, one of the most ubiquitous shows of its era. The episode, “True Love,” aired on May 24, 2000, and his fateful tears were the culmination of a long and tortured story arc.
Dawson’s had been a pop cultural flashpoint from the time it debuted in 1998. It was all 15-year-olds speaking like thesauruses and the looming threat that someone might, at any moment, have sex. 10 Things I Hate About You would immortalize it as being the show where “those Dawson’s River kids” are always “climbing in and out of each other’s beds,” while its beautiful teen cast frolicked through the pages of the J. Crew catalog and its theme song raced across the Billboard charts. It was achingly of its moment.
By the time its third season began airing in the fall of 1999, to the extent that Dawson’s Creek had a mythology, it was the story of Dawson’s love affair with his best friend Joey, played by Katie Holmes. But Joey would soon fall for Dawson’s other best friend, Pacey (Joshua Jackson).
And Dawson would, ultimately, tell Joey to go to Pacey. And then he would cry and cry and cry, and pop culture history would be made.
But Dawson’s decision to send Joey to Pacey was not inevitable. The entire love triangle of Dawson, Joey, and Pacey was a glorified accident, the call of a group of young and raw writers, mostly in their 20s and mostly working their first TV jobs, as they tried desperately to create order out of chaos and shape one of the flagship shows of the young and hungry WB network. When their choice paid off, it would launch the careers of some of the most influential writers in television today.
And as the writers’ room was crafting Dawson’s tears, an entire ecosystem of pop culture observers was building up around it. The TV recap site Television Without Pity began as a Dawson’s Creek hate-watching site and grew from there to become a website that broke ground for the way we continue to talk about TV more than two decades later. And it was on the forums of Television Without Pity that the first and earliest GIFs of Dawson crying would pass from computer to computer.
To find out exactly how Dawson came to cry and why that moment has had such a long afterlife, I decided to talk with the writers who made him do it and with the TV recappers who would make the moment loop in GIF form across our screens forever after. Here’s our cast of recurring characters.
“True Love” was written by four writers — all still working in the TV industry — and I talked to each of them. The first, Greg Berlanti, was the showrunner for Dawson’s Creek when “True Love” aired. He would leave the series after its fourth season to create Everwood. Eventually, he would become the executive producer in charge of the TV shows of DC Comics, and he would serve as executive producer on Brothers & Sisters, Political Animals, Riverdale, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and You. In 2018, he directed Love, Simon.
The second, Tom Kapinos, would take over as Dawson’s Creek showrunner after Berlanti departed. He would go on to create Californication and Lucifer.
The third, Gina Fattore, would eventually become a co-executive producer on Dawson’s Creek and is remembered by fans for writing many of the pivotal Joey-Pacey love scenes. She would go on to write for Dare Me, Better Things, UnREAL, Masters of Sex, Parenthood, Californication, and Gilmore Girls.
And the fourth, Jeffrey Stepakoff, would also become a co-executive producer on Dawson’s Creek. Before he joined Dawson’s, he worked on shows like The Wonder Years, and afterward, he wrote and developed Disney’s Tarzan and Brother Bear. In 2007, he wrote Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing. He’s currently the head of the Atlanta-based Georgia Film Academy, which provides training for Georgians to work in the entertainment arts industry.
Meanwhile, watching and recapping every episode of Dawson’s Creek were Television Without Pity cofounders Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting. Their website would become the place where pop culture commenters like NPR’s Linda Holmes and Go Fug Yourself’s Jessica Morgan would cut their teeth as writers — and it would be where the rest of the internet, including Pulitzer-winning TV critic Emily Nussbaum, learned how to talk about television.
But in 1998, all of that was just beginning. Here is the secret history of how a beloved but mediocre show almost fell apart, pulled itself together instead, and ended up accidentally creating contemporary pop culture in the process. Here is the story of dawsoncrying.gif.
Dawson’s Creek premiered on January 20, 1998, and the fledgling WB promoted it hard. This new show, the network had decided, was going to be the show that defined the WB. It would create the network brand of beautiful angsty teenagers maybe having sex in beautiful nostalgic Americana landscapes.
Season one was not an unmitigated critical success — a New York Times review called Dawson’s Creek “a lesson in the dangers of overhype” — but it was a sensation. It was the new show that everyone had to talk about. Which meant, for one of the first times in TV history, it was the new show that everyone had to talk about on the internet.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: I was working on a movie idea with [Dawson’s Creek creator] Kevin Williamson. And in the midst of that, he said, “I want to show you this TV show I’m working on.” He popped in a VHS tape, and I watched the pilot of Dawson’s Creek.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: My cofounder Tara Ariano and I met on a bulletin board about Beverly Hills 90210 in the mid-’90s and became bulletin board friends. We read these recaps, which were called wrap-ups, by Danny Drennan. And we then just started chatting offline.
And then Dawson’s Creek premiered.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: Initially, it seemed to me a little weird that the characters all spoke like adults. But over time, I sort of fell in love with the fact that they had this kind of heightened language that was their own, but their emotions and all of the things that they were going through still made them very much teenagers. That tension, you know, I really liked.
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: None of the teens sounded like teens. They just all sounded like characters on a TV show. They were very hyperverbal. That became the charm of the show and what people liked about it; that it was this heightened reality. It wasn’t a vérité style.
That was annoying to me at the time, but ultimately, Dawson was a problem. Dawson was just such a pill.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: Kevin asked me to come and work on the second season of the show as a staff writer in television for the first time. And he had been so good to me and had really kick-started my entire career. And even though I wasn’t initially planning on working in TV, it sounded fun. So I did it.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: We started writing these lengthy screeds on the bulletin boards and then someone suggested that we start our own wrap-up about Dawson’s Creek. Possibly so that we would shut the fuck up and let them go back to talking like normal people. But possibly because they thought it would be a good idea, which it turned out to be.
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: My husband David T. Cole is a web designer, so he made us a site called the Dawson’s Wrap, and we started doing recaps. It did well enough in its first year that, after that, we went back and added a bunch of other shows. That became Mighty Big TV, and then that became Television Without Pity. And Dawson was our flagship show.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: I remember us all of us gathering around the computer to be like, “Oh, they’re writing about us on the internet. This must be nice!” And then realizing that, no, most of what people write about you on the internet is not very nice.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: That was the idea: that Dawson’s Creek — we were very unfair to it, I’m sure — was trying to be something and failing. And it also seemed to be oblivious to what it actually did do well.
I give it credit: It learned. It developed an intelligence about itself. And crying Dawson is Exhibit A.
As Dawson’s Creek ended its second season, series creator Kevin Williamson departed the show, along with most of the original writers’ room. With a skeleton staff, the new Dawson’s Creek struggled to find its voice. Showrunners cycled in and out of the writer’s room, and ratings plummeted. The TV show that the WB had built its brand around just two years earlier was now in danger of cancellation.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: At the end of season two, Kevin left, and I think every other writer on staff either left or was let go by the studio. So I was the only remaining writer from previous seasons that was on the staff at the top of season three.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: It was indescribably weird in retrospect. The first day of season three in the writers’ room, only Greg Berlanti had ever written an episode of Dawson’s Creek before. And even he didn’t go all the way back to season one.
Tom Kapinos, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: I realized pretty early on that the things we were talking about in the room didn’t really bear any response to the show I had watched for two years. I remember getting this feeling like, this seems like we’re headed for some kind of a disaster. But I didn’t know what I was doing. I assumed this was just TV.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: We were having some ratings problems at the top of the season. I went off to make a movie, and I came back, and the network was making some changes to the folks that were above me, who I quite liked.
Tom Kapinos, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: We had this infamous femme fatale storyline, which we hit a wall with. And then we also hit a wall with this storyline where Pacey and Jen were going to embark on a casual fuck-buddy relationship. I guess somewhere around episode eight, the network flipped out.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: Now that people don’t even make those long seasons of television so much anymore, I look back and I can see how there was this rhythm to the year, and it was exhausting. Especially that season. We had a production shutdown around Thanksgiving.
Tom Kapinos, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: We just had to change course. And I think Berlanti just sort of was like, “Okay, this is what the show is going to be.”
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: The studio and the network came to me and said, “What would you do?”
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: It seemed as though, perhaps because Kevin Williamson had left, the rest of the team maybe felt a little bit freer to let the show become what it wanted to become. Which was not a show about Dawson.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: I had always felt like there was a real natural kind of love triangle, very much in the vein of the King Arthur tale: Arthur at the center and Lancelot and Guinevere all connecting romantically. In that story, they’re all good people and they’re all heroes. But the heart wants what it wants, and that can complicate things.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: The Joey and Pacey chemistry that was there in season one obviously worked.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: Joey and Pacey’s chemistry was, you know, actual chemistry, and not this sad two-wet-envelopes-lying-next-to-each-other thing that was happening with Dawson and Joey.
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: Pacey was obviously the better character and always had been. And the two of those actors were like magic to watch.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: Because I had written so many episodes, the network and the studio and the cast wanted me to step up and run the show, rather than import a new person.
I was very hesitant at first. I tried to turn it down. But they said they’d help me.
I said I would do it if they let me have an actual gay kiss between two characters. That had never happened on network TV before. And the network agreed to that. So after that, I felt like it was worth it.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: It says a lot about how much TV has changed that like we were like, “Okay, we’re gonna set up Joey and Pacey for like 12 episodes. And also we need to end a lot of the other storylines and stuff.” We didn’t really get there and activate that story till the 12th episode of the season.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: When we finally did start to reorient the season around that love triangle narrative, in the back half, we were just doing stuff on the fly. But it was really connecting with the audience.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: The Joey-Pacey stuff was more interesting to recap.
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: They were so much more fun to watch, too. That’s what you want in a teen drama, is that kind of spark, and it doesn’t happen that much.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: It was as atypical then as it is now for the ratings to grow for a show in season three or beyond. But the ratings started to grow again.
The actors were happy, and everybody was excited. I think we found what the show would be without Kevin there.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: By the time you get to the final beat of a story, it should be rolling downhill. If you have set everything up correctly, it should be falling into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: It was, in a strange way, fanservice. Because that whole season, leading up to crying Dawson, you could kind of sense that Dawson was going to get a cartoon skillet in the face.
With the Joey-Pacey-Dawson love triangle in place, the show approached its season three endgame: the moment when Dawson would have to tell Joey to go to Pacey. Fans anticipated Dawson’s comeuppance eagerly. But they would have to wait for the finale, “True Love,” to get what they wanted: the moment when Dawson would cry.
Dawson’s tears were funny out of context. But in context, they were incredibly satisfying. In the writers’ room, they were the culmination of an incredibly vexed and chaotic season of television. And on the boards of Television Without Pity, they were the payoff for three seasons of mounting hatred toward Dawson and everything he stood for.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: At least for our corner of the internet, it wasn’t so much “Will they or won’t they?” It was, “When are they going to screw Dawson over so we can enjoy it?”
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: He was not an appealing lead character. This is often a problem with shows where the lead’s name is in the title: They have to always make that person the hero because they’re not going to get them out of the show.
Jeffrey Stepakoff, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: John Wells used to say that writing television is like improv jazz. By the time we got to the end of the season, Greg, Tom, Gina, and me — I think we had really, really good improv jazz. We were making beautiful music in the room.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: We wrote that episode, “True Love,” together as a group, Tom Kapinos and Jeff Stepakoff and Greg Berlanti and I. We traded off on scenes.
Tom Kapinos, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: I wrote the Dawson crying scene! Who knew back then?
I actually compared the script file to the finished product, and it’s pretty much word-for-word. I think Greg may have tweaked a little bit of the dialogue here and there. That just goes to show how that whole season was essentially crisis mode: We were writing this stuff really quickly.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: I was the one who actually went to Wilmington [where the show was shot] with the script. I was there when they shot it. I was standing in Dawson’s backyard.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: Until you said that GIF came from the end of season three, I did not remember that. I’m not saying that we had Dawson cry a lot, but…
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: I don’t think we would have scripted a crying response. As a general rule, our scripts were light on stage directions. They were mostly just dialogue.
Tom Kapinos, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: It says, “Joey makes a decision, a simple enough gesture, and in that single second, Dawson’s reserve shatters. He can’t hold it together anymore.” There’s a little bit more talk, and he says, “Just go.” And then I write, “And he means it. Tears streaming down his face.” And then Joey backs away from the scene.
So yeah, it’s in there!