Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
Teen television has long been filled with characters who have been vilified by their makers, and later by audiences as a result. These characters tend to be young women who are portrayed as being annoyingly flawed outcasts. Think The O.C.’s Marissa Cooper, who spent years being named one of the most hated TV characters simply because she was a teenage girl who dared to exist. No matter how these individuals evolved over time, viewers tend to hate them with a burning passion faster than they grow to love them. People like Marissa Cooper tend to exist in order to drive other plot lines forward, and it’s rare for these kind-hearted characters to emerge unharmed (given that their storylines frequently but unsurprisingly end in heart-shattering deaths). One such character who fell victim to this tired trope is Jen Lindley, of the quintessential teen drama Dawson’s Creek.
Following its characters from high school and into adulthood during their college years, Dawson’s Creek was the perfect blend of escapism and heightened but truthful storytelling. Released only three years after The WB’s inception, the series was one of the key programs to skyrocket it to success, turning it into a home for teen-centric television that would lay the foundation for what would become The CW.
Premiering in 1998, Dawson’s Creek aired for six seasons until it concluded in 2003. It centered on the life of James Van Der Beek’s titular aspiring filmmaker Dawson Leery and his childhood best friends, Joey Potter (Katie Holmes) and Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson), as they come of age in the fictional town of Capeside, Massachusetts. Rounding out the angsty foursome was Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams), a transplant from New York who becomes the girl next door, and disrupts Dawson and Joey’s budding romance, thus forming a love triangle scenario that would grow to become all too familiar in the series. As she emerged in slow-motion from a taxi wearing an iconic sundress/cardigan combo in the pilot episode, Jen’s arrival in Capeside served as the catalyst for the plot of Dawson’s Creek, as Dawson and Pacey’s teenage hormones went wild and caused Joey to feel that her friendship with Dawson was being threatened.
Having been a party girl who did drugs and had sex in the Big Apple, which served as the reasoning behind her relocation to her Christian grandmother’s more conversative household, Jen was set up to be a complete foil to the quiet “good girl” Joey from the onset. But even as Jen and Joey were frequently pit against each other, Jen always stayed true to being a genuine friend. Moreover, Jen’s reputation from the city resulted in her being the target of slut-shaming, both implicitly and explicitly, to the point where her romance with Dawson didn’t last long because he felt intimidated and turned off by her sexual experience.
Throughout Dawson’s Creek, the writers were clearly never quite able to figure out what to do with Jen, which resulted in her being a central character who was still sidelined. She was constantly put through a series of half-baked arcs that rarely ended well. From having a traumatic childhood, to her grandfather and close friend dying, to a drinking problem and constant bullying, Jen never had it easy. With a string of love interests that never worked out either, one rare highlight in her life was finding a soulmate in Jack (Kerr Smith), her best friend who remained by her side up until her final moments.
This brings us to one of the greatest crimes committed in Dawson’s Creek and television history as a whole. During the two-part series finale, which takes a five year time jump to 2008, Jen is a single mother to a one-year-old daughter named Amy and, to pile onto the countless pain she endured, gets diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. Ultimately, even on her deathbed, Jen was relegated to being a character who existed to develop the narratives of others. While in the hospital moments before she died, Jen tells Joey that her dying wish is for Joey to choose between the two men who have spent years vying for her love.
The show’s final hours are spent assassinating (literally) any character development that was slowly but surely being built over the course of its 128 episodes for the sake of serving other main characters. The idea that Jen had to die in order for a romantic subplot to be solved is both lazy and an insult to the character and Michelle Williams, who brought her to life in the most relatable and human way possible.
I’m not saying that Jen was without her flaws—is any character actually perfect?—but she was a sweet, loyal, and strong character who was never afraid to speak her mind and express herself despite constantly being punished for it. None of Jen’s faults, which were minor in comparison to the behavior of teens currently portrayed on television, should have warranted such poor treatment. Back in the day, many Dawson’s viewers vilified Jen for her actions (mostly, her driving a wedge between Dawson and Joey) and overall quirky personality. It was rare for shows of this genre to feature female characters who were comfortable in their own skin and refused to conform to societal standards, but Jen never stood down.
Despite some of the bad material she had to deal with and some shaky acting toward the start, Williams’s potential as a performer was undeniable. Of the core ensemble, many back then wouldn’t have guessed that she would emerge as the most successful. Merely two years after the finale tragically concluded Jen’s storyline on a disappointing note, Williams broke out of the teen drama mold and went on to receive her first Academy Award nomination (of four to date) for Brokeback Mountain. It solidified her as someone who was more than capable of being a versatile actor beyond the teen soap star image many recognized—and doubted—her for.
While the likes of Dawson and Joey seemed to be going through cycles of the same issues, Jen emerged as the most well-developed and mature character who left the biggest impact. While it took time for people to realize it, Jen Lindley was the heart and soul of Dawson’s Creek, and she remains one of the most unfairly treated and misunderstood characters to grace our television screens.
Jihane Bousfiha is an entertainment writer based in Florida. When she’s not watching or writing about TV and films, you can find her tweeting about all-things pop culture on Twitter @jihanebousfiha__.
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