For Entertainment Weekly‘s “The Art of Saying Goodbye” story, which ran in the April 11 issue, we interviewed the masterminds behind 10 iconic TV shows to learn how they crafted their series finales. No one’s story was quite like Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson’s. He’d stepped away from the drama earlier in its run. The series was set to end with the season 6 episode “Joey Potter and Capeside Redemption,” which sent Joey (Katie Holmes) off to Paris. But then the network had an idea: “Warner Bros. called Greg Berlanti up knowing we were friends and said, ‘See if you can talk Kevin into doing the finale.’ I went to lunch with Jordan [Levin], president of The WB, and they had the conceit: Why don’t we do five years in the future? They were like, ‘Let’s push ahead and show how everyone ended up.’ I thought about it, and I went, ‘Okay. That frees me up. That allows me to tell a new story,'” Williamson says. Below, in our extended Q&A, he details how he decided what that new tale would be (RIP, Jen), when he changed his mind about who Joey would end up with romantically, and why you shouldn’t hold your breath for a reunion movie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I spoke to Murphy Brown creator Diane English for this feature as well, and she said writing that series finale almost killed her. What was your experience like?
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: It came at the world’s worst time. … I was doing Cursed, that amazing, brilliant werewolf movie. [Laughs] We were shooting Cursed: Part 4 — ’cause I think we reshot it like four times — and Julie Plec [who’d also worked with Williamson and Berlanti on Dawson’s Creek] was one of the producers. So we were just sort of sitting there on set miserable, kinda just talking it out. And then I thought, you know, the thing about Dawson’s Creek was that it was always supposed to be my version of a coming-of-age story — which was all of these kids grew up on the Peach Pit. All these kids knew 90210. Dawson was a very self-aware, movie-referencing smart aleck. That was the style of the show. So I thought, it’s coming of age — what was the one thing they haven’t dealt with? They dealt with first love, first sex, first everything, but they hadn’t dealt with the death of a core member of their group. I said, “That would be the final coming-of-age story.”
How did you decide Jen [Michelle Williams] was the one who would die?
I looked around at all the characters and said, “Who can it be?” I wanted to tell the story through Jen. She always felt like the outsider, the misfit. She was always the person who didn’t feel like she fit in. And I thought what a beautiful way to let her be the catalyst for everyone’s turning events. I also wanted Joey to finally make her decision between Pacey [played by Joshua Jackson] and Dawson [played by James Van Der Beek], and I thought what better thing to launch that life decision than the immediacy of a death. You’re forced to dig deeper and to truly figure out what your future’s gonna be. Here you have little Joey Potter in New York: she’s seemingly on her way up the ladder professionally, but she’s with a guy, played by Jeremy Sisto, that’s probably wrong for her. When I first wrote it, I was absolutely convinced it had to end with Dawson and Joey together. It was a two-hour finale, and when I wrote the second hour, that’s where I was headed. I wasn’t able to sleep, something was rubbing me the wrong way. To me, Dawson and Joey are soul mates. And then I kept thinking, one thing I’ve learned in my life is that my soul mate isn’t necessarily my romantic love. So I was trying to put that in place with Dawson and Joey professing their forever to each other. And then we revealed that she chose her romantic love, which was Pacey.
Did you feel fan pressure back then?
Back in 2003, we barely had Dawson’s Desktop, it was just new and cutting-edge on our AOL dial-up. … Twitter sort of elevates everyone’s angst to some degree. Everyone’s got a blog. Everyone’s hate-watching everything. Everyone’s gotten just snarky, snarky, snarky. So you just have to go with it. That’s a part of the process now. … It was such an interesting response when I did it then: I didn’t realize how many people wanted Pacey and Joey together. Because I always thought everyone was kinda like, “It’s Dawson and Joey. Everyone knows it’s gonna be Dawson and Joey.” When I finally shifted it to Pacey and Joey, people came out of the closet going, “Okay, I’m so glad that happened. They so belong together.” I know it was a little polarizing; I thought it was gonna be extremely polarizing. … [That said], so many people have come up to me like, “I can’t believe it wasn’t Dawson and Joey.” And I go, “But it was. They sat there by the pier and said, ‘You and me, always.'” He wrote a TV show, The Creek, about Dawson and Joey. In his Spielbergian head, he got the girl.
How did James take the news?
I remember having to call James and explain to him how I was gonna end the show, and he was just like, “You know, man, you gotta do what you think is gonna be right.” He was down with any decision. I think he really ultimately loved the idea that all of Dawson’s dreams came true in Hollywood. That sounded right to him: If I had this big dream and I didn’t succeed, I would be very disappointed.
How did Michelle react hearing of Jen’s death?
I remember Michelle was a little scared and nervous. She goes, “Well, what if we do a reunion show? What if we do a movie or something?” I’m like, “Well, then you’ll be a ghost.” [Laughs] Once we realized that we were gonna let her die, it freed us up to have all those scenes — that wonderful moment where Dawson is videotaping her video letter to her daughter, the moment with Grams [Mary Beth Peil] being there to witness her death. I just loved how it put Joey in a frame of mind where she had to finally stop running from her personal life and really face it head-on. It was that last bit of growth that pushed them into adulthood.
So you never thought about a reunion movie?
We joked about it then: “What’s gonna happen if we do the reunion movie? Jen’s dead.” “Well, she’ll be in heaven narrating the whole story.” [Laughs] But ultimately, I don’t want to see it. I want it to be that little piece of the ’90s that’s forever in its proper place. And it was a complete story: I know how everyone ended up because of the five-year push in the finale. I love that there are so many people out there that would love to see a reunion. I love that it has a life that has gone on and on beyond its initial run. But I like how we ended it.
So you felt satisfied with the finale?
We ran out of time. I wrote the first hour, and then they had to start filming it while I was writing the second hour. I’ve always regretted the first hour of the two-hour finale. I always felt like it could have been better structured. I had three days or less to finish the second hour. We were all hands on deck. Maggie Friedman, Greg — we were just trying to get it done. I look back on it, and I feel like the second hour is so much tighter. I look back and go, “God, I wish we could’ve had another day or two.” But that’s just me as a writer. I look at every episode I ever do and go, “God, if I had one more week.” Which is probably the truth. [Laughs]
Tell me about ultimately getting Jack (Kerr Smith) and Pacey’s brother Doug (Dylan Neal) together. Jack ended up taking custody of Jen’s daughter, and Doug finally came out so they could be a family.
In the first two seasons, I can point to every single episode and tell you what really happened in my life that spawned that episode — or, I can point to what happened in another writer’s life who sat in that writer’s room and poured out their guts and we turned it into an episode. The gay storyline was always really special to me, and to Greg. Greg and I wrote the coming-out storyline for [episodes] 214 and 215. It was spawned out of something that happened in Greg’s childhood, and then I took it and it was sort of my family’s reaction. We blended our stories. I wanted a happy ending for Jack. We always joked that Doug was gay, or at least Pacey did. [Laughs] And so we thought, well, what if he really was? Why don’t we just go there and make sure that it’s a happy ending? That was a nice little subplot and a way to round out Jack’s character. In the late ’90s, non-traditional families were just becoming a normal part of the world. We thought it was an appropriate reflection upon Jack.
What do you consider the gold standard of series finales?
The last one I watched that I thought was spectacular, for me personally, was Breaking Bad. That honored the show. I felt complete. I felt satisfied. I had a smile on my face because that was a damn good episode of television. I did love 24; I just thought that final moment between Chloe and Jack via the satellite was a beautiful moment. I had to instantly rewind it and watch it again. … There’s The Sopranos. When everyone was giving [creator David Chase] criticism for that final moment, I’m like, “I don’t know, man. That’s how he saw it.” You know, he didn’t make that decision lightly. He thought about that, and he made that decision. And you know what? It worked for me. I respect that. I’m being brought into someone else’s world, so I’m gonna go along for the ride.
Is there anything you’ll do differently going into the next series finale you do?
In terms of Vampire Diaries, you should call Julie Plec right now and ask her how it’s gonna end. [Laughs] Because we’ve talked. I know how we originally said it was gonna end.
Yes, Julie once told me the two of you were sitting in an Atlanta mall early in season 2 and discussed it.
Yes, we did. Things change, but I do know if we go with that ending — oh, I’m gonna start crying thinking about it. [Laughs] I love that show.
Anything else you wanted to say?
I look back on my entire career, and I look back at [Dawson’s Creek] as just the most special time of my life. I was basically living my childhood all over again. I was in Hollywood making movies. And I had the most amazing fresh cast. They were all excited to be down in little Wilmington, North Carolina, and it just felt special. And then when it turned into something special, it changed my life. I always get choked up a little when I think about it.
For more on TV finales, pick up the April 11 issue of Entertainment Weekly.