Dawson's Creek and the Truth About Work

Am I too late to write about Dawson's Creek?

Thanks for being here. This week, a particular episode of Dawson's Creek felt like millennial propaganda. How’s the show teach us to feel about work and how does the lead character’s predicament mirror our own?


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I know I’m late to this, but…

I came across an old episode of Dawson’s Creek this past week in which the titular character, Dawson Leary (played by a 20 y/o James Van Der Beek), paints an Old Man’s house because he had stolen and crashed the man’s boat in a previous episode. If Dawson wants to avoid the Old Man going to the cops and wants to repay him for damages, then the Old Fella insists Dawson paint. So paint Dawson must, for both financial and moral absolution.

For the uninitiated, Dawson’s Creek follows a group of high-school friends as they navigate teenhood someplace on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This matters because given that context, one realizes the Old Man is effectively entering a teenager into debt peonage. Unsurprisingly, this goes unexplored in the episode. Not here!

Over the course of the episode, we see the breakdown in the Old Man’s logic and how despite the show framing Dawson’s indentured servitude as an experience from which he’ll grow, it turns out to be to Dawson’s detriment. As the pandemic wanes, workers find themselves in a similar position—indoctrinated with useless wisdom about work and held captive by it nonetheless. 

The discourse was wrong

Throughout their time on screen together, the Old Man (henceforth referred to as ‘OM’) chastises Dawson for his poor work ethic, shitty craftsmanship, and sour attitude. Does this discourse of an old person and a millennial sound familiar? The chastising implies the expectation from OM that someone who’s performing debt peonage should put forth exacting effort whilst wearing a smile. 

Dawson, believing that manual work with no clear end will somehow rescue him, rather than potentially give him a bout of Stockholm syndrome with his captor, goes as far as to put the work ahead of his college applications. In doing so, Dawson subordinates his own needs--his desired college education and all the benefits thereafter--to the need to work to repay a debt. 

In a similar fashion, we’re taught not only that there’s a moral imperative to work hard, but that the fruits of work will bring some form of moral and financial comfort. Instead, many have busted their humps to get jobs that: have unwieldy commutes, don’t pay in line with productive capacity, and leave them exposed to the whims of their employers.

Change can be bad

Once he’s finished painting the house, OM moves the goalposts on Dawson. He adds the fences as part of Dawson’s paint party for conditional absolution. With social security fund reserves set to run out by 2037, and home prices continuing their meteoric rise, Dawson’s predicament starts to feel familiar. 

As more and more workers across the professional spectrum begin to assert themselves to their employers--whether that be for higher hourly wages, or the ability to work where they please--whatever remains of the facade that works contains any spiritual significance (exceptions, of course) has begun to crumble. As proven, unemployment insurance hasn’t dissuaded anyone from coming back to work post-covid, shitty working situations have. If we’re going to work despite it not lending the comfort we thought it would, it might as well not suck as much. Perhaps the Stockholm fever work has had over us is breaking.

Currently, employers control access to lower cost (because even corporate health insurance is expensive) health care, stifle wages, and managers pay themselves grossly out of whack with most employees. The market forces that we were taught would bring us honor, keep us free from want, and balance inequities are revealing themselves to be bunk.

Although not to the same extent as Dawson, and despite the push for better working circumstances, workers find themselves in a similarly captive market. Leave work abruptly, lose your healthcare. Don’t return to an office despite succeeding without one for nearly 18 months, lose your income. There’s no honor to be gained through hard work because in such an inequitable system, honor slipped out the door a while ago. The economic scales which perpetually balance themselves unfettered are instead a growing stick with a carrot on the end, receding ever further off into the horizon. 

I didn’t watch the next episode to see what happens with Dawson and the Old Man, but I think we all know where it went. This, optimistically, is where I hope Dawson’s fate forks from ours. Rather than be bonded to a captive labor market, working towards a poorly defined sense of moral obligation and financial freedom, I hope the forthcoming months and years find us exploring new ways of calibrating the value in work and doing so for organizations that compensate and treat us accordingly.


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