Why Did Dawson’s Hot Dad Die Such A Stupid Death in ‘Dawson’s Creek’?

Maybe the most ridiculous death in TV history?

Dawson's Creek

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When I think about defining moments of my life, there is one that stands out: watching Dawson Leery’s hot dad die the most ridiculous TV death of all time on Dawson’s Creek. I was 18 years old, young and bright-eyed, and looking forward to the future. But then, in the words of celebrated philosopher and ‘Creekhead, Friedrich Nietzsche, I stared into the abyss, and an ice cream cone stared back at me.

The year after we graduated high school, my best friend Nicki and I watched the entirety of Dawson’s Creek on DVD.

It was a time before either of us had any real responsibilities — we were at uni and we had part-time jobs, but mostly we just had TV. I remember those nights so fondly as we followed these teenagers’ chaotic lives while eating servo snacks. “I remember your mum coming downstairs and asking ‘why are you watching this same movie again?’ with an eye roll,” Nicki recalls today — but truly, the ongoing drama of Capeside brought us closer together.

We gasped when Pacey hooked up with his teacher, Tamara Jacobs (at the time, we weren’t aware what statutory rape was — damn, that storyline would not fly today).

We laughed when Dawson did his iconic ugly cry, years before we even knew the word meme. We were shooketh at the love triangles/squares/hexagons/decagons or whatever that sprung up between these kids every other week.

But nothing — NOTHING — made as indelible a mark on us as the absolutely cursed death of Hot Dad Mitch Leery, father of our whiny pissbaby protagonist.

Spoilers ahead for a TV episode that aired 19 years ago!!!

So, Mitch — Dawson’s dad. What can I say about Mitch? First of all, hot (John Wesley Shipp, call me). Mitch was a good dad, not only to Dawson but to the kids of Capeside, after becoming a substitute teacher at Capeside High, then a football coach, then a guidance counsellor. He was a shoulder for the students to cry on when they were having problems, a strong and supportive male role model.

Mitch was also a loyal and communicative husband (fellas, take note). He displayed true emotional strength and maturity in the first season of the show, when he found out that his wife Gail, who was a news anchor, was having an affair with her co-host. While Mitch was hurt by this, he put his feelings aside to make the marriage work, and he and Gail entered an open relationship. We stan an emotionally intelligent zaddy!

But of course, as the old saying goes, nothing gold can stay. Or, as the other old saying goes, sometimes an actor has a hissy fit because he realises his character’s development has come to a dead end due to the maturation of the teenage characters, asks for a ludicrous pay rise, and ultimately strikes a deal with the writers to be killed off rather than relegated to the background.

“That was just an utter disaster, and I think it’s joked about to this day.”

And so it was in season five that Hot Dad Mitch Leery died in a freak accident.

Mitch and Dawson had just had an argument about Dawson dropping out of film school, and Mitch told his son that he was disappointed in him. As family tension was bubbling away, Mitch went out to buy milk. Naturally, he picked himself up a little sweetie at the store — a delicious ice cream cone. Two scoops, obviously: vanilla and chocolate. Daddy deserves a special treat.

So, Mitch was driving home, eating his ice cream and absolutely rocking out to ‘Drift Away’ by Dobie Gray because, as mentioned, he’s a dad. “I don’t wanna wait… to get home to eat my ice cream,” he was probably thinking.

But then, disaster — when he used his cone as a drumstick, the vanilla bit fell onto the floor.

Waste not, want not, especially when a nummy treat is at stake — so he bent down to pick the ice cream off the floor, hand still on the wheel. In these critical moments during which he took his eyes off the road, he collided with a truck, as we saw through the flashing lights and the dawning realisation in his eyes.

And that, my friends, is how Hot Dad Mitch Leery died.

(I should say here that I once had a car accident myself because I was singing along to ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ so passionately that I tried to turn right from the middle lane in a one-way, three-lane traffic situation, so like, mood I guess, but damn.)

I simply cannot describe the pitch or duration of the shrieks that escaped my and Nicki’s mouths when we experienced this scene for the first time. In Nicki’s words, “we found it hilarious but in retrospect… a TRAGEDY.” True.

I had, and have, so many questions, such as:

What was he going to do if he successfully picked the ice cream up off the floor without crashing the car? Eat it? Surely it would have been covered in fur/hair?

If you found out a loved one died this way, how would it even be possible to not laugh before crying?

Most importantly: why???

The episode that follows the cursed death is actually incredibly moving, as Dawson returns to Capeside to contend with his father’s passing. It truly was a pivotal moment in Dawson’s character development. But I just cannot help but wonder, out of all the ways they could have killed the character off, why they chose something so insanely, incomprehensibly stupid.

In a Vanity Fair interview for Dawson’s Creek’s 20th anniversary, writer (and eventually executive producer) Tom Kapinos said of Mitch’s death, “That was just an utter disaster, and I think it’s joked about to this day.” Which, yeah, no shit.

I think about this scene at least once a week. It is probably the funniest thing I have ever seen on TV.

RIP Hot Dad Mitch Leery. Whenever I eat an ice cream, I think of you dying as you lived: having, and being, a snack. You deserved better.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.