Joey loves Dawson, but they are just friends. Finally, he sees her in a new light and they kiss. But then Joey needs to “find herself” because her life is tied up too tightly with Dawson’s. Her father is released from prison, but Dawson discovers he’s dealing cocaine. Dawson convinces Joey to wear a wire and get a confession from her father, but afterward she feels terrible and tells Dawson she doesn't want to know him anymore.
Joey tries to rekindle her romance with Dawson, but he rejects her and asks Pacey to “watch out for her.” After tons of building sexual tension, Pacey and Joey begin dating in secret. When the relationship is accidentally revealed, Dawson is so angry that Joey dumps Pacey in order to make amends. But, after seeing how miserable she is, Dawson realizes he’s being a dick and Joey finally tells Pacey she’s in love with him. However, Joey & Pacey’s relationship begins to suffer when Joey is admitted to a prestigious college in Boston. Pacey, with neither the grades nor the money to attend school, decides he is holding Joey back. After the couple has sex for the first time, Joey lies to Dawson about it…and then agrees to let him pay her college tuition. An increasingly insecure Pacey publicly dumps Joey in the middle of senior prom, and Joey ends up kissing Dawson three episodes later.
As Dawson leaves for film school, he confesses to Joey that he wants to be with her. She rejects him (get used to it, folks) but then rushes to the airport to declare her love. Dawson is tempted to stay but she convinces him that film is his destiny. After a summer of not speaking, Joey and Dawson have sex for the first time. The next day, she finds out he has a girlfriend. Joey says goodbye to Dawson once again. Then, after her boyfriend Eddie leaves for school in California, Pacey admits that he still loves her. The two briefly rekindle their romance, but she dumps him when Eddie returns to town.
The final two episodes are set 5 years in the future, where Joey freaks out after accidentally finding an engagement ring hidden by her live-in boyfriend. Realizing she doesn’t want to marry him, Joey finally chooses: although Dawson is her soul mate, she is meant to be with Pacey.
D: Do you think it would’ve worked out between us if things had been different?
J: I don’t know. They never are, are they?
Pacey and Joey, on the other hand, were clearly meant for each other. Both were scrappy, sarcastic, and vulnerable in similar ways. Both had highly dysfunctional families and trust issues. Both were forced into self-sufficiency at a young age, and were driven to take care of themselves. In their respective relationships with Joey, Dawson focused on abstract ideas of love, on semantics, and on himself. Pacey focused on Joey. Dawson and Joey were forever bogged down by their past, unable to move beyond it. Pacey and Joey were all about the future, challenging each other to grow up and move forward. Here's a scene from the finale:
P: I've never really put much faith in all that “if you love someone, set them free” crap, as evidenced by everything I've done in my life up to this very moment, but I am determined to be happy…And I love you. I mean, I have always, always loved you…but I also want for you to be happy…I want you to be with someone who can be a part of the life that you want for yourself. I want you to be with someone who makes you feel like I feel when I'm with you. So, I guess the point to this long run-on sentence that's been the last 10 years of our lives is just that the simple act of being in love with you is enough for me. So you're off the hook.
J: For the record, I don't want to be let off the hook. Everything I've done in my life has led me here, right now, and the last thing I want, need, or deserve is to be let off somebody's hook… I love you. You know that. And it's very real. It's so real that it's kept me moving—mostly running—from it, never ready for it…I can't be let off the hook because I just might get the notion that it's ok to keep running.Related: A highly entertaining treatise on the similarities between Pacey/Joey and Logan/Veronica.