- Dr. Horrible’s quest to enter the Evil League of Evil
- Dr. Horrible’s romance with Penny
- Dr. Horrible’s bitterness about the world
These throughlines give the film its beginning, climax, and end. But unless a story is quite short, that’s not enough. How do you make the middle more than a bunch of story guts spilling aimlessly over everything? The answer is fractal structure. These throughlines are split into child arcs.
For instance, in Act I we watched Dr. Horrible struggle to get his hands on some wonderflonium. He needs the wonderflonium to complete his freeze ray and impress the Evil League of Evil, making this plot element a child arc of the League throughline. The film uses child arcs like these to make each act feel like its own episode of the story. That’s why Act I ended with Dr. Horrible’s success in stealing the wonderflonium. Closing the child arc as the act ended gave Act I a feeling of completion. Now, let’s see what the film does with its middle segment.
If you’re watching along, proceed through the first song and pause afterward.
Opening With a Problem
In the beginning of Act I, we learned that Dr. Horrible has unrequited feelings for Penny, which opens the relationship throughline. Last time, Dr. Horrible finally connected with Penny a bit, but oh no, Penny then fell for his nemesis, Captain Hammer. As an obstacle in the central romance, this new problem began a child arc of the film’s romance throughline. It showed up at the end of Act I to raise tension, despite Dr. Horrible’s successful heist, and provide a hook that would motivate viewers to watch Act II.
Accordingly, Act II opens by emphasizing this new child arc. Viewers see Dr. Horrible recording for his video blog, but he is just staring at the screen, shocked and dismayed by this new turn of events. Then the music transitions into flashbacks that show us what has happened since he limped off with his wonderflonium.
During these flashbacks, Dr. Horrible and Penny sing a duet that once again compares and contrasts their emotional journeys. Dr. Horrible, seeing Penny with Captain Hammer, laments that the world is full of lies and that evil is growing inside him. Penny, who is spending time with Captain Hammer at a soup kitchen, rejoices that she is filled with hope because the world is getting wiser. While Penny seems happy, viewers know that she’s buying into a falsehood. Instead of balancing each other out, Dr. Horrible and Penny are spiraling off in their own directions.
This beautiful duet is a great start to a mid-film arc focusing on the romance and each person’s flaws. It neatly ties the two internal throughlines together.
Stalking Is Still Bad
Now that I’ve explained what’s great about the duet, I have to cover the obvious problem here. The sympathetic main character is now outright stalking his love interest. For many viewers, this will feel acceptable because the stalking is funny. I wish I could say it’s all in good fun, but that’s not true.
Stalking is a real problem that people make excuses for, and the film wants us to think it’s just what you do to the crush you barely know. Treating stalking like it’s harmless not only encourages people to do it but also prevents victims from getting the support they need. After all, if this is the normal behavior of a nice but overeager guy, then surely she’s overreacting when she asks the police to get involved, right? People really do believe the things they see in stories. So as much as we might love this classic, let’s not put stalking in our own romances.
One probable reason for including stalking in these flashbacks is that the duet needs scenes of Dr. Horrible reacting to Penny and Captain Hammer. That way, it’s clear what’s driving the protagonist further into villainy, and we aren’t just watching him hanging out by himself. As I mentioned last time, the root problem is that Penny and Dr. Horrible barely know each other. That’s why there aren’t many opportunities for Dr. Horrible to encounter Penny while she’s on her date.
Their lack of connection becomes especially weird when Dr. Horrible sings this line: “And Penny doesn’t seem to care that soon the dark in me is all that will remain.”
Dude, you’ve talked with Penny exactly one time. She doesn’t know you, much less know that you’re descending into metaphorical darkness. Maybe that line was written when the filmmakers thought they would know each other better. It’s also possible that the next scene, where Dr. Horrible and Penny are finally friends, was originally going to come first. But the song is a stronger way to start off Act II because it emphasizes the story’s new problem better.
Regardless, the solution I recommended for the romance last time – making them coworkers – still stands. Then Dr. Horrible could see Captain Hammer visit Penny on her break or watch him pick her up from work.
If you’re watching, proceed through the scene in the laundromat and pause when the film returns to video blog format.
Restoring Hope After a Bad Turn
Next, we see Dr. Horrible (Billy) and Penny meet at the laundromat, where Billy uses knowledge he got from stalking Penny to get on good terms with her. Blech. Anyway, the tone of this scene is more upbeat. Instead of the awkward friction of their first meeting, Billy and Penny seem comfortable with each other and have good camaraderie.
This keeps the romance arc moving forward, even though it has run into an obstacle. If Dr. Horrible continued to just watch and stew about Penny and Captain Hammer, viewers would get frustrated with the lack of progress. If Dr. Horrible tried to do something about it and failed, the tone would probably get too gloomy.
As such, this scene has a social conflict with small enough stakes that he can win. His goal is to make a good impression. But to do that, Billy must hide how much he hates Penny’s new boyfriend – and also that Billy’s stalking her. He wants to discourage her relationship with Captain Hammer, but going too far in that direction will turn Penny against Billy instead. His helplessness in the face of her new relationship maintains the story’s tension even though he succeeds at his goal.
If you’re watching, play the next video blog sequence. Pause when Dr. Horrible gets a phone call.
Returning to the External Conflict
Afterward, the film returns to the question of whether Dr. Horrible will get into the Evil League of Evil. Speaking to his vlog followers, Dr. Horrible declares that with the wonderflonium he just stole, his freeze ray is now ready for action. He’s planning something big that night. He doesn’t say what it is at this point, just that if he succeeds, he’ll get into the League.
Having the hero make an early attempt at their end goal is one way to create a child arc for a larger plotline. However, unlike the wonderflonium heist, this isn’t much of a child arc. That’s because the attempt takes place offscreen. This is almost certainly because of production constraints. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was made by adrift professionals during the 2007-2008 Writer’s Guild of America strike. It was a fun side project using little time and budget.
If this hadn’t been the case, we’d have gotten at least a musical montage of Dr. Horrible’s attempt at a heist worthy of the League. It would be an exciting sequence that’s part of the external throughline, so it’s definitely worth a scene. However, attempts at resolving a story’s throughline shouldn’t go on for too long, either. This is only midway through the film, so Dr. Horrible’s plan is obviously doomed. Drawing it out would feel like much ado about nothing.
The filmmakers make the best of their production constraints by employing a humorous time jump. Dr. Horrible brags about how badass he is, and then the film immediately cuts to him looking bruised and sounding hoarse. It’s also worth noting that nothing about the event is described until it was already over. If Dr. Horrible had described his plans ahead of time, viewers would have expected to see them in action. Resolving it offscreen would have left them feeling robbed.
If you’re watching, proceed until Billy is back at the laundromat.
Establishing the Moral Dilemma
The other critical thing to know about failed attempts is that they must have consequences. Otherwise, the hero can try to achieve their goal over and over again until they finally succeed, and story’s tension will plummet. So, right after Dr. Horrible describes his failed attempt in vague but evocative terms, the Evil League of Evil calls to impose a consequence. They aren’t happy with his failure, so the only way Dr. Horrible can get into the League now is to kill someone.
Act I showed viewers that Dr. Horrible uses nonviolent methods when he commits crimes. It also suggested he has moral boundaries, since he didn’t want to fight in a place where kids were present. However, Dr. Horrible is still designed as a classic villain, so it’s unclear whether he is willing to kill people. Once the League requires him to, he has to talk out how he feels to establish the requirement as a significant problem.
Right after the phone call, Dr. Horrible speaks with Moist about it. Interestingly, Dr. Horrible doesn’t say that killing is immoral. Instead he states that killing isn’t his style because it’s not “elegant or creative.” This was probably done to maintain his resemblance to a villain, but even so, viewers can see that Dr. Horrible is uncomfortable with crossing this moral boundary. Otherwise, the new requirement wouldn’t bother him so much. When Moist suggests killing a boy who might grow up to become president or smothering an old lady, Dr. Horrible responds in disgust, “Do I even know you?”
If you’re watching, continue to the end of Act II.
Pulling the Protagonist in Different Directions
Dr. Horrible must choose to either violate his moral principles or give up his pursuit of villainy. This puts him in a similar position to many characters who waver between good and evil. One of the easiest and most effective ways to push a villain to become a hero or vice versa is to create good and bad influences that can be brought out as needed. In this case, Dr. Horrible’s dilemma is maximized by pulling out both. He speaks with Penny, his good influence, in the laundromat. Then he has a confrontation with Captain Hammer, his bad influence.
I do think there’s a missed opportunity in the scene with Penny. Billy tells her that he’s feeling down because he supposedly wants a job and he can’t get his foot in the door. She gives him emotional support, but viewers don’t see her guiding him to the conclusion that he should give up getting into the League. It feels unlikely that just cheering him up would solve his dilemma. If Dr. Horrible did decide to stand up to the League, the filmmakers could have clarified that her emotional support influenced him. But he doesn’t go in that direction, and there’s never a moment when it feels like he might. As a result, some of the power of this moral struggle is lost.
That said, the moment with Penny shows that their romance has made further progress. They start to lean in for a kiss, and then Penny seems to remember she’s already dating someone. She straightens and starts rambling about Captain Hammer. Now viewers know that her relationship with Captain Hammer is the last obstacle to clear before the romance is resolved.
Ending With a Resolution
Next, Captain Hammer shows up at the laundromat. The scene has a brief conflict where Billy tries to escape notice, but he fails. Captain Hammer knows that Billy is Dr. Horrible (he watches Dr. Horrible’s vlog), and the bulky hero came to gloat to his enemy that he’s dating Penny. He makes it clear that he views Penny as nothing more than a sexual conquest, and he’s only dating her to demoralize Dr. Horrible. After all that, he walks away with an arm around Penny, who is still ignorant of his ill intentions.
As a result of this goading, Dr. Horrible decides that the answer to his dilemma is to kill Captain Hammer. Instead of feeling conflicted, he is happy about his decision to discard his morals. These events deliver a failure for Dr. Horrible on two levels. Penny’s relationship with Captain Hammer is more serious than ever, and Dr. Horrible is descending further into spite and villainy.
However, it’s not a gloomy end to Act II because Dr. Horrible now has a plan to resolve both the external and relationship arcs. Plus, he’s really happy, so his choice to kill Captain Hammer must be okay, right?
With his choice, a significant child arc – the dilemma – has now been resolved. That creates a sense of closure, preventing the end of Act II from feeling like a cheap cliffhanger. Even so, Dr. Horrible’s plan creates a great hook for Act III by raising the stakes of the conflict between him and Captain Hammer. There’s a big showdown coming, and viewers can’t wait.
Next time, we’ll explore how the film pulls together an ending for all three of its throughlines and consider the message it leaves in its wake.
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