In Too Deep: Why Dr Horrible Is A Brilliant Tragedy.
Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. If you have not seen it click onto Youtube, watch it, then come back here and read the rest of the blog. Do it. Do it now. I can wait.
It was good, wasn’t it? Made by Joss Whedon during the writer’s strike, it is perhaps the crowning achievement of interdependent production. But on top of that it is perhaps one of the greatest Shakespearian works of tragedy this side of the Elizabethan period. For you see, dear readers, Dr Horrible is one of the greatest tragedies ever made. Mostly because it reflects what a tragedy is so well.
Following on from that last sentence, what is a tragedy? Well there are traditionally three elements to what makes a tragedy. Firstly we need to have a sympathetic lead. Now as anyone who’s watched the musical knows (and if you haven’t watched it go watch it right now), Billy aka Dr Horrible is a rather sympathetic lead character. He is a nihilist that has taken one look at the sick, diseased world and vowed to fix it. We feel sorry for poor Billy. He has to play the villain because that’s the status quo, something he wishes to break. He isn’t evil, far from it. He just does bad things because he is fulfilling a role society created for him. Now all good tragic leads have a tragic flaw that lead to their inevitable downfall. Billy has a few, perhaps the most obvious one being his selfishness. When he is offered the chance of talking to the woman he’s in love with, he instead chooses to continue with his evil plan. This selfishness later comes back to bite him in the arse later. But to wrap up this short paragraph, Billy is the perfect tragic protagonist.
Now one of the important things about tragedies is that the audience should not only know that the downfall of the protagonist is going to happen, this downfall should feel ‘inevitable’ and ‘right’ to us whilst being unjustifiable and unacceptable. Now to get to this downfall we first need the Peripetia/Reversal, where something happens to suddenly put the character in a worst situation. This point comes when Billy learns that his arch-enemy, Captain Hammer, is planning on sleeping with the woman who Billy loves, Penny. This is Billy’s worst situation, as well as his best. Since he needs to kill someone to get into the Evil League of Evil, he vows to kill Captain Hammer. However the situation is still bad, since he could potentially lose the woman he loves. Then there’s the Anagnorises/Revelation, where the character learns some tragic truth about themselves or others. Jumping back on myself, this is the part where he learns that Penny is dating Captain Hammer. Now this tragic truth changes the character quite a lot, since the following scene has him resolved to murder. Finally we have the aforementioned Hamartia/tragic flaw that leads to the error of judgement and thus their downfall. Now I said before it was his selfishness, which was true. If he hadn’t been so focused on being a villain, he’d have been with her. But another one of his flaws is, surprisingly enough, his mercy. If he didn’t hesitate to kill Captain Hammer, Penny would live. It is this mercy, this shred of decent humanity in him that stops him from killing Captain Hammer but inadvertently killing Penny. It is his mercy that gets Penny killed, whilst it is his selfishness that causes him to become ultimately nihilistic and unfeeling. So in this sense yes, Dr Horrible is a tragedy.
Another big thing to do with tragedies is that of death. All three leads at the end of Dr Horrible die in one sense or another. Penny dies by getting a piece of shrapnel embedded in her body. Captain Hammer metaphorically dies when he feels pain for the first time in his life and has no way of coping with it. He can no longer be the man he use to be. Billy dies after hearing Penny’s final words: â€œCaptain Hammer will save us.â€ This is the final nail in the coffin, as Billy’s hope dies right in front of his eyes (again, both metaphorically and literally). It is at this moment Billy dies and Dr Horrible is born (indicated by the red suit he wears). Billy is gone, along with his mercy and humanity. All that is left is a monster that just wants to destroy because there is no point any more. Billy dies. Dr Horrible lives.
So why am I writing about Dr Horrible being a tragedy when it is so obviously the case. Because it doesn’t start out as a tragedy. It starts out as a rather quirky, upbeat comedy. Seeing an ineffectual supervillain trying to do evil things and not being all that amazing. It’s really quite funny. It’s only at the end does the viewer realise that it has been a tragedy all along. Right from the start Dr Horrible was ready to fall into darkness, the musical chronicling the events. We see Billy slip more into the Dr Horrible personality. But to the viewer, it’s just an off-beat comedy. I could easily write a blog explaining just why it’s a comedy. But Dr Horrible is a comedy on the first viewing, a tragedy on the second. One of the reasons why I find it so fascinating.
So there you have it. A quick look at one of the best tragedies of the 21st Century. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.