Michaeline: When They Don’t Deserve the Happy Ending, Part I

Was Dr. Horrible always destined to be horrible? He seemed like such a redeemable young lad. (Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla's lab, via Wikimedia Commons)

Was Dr. Horrible always destined to be horrible? He seemed like such a redeemable young lad. (Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla’s lab, via Wikimedia Commons)

I love a good romance, and for me, at least, part of what defines “good” is that there’s a certain sense of justice to the proceedings. Our happy pair battle true obstacles with courage and valor in order to reach a place where love can flourish. And at the end, they get what they deserve: a happy ending. Or at least, we think they’ve got a good chance of being happy with each other, no matter what the rest of the miserable world is doing.

There are many stories that contain romantic elements, but fail at being romances because the obstacles overcome our lovers. As romance writers, we can watch how the couples fail in order to figure out how to make our own couples succeed. Or . . . as plain old writers, we can figure out how to fail beautifully, if that’s where the story needs to take us.

BTW, since I’m talking about endings, if you haven’t seen Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog or Jazzin’ for Blue Jean, either watch them, or prepare to be “spoiled” this month. Honestly, both works are brilliant in the details, so knowing the plot won’t spoil them. (And I’m pretty sure the controversy over Dr. Horrible when it came out means that the Neil Patrick Harris vehicle comes pre-spoiled for a vast segment of the viewing public.)

Let’s tackle Dr. Horrible this week. Short plot summary: aspiring “villain” meets girl, falls in love with girl, must build up own self-esteem which has been slashed by the rival “hero”, almost wins girl, girl dies horribly thanks to “villain”/”hero” rivalry.

Intellectually, I realize that this is the way it must be. We’re told from the beginning that Dr. Horrible becomes a villain. In Romance-Land, a satisfied man in a loving relationship will not become a villain.

But my heart revolts at the terrible plot twist at the end. Dammit, Whedon, you got us invested. Our hero, Dr. Horrible, is sweet and geeky and aspiring. Our villain, Captain Hammer, is vain and hypocritical, and doesn’t deserve any good thing. And our girl, Penny, is a step or two above the typical cupcake/trophy that seems to populate male-dominated science fiction romance. Well, OK, upon reflection, and not having watched the show since 2012, maybe she IS the typical cupcake/trophy – there’s something very Lois Lane about her. She’s beautiful, spunky, “worthy of love”, but mostly around to be wooed and won, and a pawn in the boys’ games.

But it did seem to me that she had the potential to flip this tragedy on its head and bring about a happy ending. I felt horribly betrayed by the death dealt to her. But, I guess that’s why they call it Dr. Horrible.

So, maybe our lesson here is: if you are writing a romance, don’t set up the hero for failure. If you are writing a non-romance, sprinkle the hints that this could end badly LIBERALLY through the work. A set-up and a blurb just isn’t enough. Give your poor audience/readers a little bit of distance.

Unless you like ripping out the hearts of your fans. In that case, knock yourself out: build a pyramid, and write yourself a stone knife and get slashing like an Aztec priest, you cold-hearted bastards.

Oh my. Not sure what came over me. I suppose this goes back to connecting to your reader and making a powerful impact. I will never forget Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. I may even watch it again. I may, possibly, on a sunny day with ice cream and a box of tissues, watch it to the end again. Does that make it a great story? Yes, I’m afraid it does.

Does it make it the kind of story I want to write? God, I hope my Girls in the Basement never lead me in that direction. What would you do if your Girls presented you with a story like this? Would you follow it to the end, or would you have a nice lie-down until something easier came your way?

8 thoughts on “Michaeline: When They Don’t Deserve the Happy Ending, Part I

  1. I know what I’ll be watching this weekend. I’ve only seen the beginning half of Dr. Horrible – I’ll have to watch it all the way through to it’s “horrible” ending.

    I’m generally a fan of happily-ever-after stories, both as a reader and a writer. I’ve only had one story take a turn down a dark and unhappy path and it remains unfinished. I’m hoping an idea will eventually occur to me so I can brighten up the ending.

    • So . . . do you remember why you stopped watching? The way it came out was not user-friendly to me at the time, and I wound up buying the DVD. (I still have problems streaming a lot of info, once in a while.) I knew what I was getting into — I’d heard the buzz. But the genius of the writers had me thinking I was in a happily-ever-after story until suddenly, I just wasn’t anymore. I’d forgotten everything I knew, all the meta-meta stuff.

      • Michaline – I had been watching it via Netflix streaming and they removed it from their offerings before I was able to finish it. I did pick it up on DVD later, but never went back and finished watching. Thanks for the reminder.

        • Ah, technology! So convenient until suddenly it’s not. I have several DVD sets that are half-watched, and it’s hard to say why I stopped where I did. I want to finish Parks and Recreation, for example. I thought the first season was kind of meh and a bit to Reality-Show (like The Office), but then it suddenly found its heart in the second season, and was very enjoyable.

          I’m sure third and fourth season will also be great, but . . . I need a block of time free because I know I’m going to binge-watch. If I could keep myself down to just one a night, I’d be finished in a few months; instead, I keep waiting for a free weekend, and that hasn’t happened in . . . I don’t know how many years.

          Oh well, it’s waiting for me, and that makes me happy. If I’m ever stranded in snow storm with just me, the cats and a power generator, I’ve got about 48 hours of really good TV just ready to be consumed!

  2. A couple of years ago, a friend who is not a friend to romance invited me to watch it at her house. She was positively gleeful at the ending, but I felt more like you. I thought it was brilliant, though.

    • Oh, yeah. Totally brilliant. And part of me would dearly know how he did that to me. As I mentioned above, *I knew*. I knew it was going to end badly. But the end still took me by surprise.

  3. LOVE Dr.Horrible…. The end was shocking, but not completely unexpected coming from Whedon. It still gets me everytime. I mean, he has you rooting for the “bad guy” the entire time. Even Dr. Horrible himself realized the irony of it at the end…. He got everything he thought he wanted, but maybe not what he really wanted or needed. This was a comic book version of life and Joss Whedon doing what he always does best – presenting us with a real shot/dose of reality. How are bad guys created/ how do they become? Is the hero really a good guy? Is the bad guy really bad? Can you be awesome, smart, selfless and still make dumb mistakes and mis-reads? Like a comic, it takes everything to an extreme proportion, to show you some simple, honest facts about people, life, and love. As much as I want to cry when my heart gets squeezed at Penny’s death and Horrilbe realizes what it means. I never really cry until his last line at the end when he finds himself trapped in a reality of what he thought would be his perfect life, but is now his perfect prison…. He seeming got everything, but really lost everything, including himself.

    It might be fun to have a day speculating on Dr Horrible Part 2 and what we think might happen, what we might want to happen, what might make the most sense, and what we think Joss might twist those into?

    • YES! You nailed it, Penny. This is the problem: not that he didn’t get the girl. That he lost himself. His innocence died, and he wasn’t just playacting at being a villain, but now completely invested in vengeance and anger. So sad.

      (-: Wikipedia says there’s a Part 2 in the works (-:. I am so ambivalent about it — part of me wants to watch with a passion, and part of me is like, “fool me once, shame on me.”

      I have something to confess. I’m not a huge Buffy plan. Loved the concept, just couldn’t get fully invested in the first couple of seasons. I got the soundtrack to the movie before I heard of the TV show. I probably created some fantasy world that was too different from Whedon’s fantasy world . . . .

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