Cruel Mercy

    Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

    "I want him to live a long life alone with his cowardice."

    Westley, The Princess Bride

    Some work towards crushing their opponents. The sadistic ones prefer to just step back and watch them suffer. This is "Cruel Mercy" - sparing one's enemy (or, in some examples, even actively keeping them alive) as a punishment rather than a reward.

    Heroes rarely kill their enemies: they either practice Thou Shalt Not Kill or have a moral friend remind them "If You Kill Him You Will Be Just Like Him" if they ever get too tempted. Ho hum. However, some heroes are creative. Much like a torturer using a Cool and Unusual Punishment, the hero does forgive the villain, or at least spare his life, but does so in a poetic yet cruel way.

    Villains will also do this. If they are doing it for revenge, their aim will be to make the hero feel the same suffering that they do. Some villains have issues - rather than wishing to hear So Proud of You, it's their arch-enemy's disapproval they start to crave. Other villains are trying to make the character break down - they subject them to a series of tortures and make them watch as they destroy what's precious to them, all in an attempt to push them beyond the Despair Event Horizon. Maybe they want to see the heroes cry, or bring them over to The Dark Side. Some villains delight in showing the hero to be Not So Stoic, or they wonder what will happen if they Teach Him Anger... or they just enjoy ignoring the hero's repeated pleas to Get It Over With.

    There is no typical Cruel Mercy, each is tailored to the person for maximum effect. However, there are a few repeating variations. Simply letting someone live once defeated is itself cruel, especially if he believes Might Makes Right and Asskicking Equals Authority, and now that he isn't the strongest his self esteem is shot. Similarly, some villains suffer because Good Hurts Evil and Evil Cannot Comprehend Good, so the hero's mercy is a kind of Brown Note. For others, the hero may force them into a mundane life where they suffer a daily Humiliation Conga. And sometimes, if the villain is too dangerous to let free, he is trapped in an Tailor-Made Prison along with the people he hates most in the world, or with a view of something he despises or upsets him...

    Usually, the villain or one of the hero's friends will ask "Why did you let me/him live?" Expect the hero to give a disturbingly vivid description of how they are actually being much, much crueler this way. Villains really should Beware the Nice Ones.

    Thus is Karma served. May or may not coincide with Disproportionate Retribution. And Fate Worse Than Death, of course.

    Compare Villain's Dying Grace. Contrast Do with Him as You Will, where the hero only spares the villain to let others kill him. Contrast Go and Sin No More, where the villain is grateful for the hero's mercy. Inverse of Cruel to Be Kind, which is about acting cruel to be kind. If the Mercy is genuine and the Cruelty perceived, it's Don't You Dare Pity Me!. May be part of And I Must Scream. Compare Paranoia Gambit.

    Examples of Cruel Mercy include:

    Anime and Manga

    • In One Piece, Word of God describes this as Monkey D. Luffy's M.O. Luffy never makes a point of killing his opponents, and regards it as more cruel for them to live with their dreams and ambitions utterly dashed and destroyed.
      • Most of these villains go on to live somewhat-successful, less villainous lives and redeem themselves.
      • That's the authors reasons for sparing them. In universe Luffy goes all out and it's only because the villains are tough enough to survive Luffy beating the daylights out of them that they wind up surviving. Luffy won't finish off a defeated but still living opponent but when he fights he attacks with lethal force.
    • In Dragonball Z, Goku planned to do this with Frieza when the latter ceased to pose a threat to him near the end of their battle on Namek. "Live with the shock. Keep it bottled up inside you, silently." Later, after Frieza lost his limbs, Goku told him to drift about in space and contemplate his defeat. It didn't work either time: the reason he lost his limbs is because he got hit with his own energy disc, and when Goku gives him some energy to at least survive, he turns right back around and tries to kill Goku with it, earning him a blast to the face. And then he comes back as a cyborg, still itching for revenge.
      • This can seem all the crueler when you figure that Goku could have expected Freeza to do either of those, especially the second. (After all, Raditz once begged for his life as well.) The more one thinks about it the more one sees it as Goku setting him up one more time to be knocked down.
    • Happens to Ritsuko in episode 23 of Neon Genesis Evangelion. After revealing the secrets of the Terminal Dogma and of Rei and the Dummy Plug System to Shinji and Misato, Ritsuko realises that Gendo used her, and destroys Rei's clones. She then breaks down into tears, inviting Misato to shoot her, saying that she welcomes death. Misato refuses, saying that Ritsuko is a fool for saying so.
    • In Fullmetal Alchemist, Scar does one of these toward Dr. Marcoh and really makes it clear that post-Heel Face Turn, he's still an Anti-Hero. Marcoh comes to Scar admitting that he had created the Philosopher's Stones which were used to wipe out most of the population of Ishbal (Scar's country). While Scar has in the past killed state alchemists for less, he's cooled by this point and is also taken aback when Marcoh begs for death (Marcoh had been threatened by Lust and Envy that if he didn't make another Stone for them, they would kill Macoh's entire village). So, what does Scar do.... he "helps" Marcoh to fake his death by using his powers to horribly disfigure his face.
      • And by this point, Marcoh loathes himself so much that he doesn't really care.
      • It as well served a practical purpose: No one besides the homunculi were able to recognize the disfigured doctor, allowing him and Scar's group to travel with more ease.
    • In Samurai Champloo, a previous comrade of Mugen betrays him so that she will not be alone; something she's terrified of. He kills everyone in the old crew who betrayed him and then just ignores her; even when she asks him to kill her so she can be Together in Death.
    • Hiei of Yu Yu Hakusho was ordered killed by the village of his birth due to the expectation that any male child born to their One-Gender Race of normally Truly Single Parents would inevitably destroy them if allowed to grow up. Years later he returned to do just that, but, after seeing the pitiful lives the villagers lived, he came to the conclusion that killing them would only end their misery.
    • In Noir, after Chloe reveals that Kirika was the one who killed Mireille's parents, Kirika begs Mireille to keep the promise that she made in the first episode and kill her. Instead, Mireille walks away, severing their partnership and leaving Kirika with the knowledge that she is now alone. They reconcile in the penultimate episode.
    • In Fist of the North Star, Kenshiro ends up doing this to Souther, partially. While he does ensure that Souther eventually dies soon enough, the fact that he actually does show mercy to Souther is the dagger through the heart of Souther, who himself had sworn off all kinds of mercy, making it a heavy blow onto his pride. Possibly Amiba as well. Kenshiro doesn't directly kill him and mocks Amiba's inability to avert his fate.
    • Veronica of Franken Fran makes one friend (Yura) in her month long stay at a girl's school. Every other student performs multiple acts of bullying from dumping water on her to writing on her clothes. In the end none of the bullies (except one) are harmed and her friend turned out to be the one who was behind all the bullying and sold the bullied girls to pedophiles. Veronica brutally kills the men in Yura's room, along with the bully, and leaves Yura there to explain the situation to the authorities.

    Comic Books

    • Batman has done this a few times, as his policy can make it a necessity; in one instance, a man inadvertantly killed a mutual friend as part of a revenge spree, but destroyed the evidence. Batman forced the killer to stay in the same small town, referring to it as the killer's "prison," and returned once a year to make the guy sit at the gravesite of the friend he rued killing.
      • Bruce sure has time in his hands...
      • Similarly, in Kingdom Come, the evil members of the Mankind Liberation Front are ultimately forced into helping care for the survivors of an attack they helped launch; Lex Luthor is especially galled at having to empty bedpans.
      • Or the time he tracked down the black ops agent who helped frame him (Bruce Wayne) for murder. Since there was no evidence of the man's existence, he couldn't be tried, so Batman put him in Arkham. The spy tells the doctors that he's not crazy, he's a secret agent who framed Bruce Wayne for murder and there's no record of the mission because he was tasked directly to the president. None of the doctors believe him.
    • Captain America does this inadvertently sometimes. His enemy Flag-Smasher once went into a lengthy Motive Rant about how he couldn't stand knowing Cap was simply a better person.
    • In the comics, Bullseye's hatred of Daredevil was actually exacerbated after the hero saved him from an oncoming subway train, which Bullseye considered a humiliation. He gets a nice little speech about it in the issue where he breaks jail and kills Elektra.
    • The Flash, rather than killing Inertia for killing Bart Allen, leaves him trapped immobile to stare at a statue of Bart for an eternity. Wally has gone on record in support of killing villains under desperate enough circumstances; he intentionally took a much more sadistic keel in this case.
      • And also qualifies as an Incredibly Lame Pun on the villain's name, when you think about it ...
    • Jesse Custer of Preacher gives up killing with his Word powers, but his alternative punishments for enemies generally turn out even worse for them.
      • What? He kills plenty of people. Killed Si just by ordering him to die, commanded a bunch of racist rednecks and Jody, though it didn't take to BURN, and forced a machine-gunner at Masada to massacre his entire unit. His mercies do tend to be cruel, such as ordering Hoover to count three million grains of sand.
          • He later felt bad about that and mind wiped him of the experience.
        • The point being he stopped killing via the word, and did so fairly early in the series; the last example, the massacre of Grail Soldiers, is that last time Jesse does this, and it's between a quarter and a third of the way through the series, if I recall correctly.[please verify]
    • Similar to Cap, Superman seems to do this to Lex Luthor on an almost daily basis without even trying. Apparently, Lexi's ego is so enormous that having a man more powerful than him, who uses his might out of genuine altruism and refuses to work for him is so incomprehensible that it galls him like nothing else ever could.
    • In one Spider-Man story in the early 2000's, a particularly ugly fight between Spidey and the Green Goblin (the Goblin had just crippled Flash Thompson) ended with Spidey coming within a hair's breadth of finishing Norman off. Spidey spares him, and later tells him that just being a person as horrible as Norman is its own punishment. Norman's reaction implies he sees the truth of this.
    • Ghost Rider actually has this trope as one of his powers. His Penance Stare does no physical damage, but forces his opponent to feel every single bit of pain or evil they infliced on others. Most recover, but have something to think about for the rest of their lives.
    • This is what Cyclops decides to do to Kaga, the crippled evil genius Big Bad of Astonishing X-Men #31-35, who hates the X-Men because they're a bunch of incredibly attractive people with superpowers, whereas he is a realistic mutant, sickly and deformed as a result of being born to a Hiroshima survivor. After Kaga's Motive Rant, Cyclops decides to arrange for Mutants Sans Frontières[1] medical funding to be used to take the best possible care of him until he dies of natural causes.
    • In New X-Men, Emma Frost, upon catching Kimura trying to assassinate X-23, proceeds to explain to the nigh-invulnerable villain exactly why she acts the way she does, essentially giving her psychiatric therapy, pointing out that she only does what she does to X-23 because of her childhood before erasing her one and only happy memory and then sending her off with the psychically implanted suggestion of hunting down her employers.
    • In the 2010 Wolverine- Mr. X one-shot, the titular villain, having lost once before to the titular hero, trains obsessively for months to prepare himself to counter Wolverine's berserker rage, then lures Wolverine into a fight. But Wolverine refuses to let him trigger his rage and ultimately refuses to fight him at all, realizing that leaving Mr. X forever wondering Who Would Win will cause him more torment than simply defeating him.
      • A particularly nasty example is Wolverine's treatment of Matsu'o Tsurayaba, the Yakuza boss who killed Wolverine's lover Mariko. Every year on the anniversary of her death, Wolverine fought his way past Tsurayaba's defences, took a piece of his body, and left him alive. This was taken to the point of Wolverine actively stopping Tsurayaba from killing himself or anyone else from killing him, because Wolvie wanted him to suffer as long as he did. By the time we find out about this, Tsurayaba is missing a hand, an arm, a leg, half his face, and his body is covered with scars and medical implants.
    • In American Vampire, infamous outlaw-turned-vampire Skinner Sweet attends the book signing of a writer who was there back when Sweet was turned, and has since made a fortune from his one novel, a fictionalized account of the outlaw's story. Sweet exits the event, leaving behind a note saying "You are old and I am young for eternity. So I let you live to suffer and die. Why not? What better revenge is there than that?"
    • In a flashback in Planetary#7, Jack Carter happens to run into an Invisible man, who explains that he's "this year's Herod", a Punch Clock Villain sent by the government to kill a pregnant local prostitute just in case she's carrying the second coming. Disgusted, Carter does a seemingly ineffectual spell and walks away. When the Herod goes to continue his mission, he finds he's been trapped on that street corner in an invisible forcefield only a few feet in diameter. For the rest of his life.
    • Played with at the end of the Young Justice comic book; when Secret turns back to the light side, Darkseid takes "revenge" by restoring her to life as an ordinary mortal. Though he considers this cruel mercy, in reality it's exactly what she wanted.
    • Towards the end of Nikolai Dante, Arkady/Dmitri has both Jena and Nikolai kidnapped, and says he'll stop torturing Nikolai to death if Jena marries him.
    • The Sandman.
      • The first time Morpheus goes to Hell, he escapes by pointing out that "What terrors would Hell hold if those entombed within could not dream of Heaven?" This gets kicked up a notch when Hell is taken over by a pair of angels after Lucifer abandons his position. The two decide that horrible things will still happen, but for the purpose of reform instead of punishment. This makes everything so much worse, because it implies a false hope that the torment of the damned might someday end. Key word being "false."
    • New Republic commander Mirith Sinn is captured and tortured to learn the location of an enemy of the Empire. She holds out until the Big Bad orders an orbital bombardment on her men's secret fallback position. She dejectedly gives him the information he wants...and he orders that the bombardment continue until every last rebel is dead. But he keeps one part of his deal...he lets her go.

    Fan Works

    • In The Noble Nine: A Kill BillEsque Tale of Revenge, Crono's only goal in life is to die a noble death in Samus, playing the role of the Bride in this story, spares him. The other seven members of the Nine are all dead by the end of the story--all by Samus's hand except for Sonic the Hedgehog, who denies her the satisfaction of the kill by committing suicide in front of her.
    • Some fan fiction views Aang's mercy to Ozai in Avatar: The Last Airbender‍'‍s Grand Finale as this. "The Avatar calls this mercy." Considering Ozai planned to burn a continent to the ground to secure his rule, on top of a lifetime of other atrocities, his Cruel Mercy may be very well-deserved.
    • The Girl Who Lived: Rose Potter takes the Harry Potter example mentioned further down and ramps up the "cruel" factor by about a thousand percent. Harry persuades Sirius and Lupin to spare Pettigrew because he doesn't think James would want them to become murderers (and to help prove Sirius's innocence). Rose, OTOH, describes in rather ghoulish detail how much worse than death life in Azkaban will be for him, and this isn't even the creepiest thing she does.
    • In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Fanfic, The First Tile, a bereaved Trill father whose daughter's death was ordered by the planetary government hopes the monarch has a long life in prison.

    "I'm glad he will spend the rest of his life in a prison, eating meager food, surrounded by cold walls, performing the same kind of labor many Unjoined spend their entire working lives doing. I don't want him to get out. I want him to spend the rest of his life remembering what he did to our world, and when he dies, I hope that even the wind forsakes him. I say that as a father, in the name of every other parent who will, or * has* faced the same truth."

    • In Frigid Winds and Burning Hearts, Princess Luna realizes that killing Captain Braveheart will just confirm in everyone else's eyes that she's a Complete Monster. So instead, she spares his life, and teleports him to his commander, telling him to have fun explaining his actions to his superior. Braveheart is not too happy upon hearing her plans. Unfortunately, this backfires, as he just tracks them down again and ambushes Twilight.
    • Mr. Evil's Original Character Fredi Heat sees this method as worse than just killing them. Despite having no qualms about brutally killing someone that looks at him wrong (did I mention he is a "good guy"), he always sees it more cruel to take someone in alive rather than dead. As he quotes "'Alive' just means you can still breath on your own".


    • The Bride does this to Elle Driver at the end of their fight in Kill Bill Volume 2 after she snatches out her remaining eye and crushes it underfoot, leaving her stuck in the narrow-halled trailer with a poisonous snake while she's thrashing about in a literal and figurative blind panic—all in the middle of the desert. She was toast.[2]
      • She also "spares" Sofie Fatale...after chopping off both her arms during her interrogation and hurling her down a hill, just so that she can deliver a message to Bill.
    • Westley threatens to do this in The Princess Bride.
    • In Serenity, Captain Mal spares the Operative's life so he can show him a message which proves that an Alliance experiment killed almost everyone on the planet Miranda and created the Reavers out of the remainder, crushing the Operative's dream of the Alliance creating a "perfect world".

    Mal: "I ain't gonna kill you. Hell, I'm going to grant your greatest wish - I'm going to show you a world without sin."

    • 300: "You there. Ephialtes. May you live forever."
      • For a bit of perspective on how big an insult this was historically: To live peacefully or die anywhere but on the field of combat was an enormous shame for Spartan warriors; those who died of old age didn't even get gravestones.
    • In The Karate Kid Part II, Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel that he let John Kreese live (after inducing Kreese to break both of his hands, delivering an Ironic Echo of Kreese's own words, and embarrassing him with a nose grab) because for a man as twisted as him, living is a worse punishment than dying.
    • In the recent Burton adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the White Queen, due to her vows not to harm any living creature, condemns her sister to spend eternity wandering the borders of Underland chained to her right-hand man, the one person she loves. Being shunned wouldn't have been so unbearable, since she thought he loved her too... until he tried to kill her, and later begs to be killed to get away from her. The only response from the White Queen is a faint smirk and the reply "But I don't owe you a kindness.". Beware the Nice Ones indeed...
    • Invoked and then subverted in John Ford's My Darling Clementine. After the O.K. Corral gunfight, Wyatt Earp tells Old Man Clanton (whose sons have just been killed in the fight, and who had earlier killed Earp's brother James) that he's not going to kill him: "I hope you'll live a hundred years, so you'll feel just a little of what my pa's gonna feel." Then he tells him to get on his horse and get out of town. As Clanton is departing, however, he suddenly turns to shoot Earp, and Earp's brother Wyatt shoots and kills him.
    • In Shenandoah, Jimmy Stewart's character confronts the young Confederate soldier who's just shot and killed one of his sons after mistaking him for a Union soldier, telling him he hopes he lives a long life and has many children so that he can come to feel about them the way that Stewart does. "And then, when a man comes along and kills one of them..." he starts, before he's overcome with emotion and walks away.
    • Little Big Man has a scene where General Custer spares Jack Crabb's life, after Crabb attempts to kill him in his tent but loses his nerve at the last second. Crabb states in narration that this is the worst thing Custer could have done to him.
    • Near the end of The Departed, Costigan finally captures Sullivan, The Mole inside the police force. Sullivan begins trying to threaten and intimidate Costigan, then begins breaking down into tears and pleading with Costigan to "Just kill me". Costigan refuses, saying "I am killing you", meaning that he's intent on bringing Sullivan up on charges, thus ruining his life and forcing him to live through and experience everything that will result from that. Immediately afterwards Costigan is killed, and a couple scenes later, after getting away with everything, Sullivan receives a rather painless death.
    • The ending of Hard To Kill features Steven Seagal's attempt at this trope. After roughing up the villain anyway, he tells him "Death is far too merciful a fate for you. So what I'm going to do is put you in prison. A nice petite white boy like you in a federal penitentiary... now let me just put it this way: I don't think you'll be able to remain anal-retentive for very long."
      • He does much the same thing to the Big Bad of Fire Down Below, disabling his enemy with one shot instead of killing him, for much the same reasons as the above flick. No one ever accused Steven Seagal movies of an abundance of originality.
    • As mentioned in the above quote, the title character of Star Trek II the Wrath of Khan subjects Captain Kirk to this. And we all know Kirk's response.
    • In Training Day, Ethan Hawke's character leaves Denzel Washington's character alive after their final confrontation. It might seem merciful, but Denzel owes a very large debt to the Mafiya, and Ethan took the money he was going to use to pay them off. He doesn't last long.
    • In Se7en there's one point where murderer John Doe has Detective Mills hurt and at gunpoint, but spares him, and later even apologizes for hurting Mills when he speaks to the officers on the phone. Instead he saves Mills for a Fate Worse Than Death, which sends Mills straight into a Heroic BSOD.
    • In Bent, Max convinces the guards in the concentration camp to let him and Horst have a better, safer job than the other people. Taking rocks from one side of the room, and putting them in a neat pile on the other side of the room. They then have to repeat this task over and over, all day, every day. Eventually they both start going insane from this psychological torture, and start dreaming about piling rocks even in their sleep.
    • The ending of the original Cape Fear (the remake has Cady suffer a Karmic Death instead):

    Bowden: "No! That would be letting you off too easy, too fast. Your words - do you remember? Well, I do. No, we're going to take good care of you. We're going to nurse you back to health. And you're strong, Cady; you're going to live a long life... in a cage! That's where you belong, and that's where you're going - and this time for life! Bang your head against the walls. Count the years... the months... the hours... until the day you rot!"

    • At the beginning of Hocus Pocus, Winnifred Sanderson punishes Thackery by transforming him into an immortal housecat.

    Winnie: His punishment will not be to die...but to live forever with his guilt.

    • In the end of Ever After, Danielle saves her stepmother and stepsister from transportation to America, and almost certain death. When the queen asks her what shall be done with them instead, she simply asks "That you show them the same kindness that she showed me." That kindness would be de facto slavery.
    • In the biopic film Elizabeth, the titular queen has Wolsingham expose the catholic plots to assassinate her, culminating in her ex-lover Lord Robert Dudley being exposed as one of the conspirators after she previously rejected him. He knows he is destined for execution as a traitor to the crown and begs for it, but Elizabeth decides: "I rather think to let you live; to remind me of how close I came to being weak."


    • In the end of Thomas Sniegoski's Fallen series, the hero, Aaron forgives Verchiel, causing him to go back to heaven. Since Verchiel has spent the last few millenia systematically wiping out various angelic offspring, allowing eldritch abominations to thrive on Earth by ignoring his job, and generally being a douche, the welcoming reception is NOT pretty.
    • A Battle Sister in the Warhammer 40,000 novel The Bleeding Chalice refers to the villainous version of this trope: Chaos troops sparing Imperial soldiers because they'll suffer more that way, after she was spared by the "traitor" Sarpedon (who was actually sparing her because he was a good guy at heart(s) and admired her determination).
      • In Trooper Caffran's Day in The Limelight in Ghostmaker, his squad encounters and defeats a Khornate Chaos cult, which worships death. As a reward, he gets to execute the cult leader personally - but refuses, saying that since the cultist longs for death, keeping him alive is the real way to punish him. Gaunt agrees.
    • Frodo in The The Lord of the Rings does this to Saruman. Or so Saruman alleges.
    • At the end of Fool's Fate, the Pale Woman's prophecies have all been thwarted and her power destroyed. She screams at Fitz to kill her, saying that her visions told her this would happen if she failed. Fitz responds that they are not in her vision of the future but his, and that she dies slowly, alone. She does.
    • This is advocated in The Bible. "If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."
      • This scripture is a metaphor for smelting, where coal would be underneath, as well as heaped on top of ore, removing impurities, and softening it. The bible isn't endorsing cruelty, but reinforcing the whole "love your enemy," idea.
        • It still doesn't sound too pleasant for the ore.
        • I think the idea is that it's not supposed to be pleasant; he'll probably resent it at first, but by knowing that he's been treated decently by his enemy, your enemy could perhaps be bettered by the experience (going along with the smelting metaphor). This strategy probably only works if your enemy is completely at your mercy anyway.
    • In Mountains of Mourning novella Miles Vorkosigan had to judge an old woman for the killing of her "mutant" granddaughter (who only had a harelip, actually). The woman was upholding cruel traditions she'd grown up with, but executing her (per the law) would not serve any purpose other than to make people cling more tightly to the backwards traditions rather than less. Instead, Miles declared her legally dead and forbade anyone from performing traditional funerary rites for her. In her mind, and in the minds of those who would have agreed with her killing her granddaughter, this effectively destroyed her soul. It also made her legally dependent on her daughter, the mother of the child she had murdered.
      • In a later Miles Vorkosigan novel, Memory, his boss/mentor Illyan's biochip was sabotaged by one of Illyan's subordinates and friends, which nearly drove him insane to the point where he begged for a clean death. After they ferret out the culprit, Miles wonders if the man will commit suicide now that he's been caught, and asks Illyan if he would want to allow that.

    Illyan: Dying's easy. Living's hard. Let the son of a bitch stand his court-martial. Every last eternal minute of it.

    • In Les Misérables, Valjean frees Inspector Javert, the man who hunted him for nearly 20 years of his life when the later is captured and sure to be executed by La Résistance for spying on them. Valjean doesn't mean it to be cruel but for Javert it's the cruelest thing he could have done: it breaks his brain that he should owe his life to Valjean, whom he thought of only as a criminal and fugitive. The Cognitive Dissonance drives him to suicide. Borrowing a line from the musical adaptation:

    I'll spit his pity right back in his face! There is nothing on earth that we share! It is either Valjean or Javert! How can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me?

    • Done in Animorphs to Visser One (formerly Visser Three): when he's finally captured, he's made to give up his prized Andalite host body, put on trial for his many, MANY crimes, and forced to live out the rest of his life in his natural Yeerk state (i.e. blind and helpless) imprisoned, in complete isolation, and with no chance at ever getting another host body.
    • In the third book Harry Potter convinced his godfather Sirius not to kill the bastard who had framed Sirius for serial homicide and condemned him to a decade of horrible imprisonment, so they could instead lock him in the same nightmarish prison Sirius had been locked in, where foul, joy-draining demons would slowly drive him into madness and death. Aww, he's such a nice boy!
      • This was partly so they could prove that Sirius was innocent, though. Naturally, it backfired, but it wasn't all about vengeance, per se . . .
    • Attempted by Lysa Arryn in A Song of Ice and Fire. When her prisoner, Tyrion Lannister, wins his trial by combat, Lysa is forced to release him... so she orders him to be escorted to the Kingsroad, where he will be at the mercy of bandits.
    • In a 1941 Theodore Sturgeon short story Shottle Bop, a seer-of-ghosts sees a ghostly couple in an endless feedback loop, repeating a conversation, summed up as follows: "If we kill ourselves, we're sure to be together.... forever.... just like this." "Will we, Tommy?" "I promise.... just like this."
    • In Day Watch (second book of the Night Watch series) a group of Dark Others is convicted of a serious crime and given the option between two fates: execution by hanging (as opposed to the more severe dematerialisation) or being allowed to live in return for never using their powers again and living a normal human lifespan. When they choose the latter option, Gesar (head of the Light One delegation) is asked if he has any opinion, and he reluctantly recommends that their sentence be commuted to permission to perform extremely minor magic, which is granted. One of the Day Watch witnesses notes that, in the long term, this is even crueler than being killed or having no magic at all, as using incredibly weak spells will act as a constant reminder of the power they truly have but can never use.
    • In The Wheel of Time, Rand, who cannot bring himself to have a woman executed, decides that Lady Colavaere, who usurped the throne of Cairhien and murdered opposants is to be sent to the smallest farm she possesses, and to live off it. She hangs herself.
    • Somewhat subverted by Terry Pratchett in Wyrd Sisters. Granny Weatherwax does, in fact, attempt cruel mercy by showing the villain her True Self. Subverted because it doesn't work: Lady Felmet is proud of her strength and cruelty. But while she's busy boasting about it, Nanny Ogg clubs her with a cauldron.
      • Featured a lot in the Discworld witch books, actually. In Witches Abroad, Lady Lilith locking the witches in a dungeon instead of having them executed is described as this.
      • The Elf Queen tries this on Granny Weatherwax in Lords and Ladies, describing how she'll drive Granny insane, reduced to looking through scraps while remaining aware of how the villagers see her. Too bad Granny already knows what the villagers think of her, and doesn't care.
      • In Maskerade, a band of muggers threaten Granny Weatherwax, only to injure themselves in an encounter with the Ankh-Morpork Opera House's famous Phantom. Granny decides to take pity on them by stitching up their self-inflicted wounds... with a blunt needle.
        • The whole philosophy runs like this: if you kill your foe, your foe is dead and that's that. If you beat your foe, but let them live, then your foe is beat and knows they've been beat, and they'll know it for the rest of their life, and there's no point in beating a foe if they won't be around to know they've been beat afterward.
    • In Dune: House Harkonnen, Duke Leto invokes this trope on a man who was involved with the death of Leto's son (and is very remorseful about it, to the point that he is considering suicide):

    Leto: I sentence you... to live.

    • In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, when Boba Fett escapes from the sarlacc's stomach, he considers killing it, but leaves. The sarlacc asks him why, and he says that leaving it alone in the desert, immobile and depending on creatures falling into its mouth every few years for food, will be a more fitting revenge.
    • I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is very, very much about this: The antagonist is an insane, sentient supercomputer who has brutally murdered the entire population of Earth, save for five people he keeps indefinitely alive inside his own systems and tortures for his own amusement. And when four of these five people find a way out, the supercomputer punishes the remaining survivor by turning him into a slug-like thing. The computer game adaptation expands on the supercomputer's motivations, by explaining that in becoming sentient, he was driven mad by only being able to use his vast intellect to kill others.
    • After Mr. Wickham runs off with Lydia in Pride and Prejudice And Zombies, Mr. Darcy tracks them down and bribes Wickham into marrying Lydia and going into the priesthood on the condition that Darcy gets to beat the crap out of Wickham. The punishment is threefold: Wickham is trapped for life with the most annoying person in the entire P&P&Z universe, he has to give up gambling and seducing women, and he can't run away from any of this because he can't move under his own power. Considering that the Bennett family probably would have just killed him, this punishment is somewhat more fitting.
    • In one of the Horrible Histories books, Terry Deary writes an account of Lambert Simnel, a peasant boy who was chosen to be the figurehead of a rebellion against Henry VII because he resembled the Earl of Warwick. Henry crushed the rebellion and made Simnel one of his servants in a display of Pragmatic Villainy. In Deary's account, Simnel is left shellshocked by watching the rebels being slaughtered, and writes: 'Cruel Henry had the real Earl of Warwick put to death, but cruellest of all, he sentenced me to live'.
    • Used in one of the John Carter of Mars books. A minor bad guy has just been caught rigging a duel to put John Carter at a disadvantage, and the jeddak orders said bad guy to duel Carter. Carter simply carves an X in the guy's face, then disarms him and declares that he's satisfied because living with that scar is a Fate Worse Than Death.
    • The Scarlet Pimpernel deliberately invokes this in the sequel Sir Percy Hits Back when he tells his Arch Enemy Chauvelin that he finally has his chance for revenge. Chauvelin naturally assumes that the hero intends to let Chauvelin's daughter be executed but find out at the end that Sir Percy's "way of hitting back" is to save his daughter and spare his life. No! Anything but that!
    • In Roger Zelazny's Forever After, Gar Quithnick uses a nerve strike on a deposed villain that will kill him the instant he holds himself superior to another person, although he can still live a long life of humility.
    • God in Stephen King's Desperation.

    "You said 'God is cruel' the way a person who's lived his whole life on Tahiti might say 'Snow is cold.' You knew, but you didn't understand. Do you know how cruel your God can be, David? How fantastically cruel? Sometimes he makes us live."

    • Lanre in The Name of the Wind lets Selitos live after destroying all they hold dear. And in the sequel, what Kvothe does to The fake Edema Ruh is this, but Kvothe didn't let him live, just prolonged how long he'd hold on by a few DAYS. Do not mess with him.
    • When pragmatic politics requires that she can't simply have them offed, or even tried, Queen Elizabeth III of Manticore forces the two conspirators most responsible for her father's death into exile on newly-annexed and quite primitive Basilisk, away from their political power bases, and allows the third to move to Sphinx and perhaps find a treecat to adopt her. Being empathic, every treecat will know she's a traitor.

    Live Action TV

    • In one Twilight Zone episode, a hypochondriac sells his soul to the devil for immortality. He starts thrill-seeking, but his wife dies trying to stop him from jumping off a building. He's convicted of murder and tells his lawyer to get him sentenced to the electric chair, but his lawyer manages to talk the judge down to life in prison instead..
      • Combined with a Facing The Bullets One-Liner in "The Obsolete Man". "Yes! In the name of God I WILL let you out!"
    • The end of the Doctor Who episode "The Family of Blood": "We wanted to live forever. So the Doctor made sure that we did."
      • In fact, an earlier warning that he may be forced to kill the family is revealed to actually have been an offer of kindness in comparison (though what he had really been pushing for up to that point was to help the whole family find a planet they can live on peacefully without harming any intelligent creatures).
      • In a later episode, "I forgive you" was almost certainly as devastating to its target, but the Doctor probably didn't mean it to be. But then, what could possibly be more devastating to the Master than being at someone's mercy, i.e., being under another's mastery?
      • Also, in "A good man goes to war", he shows his cruel mercy by making the man who plotted to kill instead get known as "Colonel Run Away".

    The Doctor: No. Colonel Manton, I want you to tell your men "run away."
    Colonel Manton: What?
    The Doctor: Those words. "Run away." I want you to be famous for those exact words. I want people to call you Colonel Runaway. (getting angrier) I want children laughing outside your door, 'cause they've found the house of Colonel Runaway. And when people come to you and ask if trying to get to me through the people I love! (he composes himself) in any way a good idea, I want you to tell them your name. Look, I'm angry, that's new. I'm not really sure what's going to happen now.
    Madame Kovarian: The anger of a good man is not a problem. Good men have too many rules.
    The Doctor: Good men don't need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.
    Madame Kovarian: Give the order. Give the order, Colonel Runaway.

    • A Law and Order episode ended with the wife of a man who blew up a helicopter (killing all six passengers, including his wife's alleged paramour) begging the court to not use the death penalty. When it was revealed that the wife was the Chessmaster who set the whole thing in motion by faking the affair, the attorneys asked why she begged for mercy for her husband. The answer: she wanted him to live a long life knowing he was powerless and trapped.
    • Fred attempted this in Angel when she found out exactly who sent her to Pylea, and opened a portal to a far worse hell dimension. However, Gunn couldn't bear to see her do that to somebody else, so he ran up and broke the man's neck before he could get sucked in.
      • Angel himself spent many years as a soulless vampire committing countless atrocities including killing everyone in his village including his own sister. After torturing and killing the favorite daughter of a tribe of Kalderash Gypsies, they curse him by restoring his human soul, thus afflicting him with a conscience and condemning him to an eternity of remorse for the crimes he has committed.
      • Later, Connor locked Angel in a steel coffin and dropping him in the sea, knowing that he would not die, but starve and go mad.
    • D'Hoffryn pulls one of these on Anya in an episode of Buffy. Overwhelmed with guilt over slaughtering a fraternity for a vengeance wish, Anya begs D'Hoffryn to undo it. He tells her the price is the life of a vengeance demon; to atone for her actions, she is all too happy to accept death. He then summons Anya's friend Halfrek and kills her instead.

    D'Hoffryn: Haven't I taught you anything, Anya? Never go for the kill when you can go for the pain.

    • In Star Trek: The Original Series, Captain Kirk and company at one point find themselves trapped with the infamous Harry Mudd, an Affably Evil fraudster. The Enterprise crew works together with the villain to escape the android-run prison that they are trapped in, but in the end Kirk decides to leave Mudd behind. Mudd is left to enjoy a life of luxury, but is also left with at least 500 androids-- all of which have been programmed to mimic his overbearing, nagging wife (and ignore his override commands!).
      • One could argue that forcing Cyrano Jones to pick up every single tribble on K-7 (a task estimated by Spock to take 17.9 years) is a form of Cruel Mercy on Kirk's part. Especially when you consider there's nothing to stop the tribbles breeding...
      • A Crowning Moment of Funny in one Deep Space Nine episode has a Cardassian defense lawyer win his case, in defiance of Cardassian tradition (which holds that criminals brought into court are automatically guilty). This isn't precisely Cruel Mercy, but the expression on the lawyer's face when Odo tells him that he has won the case is pretty horrified.
      • Letting captured Klingons live is probably the worst humiliation you can visit upon them. In the third Trek movie, the one remaining crew member of the Klingon ship gets the Enterprise crew to promise to kill him instead of keeping him captive. Later, Kirk orders them to lock him up. When the Klingon shouts, "But you said you would kill me!", Kirk responds: "I lied".
      • Cultural differences resulted in Cruel Mercy to Worf's brother Kurn in the Deep Space Nine episode "Sons of Mogh". With their family dishonored in the eyes of the Empire, Kurn seeks Worf out to give him his honor back... by killing Kurn in a specific ritual. When Dax puts the pieces together (the identity of the Klingon that recently arrived; Worf's belligerence toward Quark over acquiring a specific type of Klingon incense), she arrives just after Worf has struck with the ritual blade, but is in time to have Kurn transported to the infirmary and save him. Denied the restoration of his honor (especially since Sisko threatened Worf not to try it again), Kurn suffers a Fate Worse Than Death for a Klingon, and slips into a deeper depression, turning suicidal... until Worf decides to provide him with a new identity, and have Kurn's memory wiped, so that he can start his life as a Klingon anew.
      • In the Next Generation episode "Too Short A Season", a now-aged admiral returns to negotiate with a hostage-taker he had previously betrayed years ago—the terrorist wanted weapons, but the admiral gave them to both him and his enemies to preserve the balance. The admiral is taking illegal drugs that make him de-age, but eventually cause incredible pain and death. When they finally meet, the terrorist initially wants to kill the admiral with one of his own smuggled weapons for poetic justice, but then decides a better revenge is to leave him to live in the pain caused by his drugs.
    • In the second season of Heroes, Hiro buries Adam Monroe alive after his plan to wipe out humanity with a virus is thwarted. What makes it worse is that due to Adam's healing ability, he would be trapped in that coffin forever. Beware the Nice Ones indeed.
      • In the fifth season, Peter and Hiro don't kill Samuel Sullivan. They reveal his crimes to his fellow super carnies and teleport them away, taking away Samuel's surrogate family and powers in one stroke. Samuel has a Villainous Breakdown as he stumbles around the empty carnival, alone and powerless.
    • Subverted and lampshaded, in the final season of The Shield: midway through the season, popular supporting cast character Ronnie Gardocki gives a speach about how killing turncoat murderer Shane Vendrell would be too merciful and would be more content with him rotting in jail for the rest of his life. The irony fairy strikes Ronnie at the end of the series as he is arrested and facing possibly spending the rest of his life in jail. A nasty bit of subversion, given that Ronnie survived countless injuries that would have killed lesser mauve/red-shirt characters over the course of the series, let alone him being the only subordinate of Vic Mackey's to survive the end of the series alive.
      • Vic Mackey's final fate as well could be described as "cruel mercy"; made to face the fact that he turned his protégé into a man who murdered his pregnant wife and young son, forced to watch his most loyal friend arrested (with his betrayal of Ronnie shoved into both men's faces for added "fuck-you"-ness), and then ordered out of the police precinct, now knowing that every one of his sins are now public knowledge amongst the rank and file police officers who used to look to Vic as the precinct's resident Alpha Male.
        • It's even worse than that. Vic Mackey got his wish: he was given immunity for his numerous and varied crimes, and got a nice cushy contract working for ICE to boot. However, Agent Murray, in her capacity as Mackey's Literal Genie, tells him that he's not going to be out on the street busting skulls like he used to; he's going to be sitting at his desk, with its sterile surroundings and bad lighting, doing paperwork for his entire tenure. Noncompliance means dissolution of his immunity agreement, and off he'll go to prison. And once said tenure is over, he'll be kicked out and never be allowed to work in law enforcement again. Some familiar with Mackey's character would see this as his own personal hell. This is open to interpretation, however, as the last scene of the series is Vic strapping on his pistol and heading out into the night, suggesting that he will somehow find a way to continue being who and what he is.
    • In Robin Hood, Robin spares Gisborne's life after he has killed Marian, the woman they both loved, and Robin's wife. Gisborne begs Robin to end his life; instead Robin spares him and forces him to live with his guilt (though by the next episode Guy is terrorising the village of Locksley and ends up killing the new regular's kid brother, so letting him live probably wasn't such a good idea after all).
    • Played with in Firefly

    Mal: I bet. It would be humiliating, having to lie there while the better man refuses to spill your blood. Mercy is the mark of a great man. * stab* Guess I'm just a good man. * stab* Well, I'm alright. * throws down his sword and walks away from his more-wounded-than-necessary opponent*

    • Blakes Seven: Towards the end of Season 2, Blake calmly refuses to kill his nemesis Travis, now a crippled fugitive. Considering what happens in the season finale, this turns out to be a pretty major head against wall moment, something both Jenna and Travis point out in the scene itself.
    • A villainous example is seen in the Merlin TV miniseries. After he turns against her, Mab removes Frik's powers, but doesn't kill him, instead leaving him to wander the world in his misery, not a magical being but not quite human either. Luckily for him, he turns out to be quite happy as a human.
    • There's a particularly vicious example in La Reina del Sur where Teresa, a drug trafficker in Spain, captures and tortures one of her many enemies, a French heroin trafficker who also uses the drug to keep women high and under his control in his brothel. She has him savagely beat with a bat to the point where his spinal cord is damaged beyond repair, yet she leaves him alive so that he can "drag himself at the feet of others like the animal that he is," as Teresa stated (she had major issues against someone using drugs to force women into prostitution). He is killed in the following episode for telling the cops about it, though.
    • In Farscape, at the end of Season 2, John is strapped to an operating table to remove the neural chip Scorpius had implanted in his brain. Partway through, Scorpius comes in, incapacitates the doctor, takes the chip, and... lets John live, strapped to the table and unable to speak. It's especially fitting given what drives Scorpius.
      • Scorpius: I condemn you John Crichton... to live. So that your thirst for unfulfilled revenge will consume you! Goodbye.
    • True Blood. Eric wanted to leave Russell in the sun to burn, until he had a vision of Godric and decided to spare Russell. By burrying him in concrete the following night.
    • Used quite often on Burn Notice. Though some of his opponents do get killed as a result of Michael Weston's machinations, just as often they are left alive, in the burning wreckage of their lives, holding the match as the police sirens close in.
    • Hotch explicitly cites this idea on Criminal Minds when he explains to Haley why he doesn't think that Foyet will make an explicit attempt on his life.
    • The perp in the CSI episode "Living Legend" turns out to be Mickey Dunn, a legendary mob boss thought dead for decades going on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge on the people who tried to kill him. The reason why he waited this long is revealed when he goes into cardiac arrest: the bullet in his chest moved and he was told that he only had a week to live. When he wakes up, he brags about how this will go public and his legend will be revived only for Catherine to show him the bullet: the hospital doctors (much more competent than "mob doctors") removed the bullet with no problems, and estimate Dunn now has about 20 years to live, likely all of which he will spend in a prison filled with a generation of criminals who don't know who he is and eventually fade to obscurity.
    • On Luther, the title character gives this to Ian Reed, refusing to kill him and insisting he is punished for his crimes despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he's transparently trying to commit Suicide by Cop. He's very unhappy when Alice Morgan then decides just to kill him anyway.
    • Parodied in Blackadder Goes Forth. Blackadder and Baldrick crash behind German lines and are captured during World War I. The Red Baron tells them that rather than have them shot, they're going to be sent to a convent to teach home economics to girls. "For a man of action such as yourself, the humiliation will be unbearable!" The punishment doesn't seem like such a bad thing to Blackadder.
    • Gus Fring from Breaking Bad does this to Hector Salamanca, keeping him alive and visiting him every time he kills someone related to Salamanca. Made worse by the fact that Salamanca can only move his finger.


    • In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Antonio insists on Shylock, a Jew, converting to Christianity as punishment for what he's done. For a Jew, that's... let's just say bad. In Yiddish, the word for "Jew", "yid", is used as a synonym for "person". As a former Jew, he'd be neither accepted by the Jewish community nor the Christian one. And as what's a pitiful parting shot in comparison, Antonio takes some of his money and forces him to bequeath his estate to his runaway daughter and son-in-law in his will.
      • Even worse, in Shakespeare's time, this would have been considered a happy ending. The Jew gets to be saved, right? It was not until much later that productions started to focus on the negative consequences of converting.
      • Worth noting that the contemporary parallel play, The Jew of Malta, involves the eponymous Jew dying by being boiled in a pot of oil. * shrug* Fate Worse Than Death versus Cruel and Unusual Death...
    • In Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, the Duke does not kill Lucio as threatened, but forces him to marry the whore who bore his child. "Marrying a punk, my lord," Lucio laments, "is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging."
      • Depending on how you interupt it, the Big Bad Angelo suffers this as well. The Duke doesn't have him killed, but forces him to wed a wife he didn't want and live after being revealed publically for his crimes. His original plan was to have him marry her and then be killed, but ultimately changes his mind.
    • Yet another Shakespeare example: In Romeo and Juliet, after being sentenced to exile instead of death, Romeo, in his usual Emo Teen manner, declares exile to be a Fate Worse Than Death because it means separation from Juilet, and threatens to kill himself. Friar Lawrence, in the play's longest speech, proceeds to chew him out over all the Wangsting he's been doing.
    • And once again in Shakespeare's Cymbeline by Posthumous Leonatus to Iachmo who had just confessed to masterminding a plot which caused Posthumous to order his wife murdered.

    "The power that I have on you is, to spare you;
    The malice towards you to forgive you: live,
    And deal with others better. "


    Tabletop Games

    • A common habit among the Infernal Exalted. Indeed, there's a Kimbery charm which ensures this is the only kind of mercy you can show without spending willpower.

    Video Games

    • In the trailer for Portal 2's co-op mode, GLaDOS provides a voice-over that ends, "Do not disappoint me..." Beat "...or I'll make you wish you could die!"
    • In the 'normal' ending of Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice, after defeating Super Hero Aurum, who orchestrated everything that happened in the game, the defeated boss asks Mao to kill him. Mao refuses, and instead drags Aurum home to his lab to 'experiment' on him, presumably to unlock the secret of his One-Winged Angel transformation. You see him briefly during the credit-roll, and he looks... decidedly uncomfortable. Particularly amusing in that Aurum THOUGHT he was performing a Xanatos Gambit - if he had defeated Mao, he would have been famous and revered throughout the world as the hero who slew The Overlord, and if he lost, he got the glorious death he'd always wanted... shame it didn't work out that way, huh?
      • Subverted in the original, where Flonne wants Laharl to throw a fight against the ghost of a hero so that he can rest in peace after defeating a Demon Overlord, but Laharl refuses and fights with everything he has, defeating the ghost. The ghost then thanks Laharl for the battle, pointing out that the only heroic death, is to fall against a mighty opponent; Flonne was unknowingly promoting Cruel Mercy, while Laharl was being mercifully cruel.
      • Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten gives us Nemo, an Omnicidal Maniac who firmly believes Humans Are the Real Monsters and seeks to wipe out Earth (which will mean the end of Celestia and the Netherworld as well). When he finally discovers that Artina, the one example of Incorruptible Pure Pureness he ever encountered in this Crapsack World, is "alive" as an angel, he relents and tries to pull a Redemption Equals Death. Specifically, this will mean the destruction of his soul. The heroes decide that this is not sufficient punishment for his crimes, and instead give him a normal death so that he will be reincarnated as a Prinny and be forced to work off his karmic debt. They then cheerfully list the horrible labors they will have him endure for eons. In a mild subversion, Nemo accepts this and the end credits show him as a Prinny looking up at the Red Moon (signifying his eventual reincarnation).
    • In Iji you can bypass the second battle with Asha instead of killing him in a duel to the death. You end up crushing his ego so deeply that he kills himself in despair.
    • Near the end of Dragon Quest VIII, Angelo saves Marcello from a Disney Villain Death. Given that he had just given a massive "The Reason You Suck" Speech to a crowded amphitheater that veered into Evil Gloating, then was possessed by Rhapthrone and resurrected the demon's body in front of said crowd, leaving his ambition, reputation and everything he'd spent his entire life working for in tatters... yeah, death would've been kinder. Getting saved by the half-brother he despised was just another kick in the side at that point.
    • In StarCraft, Kerrigan exhibits this on Zeratul after he kills his Matriarch who demonstrated that she was Kerri's thrall.

    Kerrigan: "I said you are free to go. I've already taken your honor. I'll let you live because I know that from now on your every waking moment will be torture. You'll never be able to forgive yourself for what I've forced you to do. And that, Zeratul, is a better revenge than I could have ever dreamed of."

      • She also showed cruel mercy to Mengsk:

    Kerrigan: "I think I'll leave you here, Arcturus, among the ashes of your precious Dominion. I want you to live to see me rise to power. And I want you to remember, in your most private moments, that it was you who set me loose in the first place."

    • As Starcraft II showed, however, that part really didn't stick: Four years later, the Dominion has become the dominant power in the Korpulu sector and Kerrigan is nowhere to be found. The campaign ends with Mengsk almost succeeding at 'fixing' his mistake.
    • Briefly mentioned in Titan Quest when the Yellow Emperor reveals that the Telkines are rampaging around to free Typhon, strongest of the Titans. The gods banished all other Titans after defeating them, but bound Typhon in nigh-unbreakable chains beneath a mountain so for all eternity he would be chained to what he desired most but could never have.
    • In KOTOR 2, you can do this to Atris, leaving her to be driven insane by the hissing of Sith Holocrons, shortly after she's learned that she's actually evil and has been beaten within an inch of her life.
      • Arguably, you can pull this on two of the Jedi Masters you're trying to find, too. Let's see, Vrook. You're on this rock that hates Jedi, but makes an exception for me because I saved the place and you didn't. Have fun. Oh, Zez-Kai, you're a broken coward living in a Wretched Hive, surrounded by every Crapsack World trope in existence and you can't manage to pick up your lightsaber and do a thing about it while I did. I'm getting stronger and will kick the Sith's arse while you sit and mope. Meditate on that for a while and get back to me.
    • According to Ryusei Date, this trope is the true reason behind the 'Mercy' Spirit Command on the Super Robot Wars series.
    • In the canon ending of Drakengard, Caim doesn't kill Manah after defeating her, instead opting to personally drag her around the entire country and tell everyone that they meet that everything that has happened was entirely her fault (well, figuratively 'telling': Caim's mute. Presumably he uses Sign Language, or 'interpretive brutal murder'). Caim, being Caim, is making a traumatized formerly-possessed 6-year-old with abandonment issues walk from village to village in the cold and the rain, just so that everybody she meets will hate her, and this is in character for him. In the end, she stabs him in the eye and jumps off a cliff to escape. When they meet again in the sequel, she utterly freaks out at the sight of him.
    • In Grand Theft Auto IV, you can do this to Darko Brevic, the man who betrayed Niko's old army unit. When Niko meets him, he is a drug addicted wreck, confesses to having sold out his unit's lives for a mere $1000 dollars in order to fuel his drug addiction and begs Niko to kill him. Though the player can have Niko kill him (which ends up not making Niko feel any better), he can also make Niko spare him, which causes him to remark that letting Darko live with his addiction and guilt is the bigger punishment and Darko to utterly lose it. Ironically, if the player does this, Bernie (the other survivor of Darko's treachery) will call Niko congratulating him for having overcome his desire for revenge.
    • In Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark, if you shell out the absurd amount of money for Mephistopheles's True Name, you not only get to skip the final boss fight, you can bind him to your service afterwards - including the option to force him to serve as a chambermaid in an inn for all eternity.
    • Deconstructed in The tale of Elwin and Shaera. The Hero defeats Lord Harke, then despite all of his crimes, spares him and locks him up, but not before delivering a long speach about how he's been humiliated and broken. Harke then somehow gets the guards to send false news of Elwin's death to Shaera, knowing that she will commit suicide. It didn't work, but it has proven that Harke is just as dangerous as a prisoner as he was with an army behind him.
    • In The Force Unleashed, Starkiller spares the life of Maris Brood after defeating her. Senator Bail Organa protests, but Starkiller says that she isn't free, the memories of what she had done will haunt her forever.
    • Baine Bloodhoof inflicts this in the World of Warcraft Expanded Universe novel The Shattering Prelude to Cataclysm. Baine wants to take bloody vengeance against Magatha Grimtotem ( Who is 90% responsible for the death of his father Cairne) and Garrosh Hellscream (Duped into being the other 10%). However, he also knows perfectly well that doing so will only cause division and civil war. Instead, upon defeating Magatha's attempt at a Grimtotem coup, he personally smashes her Shamanistic totems (an affront to the elements that would take a great deal of apology and abasement for Magatha to be forgiven for) after offering full pardons to the quarter or so of Grimtotem Tauren who would swear allegiance to the Horde. As for Garrosh, he puts aside Garrosh's role in events because the Tauren need the protection the Horde can offer.
    • The end of the last mission in Advance Wars: Dual Strike has something like this. If the player chooses Yes when Jake has to kill Von Bolt, Jake is handed a gun from Hawke, who would have shot him himself if Jake couldn't bring himself to. Jake doesn't hesitate, and shoots Von Bolt's chair, which was what was about to revive the Grand Bolt the good guys defeated earlier. When asked by Von Bolt why he didn't kill him, Jake stated that he didn't want him dead while everyone else cleaned up his mess.

    Jake: Welcome to natural selection, chump!

    • In Fallout: New Vegas, Cass' companion quest involves taking revenge on two groups of people who wiped out her caravan. Cass initially wants to take a direct, violent approach, but you can instead offer to uncover evidence of the conspiracy and pass it along to the NCR. Though Cass is initially disappointed, she'll decide that the NCR's legal procedures will do more harm to her enemies than a faceful of buckshot ever could.
      • Once you pop Mr. House out of his life-support chamber, you'll have three options for how to deal with him - simply killing him, setting his equipment to electrocute him, or putting him back inside but cutting him off from the rest of his systems. The last choice is considered the worst, since exposure to outside microbes will leave him to slowly die over the course of a year, trapped in a coffin-sized canister and unable to do anything but watch while you dismantle everything he's accomplished.
      • At the end of the Honest Hearts DLC, you'll get to help decide what the vengeful Joshua Graham does with his enemy, White Legs warchief Salt-Upon-Wounds, after crushing the rest of his tribe. Graham is all too happy to execute the tribal for his crimes (which include butchering Graham's hometown), but if your Speech skill is high enough you can exorcise his inner demons and bring some measure of peace to his soul by convincing him to let Salt-Upon-Wounds go. The ending narration reveals that despite their leader's survival, the White Legs never recover from their defeat, abandoning him and leaving him a sad, pathetic wreck of a man.
      • It's easy to overlook, but if you read the terminals left at the H&H Tools building and pay attention to the game's backstory, you can see that Mr. House did this. He was cheated out of the family hardware business by his half-brother, but started his own robotics company and became one of the most powerful industrialists on the planet. House all but took over Pre-War Vegas and dismantled the company that was his birthright on the stock market... except for that last store on the outskirts of Las Vegas, so that his half-brother would be around to see how successful House was. From the building's log entries, it's clear the experience drove him quite mad.
      • According to Mr. House, sparing General Oliver in an Independent Vegas ending either with House or you in charge counts as this. He will be forced to go back west humiliated and empty-handed as a scapegoat for leading thousands of soldiers to die in an unpopular war with his chance at a political career nonexistent. House even calculates a probability of him even committing suicide from it all.
    • Near the end of Star Wars: Bounty Hunter, Jango Fett faces down his arch-nemesis, Montross. Aside from doggedly attempting to kill Fett and steal bounties from him, Montross was personally responsible for the deaths of both Fett's foster figure and a later mother figure. After Fett beats Montross in their final duel, the defeated man gasps that he deserves a better death than this. So Fett leaves him alive, ignoring his pleas that Jango finish him, and Montross is subsequently given the extremely ignominious death of being torn apart by feral cultists.
    • Subverted in Dawn of War: Dark Crusade: Eliphas the Inheritor is confronted by a daemon who blows off his attempts to place the blame on his followers but instead of torturing him in good-old Chaos fashion, simply kills him outright.

    Eliphas: No! I will NOT go to the Basilica of Torment again!
    Daemon: The Basilica is reserved for those who may redeem themselves. You will have no such opportunity.

    • In Mass Effect 2, Archangel's loyalty mission involves hunting down The Mole who betrayed his squad; not only killing all ten of them, but also horribly scarring Archangel in the process. When you get to him you have the option of letting Archangel shoot him with a sniper rifle from a distance, or talking to him. If you do so he reveals that he is wracked with guilt for what he did. "I don't eat. I don't sleep. All I see are their faces, staring at me, accusing me. Some days... some days I think about just ending it all." Since it's that kind of game, you can convince Archangel to spare him—or take the more merciful option, and end his suffering.
      • The Mole did not cause Archangel's scars - at least not directly - since Archangel was hit by a missile from an attack aircraft. Paragon Shepard, who is an extreme Magnetic Hero who inspires others to do what's right, convinces Archangel with a mix of this trope and reminding Archangel that, though a Cowboy Cop turned Vigilante Man, he's still a good man. Alien. Whatever. Avoiding the Mole's death is always a Paragon act.
      • Aside from this, there was an instance in the Mass Effect 1 DLC Bring Down the Sky" that allowed something similar. If you opt to let some hostages die in order to capture batarian terrorist Balak, you can either kill him outright or spare him. Doing the latter means taking him to the planet he'd tried to destroy to stand trial...which, incidentally, was where the hostages came from.
    • Near the end of the first Baldur's Gate, with about three battles left in the game, you can meet Sarevok's mentor, cast aside and too injured to move. He expected to die in Sarevok's ascension to godhood and go down in history as its architect, but you have the option to leave him alive to watch his plans crumble and eventually die in obscurity (without the option to surrender).
    • In Assassin's Creed II Ezio does this to Rodrigo Borgia who had initiated the conspiracy that killed his father and brothers when he was only a young man. At first Ezio sought revenge by fighting the Templars and dismantling Rodrigo's plans of the course of 20 years until he is forced to go into hiding from the Assassins. Surprisingly however the man returns as the Pope giving him virtually unlimited political and religious authority which will help the Templars further consolidate their control over Europe. This doesn't stop Ezio as he tries to assassinate him in front of a congregation in the main Papal Church in Rome, and after a long struggle and chase Rodrigo is finally defeated in a fist fight. Instead of killing him Ezio leaves Rodrigo alone, battered and defeated just as he was so close to achieving his ultimate victory by attaining the Piece of Eden and using it to open the secret vault that according to legend would give a man the power that God Himself wields. Ezio explains his mercy—amidst Rodrigo's pleas to kill him as he has nothing left to live for now that the Assassins have won—by telling Rodrigo that killing him will not bring back his brothers and father and the life he knew as a young man, and the best revenge he can think of is letting him waste away in despair knowing that he was defeated with his dreams of power forever out of reach. The life of an assassin was not a life that Ezio chose for himself, it was thrust his way and now feeling satisfied with Rodrigo's defeat and pathetic state he no longer cares about the conspiracy between the Templars and the Assassins and just wants to lead a normal life. Unfortunately the events of Brotherhood and Revelations had other plans for Ezio.
      • To add insult to injury Rodrigo had the Piece of Eden and the Vault refused to open for him, only when Ezio used it did the Vault finally open. This cements the fact that Rodrigo was not the messiah that he thought he was. Furthermore in Brotherhood Rodrigo's reign as Pope is regulated more or less to being a figure head while his son proclaims himself new leader of Rome. To top it all of is that when Rodrigo's own son kills him, in order to prevent his position as Pope from influencing opposition to his cause, Ezio is the one that comforts him in death to showcase how the revenge he had harbored in his heart for all those years was long gone. Killing people was no longer personal for Ezio anymore but simply a matter of the greater good, even enemies deserve respect.
    • In Dragon Age II, there is a way to do this to Anders. He fully expects to be executed and die as a martyr after blowing up the Chantry and enticing a full-on civil war between the Templars and Mages, and if released from custody will try to die in battle anyway if you side with the Templars. But if the Champion has a full Rivalry meter with him, s/he can convince Anders that he must atone for what he did, freeing him and keeping him in the party while you help the Templars exterminate every mage in the tower. Siding with the mages makes the mercy less cruel, but the "martyrdom would be the easy way out" aspect is still there. Writer Jennifer Hepler stated in an interview that she believed this fate would be "poetic justice".
    • Dragon Age itself allows you to do this to several characters, to include Sten (though the option is less about outright killing him, and more about leaving him in his cage to die later), Jowan, Zevran (who enters into a "service contract" with you afterwards), and Loghain, in exchange for him serving you and the Grey Wardens, no less. There are other potential instances, such as Branka, though the cruelness of them comes down to YMMV.
    • In Alpha Protocol Mike has the option to spare whoever the final boss turns out to be, knowing they'll be dragged through courtroom after courtroom for the rest of their lives, watching while their empire crumbles.
    • This happens to Faba in Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. When exposed as The Mole for Team Rainbow Rocket, Lusamine chooses not to turn him in or even fire him, but instead demotes him to intern. The last scene in the post-game shows him groaning and exhausted at the work he has to do as such.
    • If you want the good ending in Dishonored, you have to take out foes without killing them; problem is, if you do this, many are sentenced to a Fate Worse Than Death. One is branded a heretic, cast out of society, and later seen dying of the plague. A group of crooks are physically mutilated and made to work as slaves in their own mines (which they had been doing to innocent civilians, by the way). Another you kidnap and hand over to her Stalker Without a Crush, the implication that she'll be his Sex Slave for the rest of her life[3], and two more are hauled to prison where it is implied they will be executed later. The player can only take solace knowing that they were all cruel people who clearly deserved it.
    • World of Warcraft; Sylvanus Windrunner's fate at the end of the Shadowlands expansion. When finally brought to trial for all her atrocities, and judged by the Arbiter itself, even Sylvanus herself acknowledges that a death sentence is far too lenient. Thus, her punishment is to scour the Maw and free every single soul trapped there. Should she succeed, she would be granted forgiveness and redemption and be allowed to enter Heaven. (This small bit of clemency is only given because she eventually had a Heel Realization and turned against the Jailer and afterwards, turned herself in.) While this task will be nearly impossible and take centuries to complete (the Maw is very much Azeroth's version of Hell, and souls had been sent to the Maw since the very creation of the Shadowlands) but she accepted it as sufficient and swore it would be finished; after all, this was the first time in her life she had ever given a gleam of Hope. Note that not everyone in universe agreed with this decision; Blaine Bloodhoof thought it appropriate, Sylvanis' sisters thought it overly harsh, and Glenn Greymane (Sylvanis' Arch Enemy whose kingdom was destroyed and his son killed by Sylvanis' machinations) thought it too lenient, believing she deserved the death and damnation she had so long feared, which had inspired all of her evil acts.


    • Horribly/Hilariously Subverted Trope in Schlock Mercenary after Kevyn captures an alien warlord who had just executed one of his squad members simply to test a theory and was about to do the same to his Love Interest before he intervened. Rather than take his revenge on the warlord ("I know he murdered our friend, but [revenge] will take you into a very dark place, Nick"), he opts to turn him in to the proper authorities... who will then kill him and eat him a little bit at a time!

    Nick: Your place sounds darker, sir.
    Kevyn: It has the advantage of being legal.

    • Thaco in Goblins destroyed Dellyn Goblinslayer's carefully-constructed legacy, leaving his elite guards dead, his prisoners escaped, and his reputation in Brassmoon ruined. When Dellyn finally faced Thaco and was defeated, he expected to be killed and earn a place in the legends of goblins as their racial nemesis until Thaco told him he was not worth the XP to kill.

    Complains: "You fought the Goblinslayer? Did you kill him?"
    Thaco: "No. I destroyed him."

    • Samus Aran uses this as a threat in Captain SNES: "I will not permit you to die."
    • Done in Girl Genius. After Dr. Beetle dies, Baron Wulfenbach tells Dr. Merlot that for his part in the incident, he'll be put in charge of the city of Beetleburg...after Dr. Beetle has been given a hero's funeral with full honors, and the full details of Dr. Beetle's death, including the fact that Dr. Merlot's theatrics were the direct cause of it, have been released to a public that loved and respected Dr. Beetle.
    • Done in a social way for humor in Eerie Cuties, to set up for its spin-off, Magick Chicks. After the Hellrune Coven have tried to use a gender-bending magical orb for a small plan that turned into a fiasco that left one boy stuck as a girl, they're called in front of the headmistress. Since they're also the "Queen Bees" of their school, they're told protocol would demand they be expelled. However, the headmistress believes that would let them off TOO easily. So she talked with the head of Artemis Academy to get them transfered over there as part of an exchange program, forcing them to start all over without any socal benefits from their soon-to-be-former school. To a young girl who fought a lot of her high-school life to be popular, losing your status and being "socially dead" is worth than a physical death.

    Web Original

    • Ink City: Trevor pulls this on Mew, with a twist of manipulation: originally, he was poised to take his revenge on another Mew who had just arrived. He waited until Mew publicly confessed before informing her he wasn't going to seek his pound of flesh; watching her live as an outcast would be far more satisfying.
    • Chakona Space: Allen Fesler's character, Neal Foster has pulled this off a few times.

    Western Animation


    "No. No, you live with it."

    • One of the most memorable aspects of the Avatar: The Last Airbender Grand Finale is this trope: Aang doesn't kill Phoenix King Ozai, but takes his ability to firebend from him. Knowing Ozai, it would be a Fate Worse Than Death, which isn't to say he didn't deserve it. He's also left to rot in a cell (the same cell where he imprisoned Iroh no less) as a powerless wreck while the son he hated becomes the new Firelord.
      • Azula pulls this on herself during her Villainous Breakdown. She hallucinates her mother, and this follows, completely breaking her world view.

    Ursa: I think you're confused. All your life, you've used fear to control people like your friends Mai and Ty Lee.
    Azula: But what choice do I have?! Trust is for fools! Fear is the only reliable way! Even you fear me.
    Ursa: No. I love you, Azula. I do.

    • It could be said that Azula being sent to a mental facility after her Villainous Breakdown could be considered this. She, a massive perfectionist and control freak, is now unable to so much as take care of herself anymore and is completely insane. But it could be a subversion as its hinted the reason for it is to try and get her back to normal.
    • Katara does this to the man who killed her mother. After finding out how horrible his life is, she decides to spare him so he can continue to endure it.
    • In King of the Hill, Peggy confronts Cotton on his deathbed to Call The Old Man Out after years of verbal abuse from him. She takes a hint from one of the page quotes above by saying she hopes he will never die, so that he may live forever in the hell that he has created for himself. Cotton, ever the spiteful one, puts on his cool face and dies immediately afterwards.
    • In "The Dragons' Graveyard," the darkest episode of Dungeons and Dragons, the kids have finally had it with Venger constantly attacking them and preventing them from getting home. Against Dungeon Master's wishes, they attack Venger, and finally have him at their mercy. Hank could easily kill him, but finally spares him, saying verbatim that "If I did, we'd be no better than you are." But Hank makes it very plain to Venger as they leave, "We've beaten you, and you know it."
    • Grimian, a member of the Vandals in Hot Wheels Battle Force 5, overthrows Captain Kalus but instead of killing him, spares his life so he may live in shame. When Kalus returns and defeats him, he tells him the exact same thing and promotes him to his second in command so Grimian can live in his shadow. After Grimian sells out the Vandals to the Red Sentients, Kalus and Grimian have a final battle, ending with Kalus' victory. After destroying Grimian's car, he banishes Grimian instead of killing him, once more prefering the traitor live in shame rather than die in battle like a warrior.
      • While he doesn't see it as such, Zemerik, under the control of the Alpha-Code, forgiving Krytus is seen at this by Krytus. Krytus had just finally got his revenge on Zemerik for betraying him, but forgiving him, Zemerik also rendered Krytus' revenge meaningless.
    • Discord from My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic breaks and Mind Rapes five of the mane cast, breaks appart their friendship, and plunges Equestria into a World Gone Mad, driving everyone insane...but never touchs Twilight Sparkle. No, he merely lets the fact she's lost everything she cares about drive her over the Despair Event Horizon and lose all hope. Thankfully, she finds a way to turn this around though.
    • In an episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Evil-Lyn, Whiplash, and Beastman set up a trap when Skeletor is out on an errand. Said trap involves using a shrink ray on He-Man's allies and holding them captive in a small cage. Eventually, after the hero restores them to proper size, Whiplash and Beastman (along with Skeletor's steed, Panthor) get a taste of their own medicine and fall victim to the shrink ray. Evil-Lyn assumes he's going to use it on her and pleads with him not to; he does not. He smashes the weapon, thereby leaving her to explain to Skeletor what happened to it and the other henchmen; Skeletor's reputation as a Bad Boss is well known...

    Real Life

    • One of the many, many arguments thrown about between pro-death penalty / anti-death penalty groups is the theory that spending the remainder of one's life in prison is a harsher sentence then being executed.
      • This is practically the argument of philosopher Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish: someone who went into prison and served their sentence, more often than not, will find it far harder to integrate back into normal society, essentially being marked wherever they go.
      • Invoked some time ago in Italy by some lifer prisoners who requested death penalty to be restored, because they found spending the rest of their lives in prison an excessive punishment.
      • For all the "horrors" of long prison sentences, the number of inmates who have waived their appeals processes in order to be executed as quickly as possible can be counted on one hand.
    • Turkish Sultan Alp Arslan did this to the captured Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV after crushing his army in the Battle of Manzikert. His own court quickly deposed him, and later had him blinded.
    • Julius Caesar specialized in this, often showing clemency to defeated rivals especially in Rome's civil wars, which, under the rules of Roman high society, left them permanently beholden to him because they owed him their lives. Cato the Younger actually killed himself to avoid this.
    1. Warren Worthington's X-Men-affiliated charity organization
    2. Although there have been talks of a sequel where Elle and Sophie train Vernita's daughter Nikki to get revenge on The Bride, so...
    3. Or will she? The novel Dishonored: The Corroded Man shows that she seduced and murdered him, and moved to a place where Corvo and Emily won't be able to find her