The Millstone

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Things tend to go wrong in drama; this is how drama persists. And when something goes wrong, it's usually the fault of The Millstone.

The Millstone is the character, usually The Ditz, who is specifically responsible for the failure of every plan that the heroes carry out. It's because of them that Failure Is the Only Option. For some reason, they're usually given the linchpin of this week's plan... which they will then botch, forcing the heroes to try again next week. If the main characters could just get rid of the Millstone, they'd be home free... but then the show would be over; see Just Eat Gilligan.

Frequently, the villains have a Millstone on their side as well, which is how the heroes can stand their own against them. Odd if the same villains invoke You Have Failed Me... to other people but not the Millstone.

The trope name comes from the phrase "millstone around my neck". For those not versed in agriculture, a millstone is a large (often 2–3 feet in diameter) stone disc used by mills to render things well pulverized, such as grinding grain into flour. A typical millstone is several hundred pounds of solid rock: understandably, being necklaced with one would make your life considerably more difficult (especially because the necklacing tends to happen on top of a bridge, shortly before a splashy noise is heard).

Compare to The Load, who doesn't cause failure but is still of little or no worth. General Failure is when the guy who's supposed to be in charge suffers from this. Such a character could also turn out to be the Spanner in the Works or Unwitting Instigator of Doom. This character is also generally The Klutz.

No real life examples, please; if we were to list anyone here, it would imply flat-out say that they only exist to sabotage positive growth in society. And that's just rude.

Examples of The Millstone include:

Anime and Manga

  • Excel Excel from Excel Saga is an example. Granted, most of Il Palazzo's plans are rather silly to begin with, but she ensures that they have no chance of success.
    • Near the end of the anime series, Il Palazzo realizes this and fires her by shooting her through the chest and leaving her to die; he conquers the city two episodes later (though the city's destruction might have helped with that conquering a little).
    • In the manga Excel is so much of a millstone that When Il Palazzo finally gets off his ass and does something (such as exploring outside of the lair), he only rescues Elgala and Hyatt, and leaves Excel behind, replacing her with a disguised Roppomatsu 1 he also captured, and almost immediately starts to succeed taking over the city
      • Interestingly though, manga Excel is considerably more intelligent than her anime counterpart, even though her hyperactive attitude tends to make it hard to tell. Il Palazzo's success doesn't seem to be so much due to Excel's absence than it is from his own memory and competence returning to him -- which was also the reason he ditched Excel.
  • In Axis Powers Hetalia, comically ditzy Italy spends most of his time dragging down the Axis powers.
  • Mihoshi in Tenchi Universe definitely counts, in contrast to the OAV where she is a Genius Ditz.
  • Katekyo Hitman Reborn has the protagonist, Tsunayoshi Sawada, at least in terms of sports. Any team that picks him for a game loses. He does take a level, though.

Films -- Live-Action

  • Ed in Shaun of the Dead repeatedly endangers everyone else through simply being Too Dumb to Live. The worst instance occurs when the group is attempting to sneak past dozens of zombies. Ed's cell phone rings, and he answers it and begins cheerfully and loudly talking on it. Later, when they are attempting to hide from the zombies in a pub, he turns on the fruit machine. He also gets a bit too caught up in the excitement of dealing with the zombies violently, thus needlessly endangering everyone else several times for the thrills. Unlike many examples here, however, Shaun actually twigs on and angrily berates Ed for it (thus, rather amusingly, becoming something of a Millstone himself, since his spleen-venting unfortunately occurs right in front of said zombies).
  • Subverted in Night of the Living Dead, in which the character who all throughout the movie looks like he's going to be the Millstone turns out to have been right all along, and if the hero had just listened to him and followed his plan, everyone would have survived. In essence, the hero becomes the Millstone. Although you could arguably make a better case for Tom and Judy, whose incompetence destroyed their chance of using the truck to get to safety.
  • Mary Goodnight in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, especially while Bond was trying to retrieve the Solex Agitator in Scaramanga's lair. She accidentally hits the giant, candy-like button with her ASS, almost setting off the doomsday thingy while Bond is inside it trying to disable it. Holy crow, maybe not the dumbest Bond girl ever, but a contender.
  • Adult Child Alan from The Hangover causes every situation he and his friends are in to go from bad to worse. Usually because he drugs them.
    • Zack Galifianakis also plays a nearly identical character in Due Date.
  • The Big Lebowski: Walter Sobchak is a cross between this and a total asshole. Everything goes completely wrong for the Dude the moment he opens his mouth or comes up with a plan of his own. The kicker? Walter's was right all along.
  • Virtually every bad thing that happens to the protagonists in the second half of Dantes Peak can be laid at the feet of Ruth, who endangers her daughter, grandchildren, the daughter's love interest and a dog merely by existing. And then, after an attempt to rescue her and everyone else at her place, she heroically sacrifices herself to save everyone from sinking into the acid lake they would never have been on if she'd evacuated when she was supposed to.
  • Peregrin Took in The Fellowship of the Ring, where he's responsible for, among other things: drunkenly revealing Frodo's identity to everybody within earshot, starting a fire at Weathertop that attracts the Ringwraiths, waking up The Watcher which forces the Fellowship to flee into Moria, and finally waking up everything in Moria when they're knee-deep in it. It's a wonder Gandalf doesn't make good on his threat to throw him down the well too. He gets much better, obviously. He also nicks the Palantir, though that actually works out pretty well.
    • This is mostly just in the movies however; in the book, Frodo himself reveals his identity by keeping his hand in his pocket with the ring while singing, the fire on Weathertop was actually Aragorn's idea (and implied not to have been the reason the wraiths found the party), Boromir woke up The Watcher instead, and while Pippin does throw a stone into a well in Moria, it's not made obvious if it is what alerts the Orcs and the Balrog to the Fellowship's presence.
  • Vincent Vega of Pulp Fiction is this to Jules. He was too incompetent to not wave his gun around with his finger on the trigger and got them in some truly "deep shit" by blowing Marvin's brains out in broad daylight, and then after Jules leaves, he's too incompetent to pull off a hit by himself and ends up getting killed because he left a loaded weapon laying around his target's apartment.
    • The last one is debatable, after all, if you're a lowly boxer that has seriously pissed off the most powerful crime boss in the city ON PURPOSE, are you going to be anywhere NEAR any place associated with you? It was only the extenuating circumstances of his ditz girlfriend leaving his irreplaceable family heirloom watch at his house that he went there. Honestly, I'd feel pretty comfortable doing the same thing Vincent did, the chances he would actually show up were astronomically low.
  • Limitless: Eddie begins this movie as The Load, a harmless loser. Then Eddie takes NZT-48 pills a revolutionary new pharmaceutical that allows him to tap his full potential… as The Millstone. He manages to ruin his boss Van Loon’s greatest business; he unwillingly hooks the Russian into NZT, his two bodyguards are killed, so two HeroicBystanders. He doesn't care. His girlfriend Lindy realizes Eddie cannot care about anything except NZT, so she abandons him as fast as she can.


  • Lampshaded and Subverted in Around the World in Eighty Days where Aouda fears she was Fogg's Millstone delaying him on his trip and missed the deadline. However, Fogg firmly denies she was any problem and any concerns she may still have are dispelled by the fact that she is then instrumental instead in saving the day.
  • In The Darksword Trilogy, Lovable Traitor Simkin cheerfully ruins his companions' plans at every opportunity. The other heroes scream at Joram to Just Eat Gilligan already, but Joram insists in violation of all reason and common sense on trusting Simkin. In the end, Joram's faith proves to have been the right choice.
  • The Twelve Chairs: Ippolit Matveyevich "Kisa" Vorobyaninov first is an employer to his Magnificent Bastard companyon Ostap Bender, then becomes The Load... and then, when they almost buy the titular jewel-stuffed MacGuffin, not only does Kisa get drunk and spend all the cash, he completely screws any possibility of them buying the chairs ever and causes the chairs to be sold separately. Throughout the story he degrades morally and ends up killing Ostap in the sleep (luckily, he got better) right before going for the final chair, only to discover that treasure was already found and taken away due to his own stupidity.

Live-Action TV

  • Gilligan's Island
    • Gilligan is the epitome of this trope. If the other castaways had resorted to cannibalism and eaten him, they could have gotten off the island the next day. He's so much an embodiment of this trope that it was almost titled "The Gilligan". To be fair, the other castaways were at least able to punish him with things like forcing him to be a cuckoo clock sounder, dive dozens of times for a telephone cable, jail him and otherwise humiliate him to their hearts' content.
    • Also, the episodes that didn't center around their latest attempt to get off the island (and these made up about half the series) instead focused around the latest danger on the island, and Gilligan was always the one who saved them in those cases. So no Gilligan and maybe they'd have gotten off the island—or maybe they'd have been fried by the volcano or blown up by the mine that washed ashore.
    • In one episode, they find a gold mine on the island, as well as a salvageable life raft from the Minnow. Everybody except Gilligan tries to sneak a bag of gold onto the raft, after being explicitly warned by the Professor not to. The raft sinks as soon as they shove off. Gilligan proceeds to lampshade the fact that he's usually the one to screw these things up.
  • The Mole is a Reality TV show built entirely around this trope. The players add money to a jackpot by performing tasks, which The Mole tries to sabotage. Every so often, there is a quiz that asks about The Mole (which, naturally, The Mole aces every time), and whoever knows the least is eliminated. Somewhat subverted in that the players, in order to screw with each other's knowledge and extend their own games, don't always give it their all, and thus the entire team becomes The Millstone.
  • Dr. Zachary Smith from Lost in Space. Especially when you compare the original pilot (before Smith was introduced) with the remade version.
  • Kate sabotages the outlaws' plans at least five times on Robin Hood for reasons ranging from "I can do it by myself!" to "I'm in a bad mood today!" to "Robin isn't paying enough attention to me!" to absolutely no logical reason at all. On at least three different occasions her presence among the outlaws also turns several other characters into Millstones when they mess up the plans after getting distracted by whatever stupid mess she's managed to wander into.
  • Hank in Corner Gas is one, thanks to him being that show's ditz.
  • In The Mighty Boosh, Howard and Vince take turns. Which is the true Millstone is too close to call, as they'll occasionally switch in the same episode. (see The Nightmare of Milky Joe) Their millstoning gets more prevalent when they leave the Zooniverse after season one, as Bob Fossil is no longer instigating episodes.
  • Kelly Bundy continually fell into this role on Married... with Children. It's eventually Lampshaded by Peggy in one episode while the Bundys and the D'Arcys are being arrested by the police, when she realizes that it probably wasn't a good idea to let Kelly in on the plan of the week. Later seasons have her repeatedly teaming up with Bud, and her involvement typically turns things into an Epic Fail of Biblical proportions. (Except for that one episode where she invented Bleen.)
  • A typical episode of Ricky Gervais's Extras would involve his character Andy divulging an embarrassing secret to his friend Maggie, who would inevitably spill the beans to someone in a position to humiliate him over it. Yet as Millstone-ish as Maggie could be, it is eventually Andy who is considered his own worst enemy considering he never learns to keep his mouth shut.
  • This type of character is parodied in That Mitchell and Webb Look in the "Get Me Hennimore!" sketches, where we have the completely idiotic Hennimore screwing things up every single week. Only, it's mostly the fault of the boss for coming up with two mutually exclusive and dangerous schemes.
  • Con man Alexander Fitzhugh in Land of the Giants. He tends to panic and act selfishly and often ends up drawing the attention of the title giants when the humans could have readily escaped notice. Fitting in that he was an attempt to replicate the success of Zachary Smith from Lost in Space
  • Morgan from Chuck. He grows out of it, though.

Newspaper Comics

  • Peanuts
    • The Running Gag of Charlie Brown losing baseball game after baseball game is possible only because his team doesn't know better. Even a 51-50 loss never stopped him from pitching. (Indeed, there's a sub-Running Gag that the team actually wins when Charlie Brown is at camp or some such.)
    • Lucy could easily be considered one as well. Even from left field, her bungling has ruined more games for Charlie Brown than seems statistically plausible. Of course, Charlie Brown always gets blamed.
    • Around the time Peanuts ended, Mad Magazine ran their ideas for the final strip, one of which was the revelation that Charlie Brown had been taking bribes to throw all the baseball games.

Video Games

  • Grand Theft Auto:
    • Lance Vance. Only helpful thing he ever does is betray you so you can finally shoot his dumb ass.
    • While he's like this in Vice City, he's even worse in Vice City Stories—most of his brother Vic's problems are due to his screw-ups.
  • Fallout:
    • Fallout 2 has the Pariah Dog, a random encounter that can join over the party limit, drops your luck to 1, and gives you the Jinxed trait. The only way to fix this is to get the dog killed, but the damn thing has loads of HP and runs away the moment a battle starts.
    • Joshua Graham was to be this in Fallout: Van Buren. A tough but evil guy who would piss off almost everyone if he were recruited. As opposed to what he became in Fallout: New Vegas. The closest thing in New Vegas would be Boone, but only if you planned on allying/being friendly with Caesar's Legion since his response to them is to shoot on sight.
  • Mass Effect:
    • The Council for the most part. Despite the fact that you are Spectre, ostensibly with carte blanche from said Council, any action you take is second-guessed and vital information or resources are often withheld. Even after a galaxy-wide invasion, the Asari councilor delays telling you about a Prothean beacon until its location is all but overrun with Reapers.
  • Any Escort Mission where a Too Dumb to Live escortee jumps in your line of fire, walks instead of running (or runs so fast you can't catch up with them) or even attacks every enemy in sight to guarantee mission failure.
  • The Silent Hill series has a few of these, often to the irritation of the fandom.
  • Ghost Recon your own teammates tend to get themselves killed, by getting themselves shot by the enemy, moving themselves out in the open, or getting in your line of fire.

Web Animation

  • Red vs. Blue
    • Grif from the Red army fits the trope perfectly. Being a conscript, he is unwilling to work, has terrible stamina and practically is Red Team's Butt Monkey. More to the point, he regularly shirks his duty—during one battle, he forgot to bring the spare ammo. In another scenario, he sold all the spare ammo to the Blues. In Grif's own defense, he's intentionally The Millstone; he's trying to get discharged by any means possible, up to and including criminal negligence. In the rare occasion when he's actually trying, he's a lot more useful.
    • Donut is arguably worse than Grif in this regard, as evidenced by the time Donut and Grif were sent out on a spying mission together. Donut treated it like a game and wound up getting himself captured almost immediately.
    • Caboose is definitely the millstone of the Blue team. He has a tendency to kill his teammates (especially Church, whom he has killed in some fashion at least three times) and is otherwise unable to function in battle (in one scene, he manages to get a grenade stuck to the wall his team is hiding behind). In fact, he is best directed to fight the team's enemies by asking him to help the other side.
  • Played for Laughs with the Leeroy Jenkins video. Subversion: in this video, the entire party—or at least the leader—is a Millstone. The overly complicated plan made no sense at all and was not appropriate whatsoever for this encounter. Leeroy did nothing but speed up their demise.

Web Comics

  • The Order of the Stick:
    • Villainous, borderline example: Rich's commentary tells us that Nale often needs Thog because of his sheer power, but his stupidity foils his plans half the time.
    • Originally, Roy considered Elan to be this and when the latter was kidnapped, Roy was hesitant to go and save him. However, he later decided that this was a jerk move and goes to rescue him. Elan eventually Took a Level in Badass in a class that lets him use his Genre Savvy more efficiently, though he still occasionally had his moments.
    • The real Millstone of the Order is certainly Belkar. His sociopathy and frequent refusal to listen to orders ruin the party's planning several times—for example, leaving the spellcasters undefended to kill goblins, putting the bandit camp on fire because he couldn't wait, or killing the Oracle. He has somehow grown out of it after his Vision Quest, though.

Western Animation

  • Scooby Doo:
    • Subversion: Shaggy and Scooby always botch the plan to catch the Monster of the Week... and in the process of botching it succeed at catching the monster.
    • Daphne is a straighter example, with some Lampshade Hanging from Freddy. She is the one who is constantly tripping traps, or getting kidnapped — usually getting an exasperated "Danger-prone Daphne's at it again!" when it happens. What makes her a Millstone rather then a Damsel in Distress is that it's usually her own vanity that causes problems.
    • And, as much as we may want to, we can't forget about Scrappy-Doo, Trope Namer for The Scrappy. He would constantly make things worse by trying to fight the monsters himself and need Shaggy and Scooby to go back and rescue him.
  • Pinky and The Brain:
    • Pinky always manages to screw up Brain's plans to Take Over the World. This is partly averted in that frequently Brain's plans fail of their own accord or due to bad luck, and not through any fault of Pinky's. The Brain is sometimes too stubborn to listen to the plan's legitimate flaw Pinky points out, which naturally occurs at the climax.
    • Subverted in another episode when Brain builds a device to increase Pinky's intelligence, so that Pinky will no longer impede the success of his plans. Pinky then reviews all of Brain's plans and points out that they were all flawed to begin with. Thus Brain is really his own Millstone.
    • Word of God points out that the theme song only says that "one is a genius, the other's insane". It never says explicitly which one is which...
  • Muttley is usually in this position on Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines, as he always wants more medals for catching the pigeon.
  • In the Wacky Races, it is Dick Dastardly (and his Expy, the Phantom Phink from Yogi's Space Race) who is his own Millstone; if he had simply driven on without attempting to cheat, he could've easily won all his races.
  • Uni in Dungeons and Dragons. It's sometimes so blatantly obvious that she is the only reason for the heroes' inability to go back home that some crazy theories about the missing last episode depict her as being an evil servant of the Devil himself.
  • Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends
    • Single episode example: "Berry Scary": Berry convinces Bloo that Mac is The Millstone in his attempts to set a world records at something, and he actually falls for that, even though it's her who's been sabotaging Mac and Bloo's efforts.
    • Which is ironic as Bloo is generally The Millstone for everybody else at Fosters in just about every other episode. That is, for every episode not involving Cheese, the show's resident ditz.
  • Although he does prove useful now and again, one could wonder why Zim of Invader Zim kept giving GIR such a crucial role in his plans to conquer Earth. Most likely because Zim is his own Millstone. When he finally fixes GIR, the robot declares almost immediately that Zim's the Millstone to their mission and tries to kill him, forcing the alien to revert him back.
  • Alexandra in Josie and the Pussy Cats in Outer Space. Whenever the group figured out some way to get back to Earth, she'd invariably muck it up, ensuring that they'd have to continue wandering the galaxy and saving the universe one planet at a time.
  • The Tagalong Kid in the Donkey Kong Junior cartoon. In the example linked to here, watch as he screws up Junior's plans quite a few times.
  • Bebop and Rocksteady from the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon are a classic example of the villainous variety.
  • Patrick in SpongeBob SquarePants fits more than the usual. Whenever SpongeBob or anyone has a plan, Patrick is sure to screw it up, or do something stupid to make it worse.
  • Dog in CatDog.
  • Flik in A Bugs Life is this to the ant colony at first. He gets better.
  • Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy
    • Ed. One time the Eds built a roller-coaster that worked perfectly, and Ed destroyed it with his teeth, for absolutely no reason.
    • They've once tried not including Ed. It Got Worse.
    • Eddy himself seems to fit the mold even more than Ed. Many, many of the Eds failures come from Eddy's impatience, arrogance, and greed taking the scam far beyond their capabilities. Truthfully, without Eddy, the other two would probably be easily accepted by the other kids.
    • And then, every once in a great while, the Eds will do something right without any one of them screwing it up. In those cases, one of the other kids screws it up. Most commonly Kevin, Sarah, or the Kanker Sisters, but Johnny and Rolf do it a lot, too.
  • The Fairly OddParents: Timmy tends to be this, to himself. A lot of the wishes he makes that go wrong are actually pretty decent wishes, but usually it's something he does in his own stupidity that brings out the bad sides of the wishes and sets up the plot of the episode. This is occasionally lampshaded, as some episodes feature Wanda confronting Timmy about his thoughtless, reckless, fundamentally flawed wishes.
  • Mike Simon in Kappa Mikey is the source of any number of bizarre and inexplicable predicaments. Of course, he's also wildly popular, and most of his castmates seem rather fond of him, so this one's got a reasonable explanation. It didn't stop a pretty nice Lampshade Hanging, though...

Ozu: You make a goood point... Perhaps we should start holding Mikey accountable for his actions?
(brief pause, then Ozu, Guano and Yes Man all burst into riotous laughter)
Ozu: That will be the day...

  • Duck Dodgers: The title hero is a bit of a subversion. While he often causes the trouble of that particular episode (or makes it worse), he's also usually the one who saves the day in the end, and can be quite competent when he's not screwing up.
  • The Spectacular Spider-Man: Electro is this for the villains. Every time Doc Ock plans out a clever scheme, Electro is responsible for it falling apart. He's so insane and readily prone to rage that invariably, Spider-Man will piss him off and he'll start recklessly throwing lightning bolts around and will destroy whatever phlebotinium Doc Ock was relying on.
  • Regular Show Rigby, who is almost always the cause of all the bizarre stuff that happens to everyone, and getting him and Mordecai into trouble. If Rigby is part of something mundane, he would make it to something beyond weird and life threatening.