"The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do. [...] And me, for example, I can let you drown, but I can't bring this ship into Tortuga all by me onesies, savvy? So, can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?"When one person spares the other's life (despite really wishing to kill him on the spot) because he intends to use him later. One response to Get It Over With. If a lesser villain is smart, they may make sure their boss always needs them, lest they outlive their usefulness. Can also prompt Stop, or I Shoot Myself! to put the boss at a disadvantage. Clever characters (almost invariably villains in this case) will typically resort to I Will Punish Your Friend for Your Failure to get around this. This trope is a good way to avoid Mook Depletion. Can apply to both good and bad guys; if the latter, it's a subtrope of Pragmatic Villainy. Compare to Enemy Mine. Contrast You Have Outlived Your Usefulness, You Have Failed Me, and We Have Reserves. Compare/contrast Sympathy for the Devil and Sympathy for the Hero. See also Vetinari Job Security.
— Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
open/close all folders
Anime & Manga
- Dragon Ball Z:
- When Vegeta and Nappa first attack Earth, they make a point not to kill Piccolo, as they need his help finding the Dragon Balls. Notably, they don't know that the Balls are tied to his and Kami's life-force, and when they learn Goku's coming they decide to just kill him and get the Namek Balls.
- In Dragonball Z Resurrection F: this is Vegeta's response to Freeza offering to allow him to kill a weakened Goku. He says that as much as he hates Goku, it's their rivalry that keeps really pushing him to get stronger, and he's not willing to give that motivation up.
- The villains of Fullmetal Alchemist and its 2003 anime need the Elric brothers alive to fulfill their respective master plans.
- Kimimaro of Naruto stated that he fully intended to kill Tayuya once they returned to Orochimaru. The only reason he didn't do so immediately was that she could still be useful in slowing down the Leaf ninja.
- Invoked in One Piece by Tom. His trial was an open and shut case and he was sentenced to death. At which point Tom reveals that he can build a new form of travel that will revitalize the Wretched Hive they live in, earning a stay of execution. Once he was done he was even looking a a full pardon at his retrial only to get another sentence of execution because he took the blame for an attack on the city his apprentice was framed for.
- Jaco the Galactic Patrolman, Stealth Prequel to Dragon Ball, explains why Frieza allowed a handful of Saiyan to survive the destruction of their homeworld (and actually planned for it): the Galactic Patrol has bioweapons that could kill any lifeform on a planet, including his soldiers, but the Saiyans happen to be immune.
- Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans: The one member of CGS the main characters don't give the boot or kill when they take over the company is the head accountant. While they don't like him very much, none of them know how economics and finances work in any detail, so they need him around to keep the company running, at least until one of them learns enough to take over.
- Bungou Stray Dogs:
- In chapter 31, Dazai passes up an opportunity to kill Q, his stated reason being that as long as Q is around, Dazai's nullification ability is needed as insurance, so the Port Mafia can't kill him. Dazai himself is still alive partially for a similar reason; Mori wants to recruit him back into the Port Mafia and thus has placed an order to not kill him.
- Fyodor has a sniper shoot Dazai in chapter 46, but states that the bullet should have missed anything vital, because Dazai still has a part to play in Fyodor's plans.
- John Pinette's routine of his visit to France, wherein he learned how close he was to the French-Italian border (and Italian food). After spending several weeks in France.
John Pinette: I'll kill you later 'cause I need directions.
- The Stars Ascendant justifies Tirek sparing his drained victims by noting that he only retains the power he steals as long as his victims are still alive.
- In Origins, a Mass Effect/Star Wars/Borderlands crossover, it's revealed this is the reason the Citadel Council kept Samantha Shepard around despite her less-than-heroic actions during the Reaper War. Taken to a larger scale with Sarah, the Force-wielding Siren, whose targeted death sprees killed hundreds of millions. Without this person, fighting the Flood would be next-to-impossible, and to be fair, some Character Development and a Heel–Face Turn make that individual more palatable/useful to the heroes' cause.
- Neji, Sasuke, and Kiba in Four Teams only keep from killing each other because it'll take all of them to kill their sensei, Kakashi.
- In The Bridge, Bagan pretends to be a Benevolent Boss and treats his servants well, but secretly wants to kill them all. He holds off on doing this because they can't serve him if they are dead, and if he kills them before they succeed in their tasks to restore him to full strength, he'll eventually become helpless when his stored power runs out.
- The Ultimate Evil has a heroic version, when Nataline expresses the desire to kill Valmont whose body is possessed by Shendu. She's discouraged from this by the Chans with this logic: should Valmont die, Shendu could be freed from his siblings' spell that is keeping him trapped in the crime lord's body and able to possess anyone else's body.
- In the final chapters of The Very Secret Diary, invoking this trope is how Ginny keeps herself alive, despite her frequent insults and acts of defiance against Tom. When he threatens to kill her for her disobedience, she points out that if he gets rid of her, his plan is at a dead-end, and he has to start over again from square one.
Films — Animation
- In Disney's The Great Mouse Detective, after Hiram Flaversham refuses Ratigans' command to complete a clockwork robot to impersonate the Queen, and adds insult by calling him a rat, Ratigan barely restrains himself from feeding Hiram to Felicia. When Hiram expresses that he isn't afraid to die, Ratigan instead threatens the life of his daughter, Olivia.
Films — Live-Action
- Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl:
Jack Sparrow: "And me, for example, I can let you drown, but I can't bring this ship into Tortuga all by me onesies, savvy? So, can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?"
- Jack and Will steal a ship, then fight when Jack tells Will his father was a pirate. Jack gets Will down with a sword to his neck, then reverses the sword, admitting he needs Will to sail the ship.
- Later in the film, Elizabeth burns all the food, the shade, and the rum to signal a passing Royal Navy ship. Jack, who normally is reluctant to kill (which makes him a somewhat ineffective pirate in most areas), is so angered by this that he pulls out his pistol in a rage to shoot her in a moment of Black Comedy, but he stops himself when he realizes that in order to reclaim the Black Pearl and rescue Will, he will have to smooth-talk his way onto another ship. Which, thanks to Elizabeth, will be a Royal Navy ship. Shooting Elizabeth would remove the only thing keeping them (or Will) from executing him on sight, as well as waste the one shot he's been saving for Barbossa.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End: Jack tricks Beckett into thinking this by telling him he can convince the other pirates to meet Beckett's armada head on rather than holing up in Shipwreck Cove.
- In Street Fighter, this is why M. Bison allows Dhalsim to live after Dhalsim makes the mistake of pressing Bison's Berserk Button by calling him psychotic.
- In Abandon Ship there are too many survivors for the one lifeboat. Most of the people are left clinging to the outside of the boat but the captain allows one passenger to pull his huge dog in. The dog's owner is incredibly grateful but another survivor demands to know why the dog gets in while he doesn't. The captain's answer was "If we're not picked up immediately we could be out here for a long time. If that happens, we can't eat you." Cue the horrified look on the dog owner's face.
- In Crimson Tide, a US submarine gets word that some Renegade Russians are preparing to launch some nukes they've managed to get ahold of and are ordered to launch their own nukes first. Then a second message is Lost in Transmission regarding the launch, and the crew soon tears itself in two between those who want to launch nukes now, and those who want to confirm the intent of the second message. Eventually, the Captain is put in a position where he is threatening another officer with a gun to try to and get the launch codes. The officer, who is the only one who can access those codes, refuses to turn them over. The captain counts down... and then doesn't go through with the shooting it because if he kills the officer, no one on the ship will be able to use the nukes. The Captain gets around it by threatening to shoot the officer's subordinate and friend instead.
- In Deadpool, this is the only reason the Merc with a Mouth doesn't just kill Francis the first time they meet in the story. Once Francis reveals that he can't fix Wade's face, his minutes are numbered.
- In Star Trek Into Darkness, Spock is inches away from killing Harrison when Uhura stops him, because they need Harrison's blood to save Kirk's life.
- Ma-Ma in Dredd doesn't kill one of her lieutenants for getting her drug operation exposed, but only out of practical concerns, because Dredd has already killed too many of her soldiers by that point and she's short on manpower.
- James Bond examples:
- From Russia with Love. During the fight in the Gypsy camp, a knife-wielding Bulgar rushes Bond from behind, only to get sniped by Red Grant, as it doesn't suit SPECTRE's plan to have Bond dead at that point.
- In Thunderball, the SPECTRE operative Angelo Palazzi, assigned to kill and replace Major Francois Derval, demands an increase to his payment, smugly pointing out he's the only one able to do the job. His superior Count Lippe is sorely tempted to kill him until he's talked out of it by Fiona Volpe. But when word of his behavior gets out to Blofeld, he orders Largo to eliminate both Angelo and Lippe.
- In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Blofeld keeps Bond alive after the obligatory Just Between You and Me speech, because he wants Bond to convince the governments of the world of the threat Blofeld's Virus Omega represents.
- In Diamonds Are Forever, Shady Tree rescues James Bond from Albert Wint and Charles Kidd's incineration attempt on him because he had passed phony diamonds on to Shady, and Shady wants the real stuff. Albert R. Saxby tries to rescue Shady Tree in the same manner, but as James soon finds out, Saxby had talked the two assassins down too late and Shady had already been shot in the head by Mr. Wint.
- Casino Royale (2006):
- Le Chiffre loses money from some African freedom fighters after Bond foils his attack at Miami airport. Their leader, Obanno, attacks Le Chiffre at Montenegro where he's attempting to win back the money. He tells Le Chiffre "I would take your hand, but you need it to play poker.", and threatens Le Chiffre's girlfriend. Obanno is subsequently killed by Bond, when he realized he was snooping on them.
- Also, when M assigns Bond to play in Le Chiffre's game, he initially thinks M wants Le Chiffre eliminated, but M tells him that MI6 needs him alive to take down the terrorists he'd funded, something Le Chiffre also notes to Bond. Le Chiffre gets killed by Mr. White for failing to get the money from Bond.
- In Lockout, Alex kills one prison engineer, the second one has a problem getting the door open, so Alex has a third engineer brought up, shoots the second, hands the third the door control the second was trying to activate, and tells him he has two minutes to get the door open. Realizing this isn't enough time, the engineer tells him, "You can shoot me, but I can guarantee I can get the door open in five minutes." Alex is pleased, admitting how he liked that this third engineer knows how to negotiate, and lets the engineer live after he does what he said he would.
- In Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Shao Kahn seems to think nothing of executing his minions if they mess up. He knocks Rain into a pit of lava for failing to sufficiently torture a pair of Earth Warriors (specifically, by making them beg for their lives before killing them) and he later, after feeds Jade to a monster carving in a wall after she fails to kill them when following Kahn's plan. However, when Sindel tries to stand up for Jade, she's threatened with the same punishment, but Kahn spares her, as she's too crucial to his plans and one of the most powerful generals.
- Played with in John Carpenter's Vampires, where Father Guiteau puts himself in this scenario to save Jack. He shoots Cardinal and, when Valek demands Guiteau do the ritual insteadnote , he puts the gun to his own head with one hell of a Badass Boast:
Guiteau: Try and make me!
Jack: Attaboy, Padre! Fuck with him!
- The Mummy (1999): When Beni gets lost in the pyramid, the recently resurrected Imhotep is about to kill him as the cowardly Beni prays to various gods in an attempt to ward him off. When Beni starts to chant in Hebrew, Imhotep recognizes the language and instead forces Beni into his service, since having someone around who can actually understand him would be useful to someone who's planning to conquer the world.
- True Lies: After it appears that the hero Harry has been killed, terrorist leader Aziz stops his paid ally Juno from shooting Harry's wife Helen too on the grounds that they may need a hostage.
- After the hospital scene in Collateral, Max takes the assassin Vincent, who is using him against his will, briefcase with the target names and throws it off of a bridge in hopes of stopping him for killing anyone else. Instead of killing him, Vincent thinks of another way to use him to get a backup copy of the target names.
- Pathruushkè of The First Dwarf King'' would like nothing more than to kill his Dragon with an Agenda, Trang Barok, but doesn't, due to the latter's usefulness as a subordinate.
- Happens more than once in Duumvirate. The biggest example is when William wants revenge on his creator for enslaving him to his own brother, but this trope kicks in instead.
- The Lord of the Rings: The dynamic between Gollum, Sam, and to some extent, Frodo.
- In Max Barry's Machine Man, the Corrupt Corporate Executive Cassandra Cautery has this in mind for Dr. Charles Neumann. She plans to keep him alive so Better Future can calibrate its weaponized parts for Super Soldiers.
- In the Warrior Cats series, the Big Bad, Tigerstar, decides to spare Featherpaw and Stormpaw because he thinks they may still be useful to him. (Presumably as hostages, since they're the children of his enemy's best friend.)
- This is Mara Jade's opinion of Luke Skywalker in The Thrawn Trilogy. She wants revenge for the death of her old master, the Emperor, but always finds herself relying on him for survival or some other more immediate problem. As she comes to realize, it's actually not her desire for revenge; it's the last command of the Emperor, given to her as he died—not that this makes it any easier to ignore; if anything, her resistance to the command actually makes the compulsion stronger. She eventually frees herself from the compulsion by killing Luke's Evil Clone instead.
- In the second book of the Chaos Walking trilogy, the protagonists finally have the Big Bad at their mercy. Then, the native species of the planet launch a war against all humans, and they realize that they need him to command his army in order to survive.
- In John Birmingham's Final Impact, the "uptimer" Australian submarine Havoc wipes out the remains of the Japanese fleet, except the carrier of the the "Ohka" kamikaze jets. Just before the battleship Yamato is destroyed, Admiral Yamamoto receives a secret message from the "uptimers" with the location of the Soviet nuclear development facility in Kamchatka. Yamamoto sends the order to the Ohkas just before the Yamato is hit by a torpedo. The carrier launches its suicide fighters, who wipe out the Soviet facility. The Havoc then finishes the job by torpedoing the carrier in order to remove any witnesses.
- In All Our Yesterdays, the doctor keeps Em and Finn alive because they know the whereabouts of top secret documents. It's later revealed that they burned them ages ago and he uses it as an excuse to keep them alive, wanting them to truly believe he's made a better world.
- Moriarty seems to fully intend to kill both Sherlock and John during the swimming pool confrontation, but backs off immediately after he gets a phone call. Apparently he still needs Sherlock alive so that Sherlock will solve Irene Adler's code for him.
Moriarty: Not time to die.
Sherlock: Did you get a better offer?
- In the third season finale, "His Last Vow", after Sherlock killed master blackmailer Magnusun once he realized there would be no other way to bring him to justice, Mycroft decided to exile Sherlock to Eastern Europe on what would likely be a suicide mission for MI-6. Within minutes of Sherlock's plane taking off, he is ordered back when every TV in London suddenly shows a picture of a seemingly-dead Moriarty asking, "Did you miss me?" and Sherlock is the only one clever enough to take Moriarty on.
- Moriarty seems to fully intend to kill both Sherlock and John during the swimming pool confrontation, but backs off immediately after he gets a phone call. Apparently he still needs Sherlock alive so that Sherlock will solve Irene Adler's code for him.
- The main plot of season 4 in Breaking Bad. Gus can't kill Walt and Jesse because he has no one else to cook meth.
- Spike pulls one of these in one of the earlier Buffy the Vampire Slayer seasons, when he needs Angel to heal Drusilla.
- In season 4, Uriel tells Sam to cease his demon blood consumption at once, because the minute he stops becoming useful to the angels, he intends to kill him.
- In season 5, the boys and demon Crowley capture another demon who serves and looks after the Four Horsemen. They need him to reveal the locations of Pestilence and Death, but the situation is complicated because this demon is revealed to have tortured and roasted Jessica, Sam's deceased love interest. The demon gives a disgusting gloat about his crimes, and Sam can just barely resist killing him on the spot and getting his revenge because they still need him.
- In the seventh season, a slipping Castiel does this to Crowley because he still has use for him despite Crowley's counterbetrayal to him the previous season. He directs Crowley to downsize Hell and maintain the Cage for the two remaining Archangels. Crowley happily obliges.
- At the end of season 8, Dean and Sam capture Crowley for the last trial. In season 9, they still have him locked in the basement, citing this trope, though he hasn't been useful to them yet.
- In the Stargate SG-1 two-parter "The Quest", Adria protects the good guys (and Ba'al) from a dragon (It Makes Sense in Context) for this reason.
Adria: I extended my protective shield. [looking at Daniel] You're lucky I still need you.
- In Game of Thrones, Ramsay Snow claims this is why he won't kill Theon Greyjoy. It's pretty obvious that the real reason is that he's having too much fun torturing his prisoner. However in the following season once he's broken Theon, he does put him to good use in getting the surrender of a castle that's been seized by the Ironborn.
- In the second half of Star Trek: Enterprise's "In A Mirror, Darkly" the Mirror Universe version of Archer chews out its version of T'Pol for having sabotaged the I.S.S. Enterprise and thereby overturned his mutiny against Captain Forrest. He tells her that he'd frankly like to throw her out the nearest airlock, but needs her help getting the still-crippled U.S.S. Defiant up and running. He also threatens to kill her anyway if he hears "so much as a rumor that you've been working behind my back!"
- On Haven, Nathan and Duke keep Mara alive because she's the one who created the Troubles and is the only one that can provide them with answers.
- In The Flash (2014) episode "The Man In The Yellow Suit", Reverse-Flash's first encounter with the Central City police has him attempt to slaughter the team sent after him. However he pauses mid-attack when he sees that Eddie Thawne is amongst the team, giving the Flash enough time to stop him. It's later revealed that the reason Reverse-Flash froze up is because Eddie is his direct ancestor, so he can't do anything to Eddie without wiping himself from existence by triggering a Grandfather Paradox.
- Person of Interest. When Control discovers that one of her assassins let Rogue Agent Shaw live after encountering her during a mission, she coldly informs him that normally he'd be killed (and we've seen more than enough evidence to back this up), but she's going to let him live as she needs a Rogue Agent of her own, having become suspicious of their so-called ally in the War on Terror, private intelligence service Decima Technologies.
- In World of Warcraft, many quests that directly involve the Lich King will have him letting you walk out alive for seemingly no reason; in one such quest exclusive to Alliance characters, he will even overtly say It Is Not Your Time. Turns out this trope is the reason; he's actually letting you kill his most powerful troops to test you and make you stronger so that when you reach the Frozen Throne, he can kill you with just a snap of his fingers and raise you under his service. This is exactly what happens when you fight him. You're only saved by a last minute Deus ex Machina courtesy of Tirion Fordring and the Ashbringer.
- Dragon Age: Origins: If you already know the final Reveal (that one of the Grey Wardens in your party must perform a Heroic Sacrifice after the Final Battle), this may become a motivation to spare the life of Teyrn Loghain and instead recruit him to the Grey Wardens. Riordan tries to argue in favor of doing so without publicly stating why.
- In Dragon Age: Inquisition, when presiding over the trials of captured enemies, with the right perks there's generally an option to make them serve as agents of the Inquisition on the basis that they possess useful skillsets/connections and that simply killing or imprisoning them is too much of a waste. For example, you can make Magister Alexius into a magical researcher due to his time magic being potentially useful or in one particularly silly case, "exile" an irate Avaar warlord and his clan to Tevinter with as many weapons as they can carry.
- Starcraft II: It is revealed that former Big Bad Kerrigan is needed to stop a Greater Scope Villain.
- This is the standard Paragon outcome to Zaeed's quest in Mass Effect 2. If you've already completed the final mission at this point, however, you can leave him to die instead.
- Similarly, in Mass Effect 3, Shepard can choose to spare Balaknote in order to get the batarian fleets on her/his side. It's made exceptionally clear that Shepard would love nothing more than to kill him on the spot, but there's too much at stake to murder someone who could bring extra firepower to the war against the Reapers.
Officer Noles: Is that... Do you want me to arrest him?
Shepard: I want you to put a bullet in his head, but we're all making some sacrifices today.
- Fable III: If you choose to spare Logan in the third game, the Hero Prince explains that "now is not the time for revenge.", politely asking for his brother's help. A kind way of putting it- you spare Logan because you need his built-up military to assist you.
- In Ada's final chapter of Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, Ada finds her contact dead and a computer with Wesker's face on it. He tries to mock her and pull a You Have Failed Me, until she dangles the G-Virus Sample in his face.
- In AdventureQuest Worlds, Drakath, the Big Bad, has many opportunities to kill the Hero, but always chooses to save him or her on multiple occasions. The reason he still wants the Hero alive, however, is because... He intends to transform The Hero into the 13th Lord of Chaos, unleash a purple plague of Chaos upon Lore, unleash the 13th Chaos Beast then open the portal to release the Mother of All Monsters — which requires the defeat of all 13 Chaos Lords. Drakath kills the Hero and rampages across Lore, but unfortunately, the Hero has other plans...
- Dawn of War: In Retribution, the Imperial Guard campaign has a scene where Merrick is holding a gun to General Castor's head, fully intent on shooting him for throwing the lives of Guardsmen away. Castor replies that yes, he has sent men to their deaths before, and will do so again (like every other Imperial Guard officer)- but what he does not do is waste those lives. He could have Merrick shot for insubordination right there (and indeed, the commissar is waiting to pull the trigger), but cites this trope to spare him.
- Grand Theft Auto V: Trevor's supposed reason for not killing Michael after finding out Brad was dead is that they've still got the Union Depository to do. However, his reaction to Michael's death in Ending B, and a post-game conversation in Ending C both imply he was lying and using the promise of the heist as an excuse.
- Dominic Deegan includes a couple of these. Notably, Evil Necromancer older brother Jacob including "don't kill Luna" as a major part of his demands when negotiating with the Shindula, simply because he expects to get some use out of her... for now. Of course, he has his Heel Realization and saves her just 'cause at the end of the arc. "Don't say I never did anything for this family."
- General Tarquin from The Order of the Stick was trying to use this to protect Nale, his son, as he is a screw-up who should've been cut loose and killed a long time ago. When Nale eventually denounces Tarquin, Tarquin kills him without a second thought.
- In the final episode of the first season of Young Justice, Vandal Savage notes this about the Justice League, explaining that they are still needed for Phase Two of the plan, mind-controlled or not.
- The Legend of Korra:
- Amon discusses this trope. Ridding the new Avatar of her ability to bend, and killing her when he first meets her would only create a martyr, so he fully intends to face her last. He tells Korra all of this during their first meeting, and she's so terrified that she doesn't fight back.
- After Bolin and Varrick's failed defection in Book 4, Kuvira sends Bolin to a re-education camp but keeps Varrick around, as she needs him to keep working on developing superweapons based off of the spirit vines.
- South Park: This is the reason why Eric Cartman won't kill his mother.
- In the first serial of Rocky and Bullwinkle "Jet Fuel Formula" Boris keeps getting contradictory orders from Fearless Leader — keel moose, or don't keel moose — depending on whether or not they think they have all the ingredients for the rocket fuel Bullwinkle accidentally cooked up.
- In the five part pilot for Ducktales, Glomgold and the old captain attempt to kill Scrooge and his nephews to keep them from reaching the lost ship first. Then they discover their map being eaten by their donkey and hastily undo their attempt on Scrooge's life.
- Steven Universe has Peridot invoke this, as she points that she is the only one with full knowledge concerning the nature of the Cluster, a large alien creature lying dormant under the Earth's surface and whose awakening would destroy the planet from the inside out.