He shook his head, which only intensified the ringing in his ears. When had that started? With the shockwaves? During the fight with Chevalier
Or before all that? Before the Yàngbǎn. Had it ever stopped?
He thought of the Simurgh
, thought of all of this in the context of him being just one of her pawns.
His head hung.
Always a pawn. Always the expendable one.
A person is Brainwashed
so that, on a certain trigger (either a situation, or else a phrase
only someone in the know would ever say), they will go from their normal self to The Mole
; they will most often remember nothing afterward. Occasionally they can be programmed to do even more serious crimes, such as attacking their teammates outright, but their true value lies in the fact that their cover is so deep that not even they
If they or their team-mates discover the truth, expect a lot of angst. Whether or not they are are able to break free of their programming (or at least, soon enough for it to matter) will vary from story to story.
In spy and technothriller fiction, such agents are commonly known as "sleeper agents", or just "sleepers".
See also Brainwashed
, Berserk Button
, Morality Dial
, Tomato in the Mirror
, Conveniently Unverifiable Cover Story
, Alternate Identity Amnesia
and Lotus-Eater Machine
. Compare Memory Gambit
, which is when you do this to yourself. May require Deprogramming
In Troper Addition this trope is Memory Gambit
meet Deep Cover Agent
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
- This is how Yoh Hinomura effectively becomes Crying Freeman: with the assassin doctrines of the 108 Dragons implanted in his subconscious, all it takes for him to start a mission is the same trigger phrase he heard when he was indoctrinated.
- Lost+Brain pulls this one.
- Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann has Nia becoming the agent of the Anti-Spirals when the population reaches 1 million.
- Happens in Naruto Shippuden with Sasori's spies ( Yuura and Kabuto).
- Anew Returner in Gundam 00. In this case, the trigger is the presence of a particular person: her twin brother, Revive Revival, who gets captured midway the series and "resets" her.
- Kirika from Noir. She was an incredibly awesome assassin before. Fear what she became.
- Code Geass: Lelouch's mind-controlling Hypnotic Eyes lets him give people orders that cannot be refused, and in addition to the immediate Brainwashed victims, he can also create a Manchurian Agent by applying special condistions to the command. For example, he made a Britannian officer into a Manchurian agent that would see him as Princess Cornelia (under whose command he was) when he grabbed his collar.
- Covered by the one-off character of Twyla in Voltron.
- Mitsuki, and probably the other Wolves in Doubt
- Occurs in Mahou Sensei Negima! with Shiori. In this case, it seems to simply be a decoy to keep Ala Alba from noticing something particular, but Mana notes that they can't rule out the possibility of a Trigger Phrase.
- In Tantei Gakuen Q, Pluto/Meiousei does this all the time to its clients and its own agents as a failsafe - on the trigger, they'll kill witnesses, or themselves, or go insane... and it's not pretty.
- In Death Note, Light acts as a Manchurian Agent on behalf of himself. One of the most ingenious plot twists in a series full of plot twists.
- Dance in the Vampire Bund provides the nanotechnology known as the "Pied Piper" which when applied to vampires forces their mind to register any orders they receive as coming directly from their overlord ("Release the insane werewolf and lock down your HQ so you are trapped with it? Of course My Liege").
- This is the power of one of Sinbad's Djinns in Magi - Labyrinth of Magic. Zepar uses sound waves to interfer with people's minds and force Sinbad's Rukh into their bodies. Princess Kougyoku is the only known one, and we witness how it happened. Sinbad confessed she is not the only one; there are two others, one in Sindria and another one somewhere else.
- In Assassin's Creed: The Fall, Daniel serves this role in Warren Vidic's Evil Plan to weed out the Assassin Order.
- Blue Beetle, in a memorable and bloody couple of issues of Justice League International; they ultimately had to resort to a Journey to the Center of the Mind to get him deprogrammed.
- Titans/The Flash supporting character Frances Kane was originally programmed this way by her therapist, probably contributing to her later mental problems.
- In the comic book 100 Bullets, the phrase (used to cause old memories to re-emerge rather than force them to do something against their will) is "Croatoa."
- Subverted in an issue of Justice League Adventures, where this is attempted against the subject's will, but whoever it was made the mistake of choosing The Question as their mole. He's so paranoid, he actually found himself out before he could do any damage.
- These turn out to be central to the plot of Hondo-City Justice - a large number of girls with alien DNA are triggered to kill the drokk out of any Yakuza members they happen to see. Asahara manages to overcome it.
- In the conclusion of the Daredevil "Shadowland" event, Typhoid Mary was revealed to be Kingpin's Manchurian Agent.
- Inverted in the Marvel Transformers comics when Ratchet, forced by Megatron to rebuild Starscream as a Pretender, hides Starscream's true personality deep in his neural circuits. Megatron then sends the "new" Starscream against the Autobots and Decepticons on Earth. One shot from Hot Rod damages Starscream, and he immediately reverts to the Dirty Coward we all know and love.
- This Season 3 Buffy the Vampire Slayer fic where Faith turned out to be a Manchurian Agent placed by Wes to infiltrate the Mayor’s organization and with a simple phrase, wake up and come back to fight with the white hats. But then there’s the big reveal in the finale, the real Faith was the evil one from the start, Wes having made up the alternate Faith to give her a chance at redemption.
- Pokeumans: Theoretically, everyone (including you) is one of these - the trigger is seeing a transforming Pokeuman, and afterwards everyone's memory of the incident is erased.
- The near-eponymous (technically speaking, the Manchurian Agent isn't the "Manchurian Candidate", but that's nitpicking) The Manchurian Candidate (The Film of the Book). There are currently two adaptations, the 1962 adaptation and the 2004 adaptation.
- Arguably, the entire population of The Matrix, being as how anyone who hasn't been freed from the Matrix can become an Agent at any time. It's arguable because, while the result is the same, from the perspective of anyone inside the Matrix they physically turn into an Agent.
- In the movie Zoolander, the title character is hypnotized into becoming a berserk assassin when he hears the song "Relax" by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
- More or less the entire point of the movie Curse of the Jade Scorpion. One of the key words was "Madagascar". Bonus points in that one of the people thus hypnotized was the detective in charge of his own investigation, and doesn't realize it.
- Telefon (1977). The KGB plant 51 such agents with fake identities in the United States, programmed to commit acts of sabotage on receiving a Trigger Phrase. Unfortunately a fanatical Stalinist opposed to détente steals the list of agents, and the Soviets have to send Charles Bronson to stop him.
- Morgan Sullivan was his own Manchurian Agent in the movie Cypher.
- Reggie Jackson was one in The Naked Gun.
- Going Berserk - John Candy's character is brainwashed by a cult to assassinate his fiancée's congressman father using a playing card as a trigger. Something goes wrong in the hypnotism though, and the trigger doesn't make him a cold-blooded assassin as much as a loud obnoxious asshole - Hilarity Ensues.
- The second Johnny English film has the bad guys use a compound to turn anyone into a hidden assassin before dying from a heart attack.
- Salt Has a group of these trained from childhood.
- Technically, they are Deep Cover Operatives. They are not made to forget their origins but to blend into the American culture.
- The UniSol clones in Day of Reckoning.
- In the fourth A Series of Unfortunate Events book, Klaus is repeatedly taken in and out of a brainwashed state, which is triggered by the word "lucky" and ended by the word "inordinate."
- In David Wingrove's Chung Kuo, a servant is made to attack General Tolonen.
- Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate. The Trope Namer.
- In Frank Herbert's Dune, the Bene Gesserit can use psychosexual conditioning techniques (called hypno-ligation) to control people. They can trigger their victims by using code words.
- The ghola Hayt has a trigger word that is intended to trigger an assassination. His ability to resist it becomes something of a plot point.
- Dean Koontz' Night Chills has an entire town of sleepers triggered by the phrase "I am the key".
- In False Memory, victims are programmed with two-step triggers: the name of a novel character, followed by a haiku. If the haiku is not recited for several seconds, the victim will become conscious again, with no memory of hearing the trigger or what they were doing immediately before. They will only respond to commands or statements; if asked a question (unless it is phrased as a command, i.e. "Tell me if you understand"), they will merely repeat it back.
- In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, one of the X-Wing books used this. The trigger phrase, different for each agent, was a nonsensical problem (for example, "Those Wookiees are dancing in the parlor again") that instantly became the sole focus of the brainwashed person's life - and the only way to "solve the problem" was to carry out the preprogrammed mission, usually an assassination.
- An earlier X-Wing book had a version not triggered by a code phrase, caused by long-term torture and reconditioning in the Lusankya prison. These agents would be unaware of what Isard had done until they were triggered, at which point they became Apologetic Adversaries. The example above was considered more dangerous because it could be engineered by only a day's worth of chemical treatments after kidnapping the target, and it also managed to stir up Fantastic Racism by, for example, causing a fleetwide suspension on Twi'lek pilots.
- The Ipcress File.
- Imriel in Kushiel's Mercy: the trigger is kissing his beloved.
- Lord Byron was almost used as one of these in Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates.
- Inverted in the Lord Darcy story A Case Of Identity, where Lord Seiger is a homicidal maniac when in his natural state, but has been constrained by mental healers' geas effects to be entirely harmless and trustworthy. At least, until he's fed the correct trigger phrase by his superior in the Angevin royal spy organization, which unleashes his full Ax-Crazy lethality on enemies of the Crown.
- The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters features a trigger phrase known only to the highest echelon of the Cabal, used on those who have undergone the Process, that makes them follow the instructions given by the person who uses the phrase to the letter. It varies based on several factors; it includes a colour ("blue" for those who underwent the Process at the Institute, "orange" for those who underwent it at Harschmort,) a Biblical reference ("Magdalene" for the recruited followers, "Caesar" for the officers, etc.,) the place they were recruited ("Royale" for the Hotel Royale, "Regiment" for the army,) and the words "ice consumption." So, for example, the Countess uses "orange Magdalene orange Royale ice consumption" on Miss Temple, when trying to determine whether or not she underwent the Process at Harschmort.
- In the Captain Underpants books, Mr. Krupp turns into Captain Underpants when he hears fingers snapping, and returns to normal when water is poured on his head.
- Programming people is routine for protagonist's agency in Oleg Divov's Brothers in Reason. The main character himself as well as his half-brother are programmed to shoot their father on sight, one with a gun and the other with a laser implanted in the forearm. The first one is revealed when he begins to suspect something and asks his half-brother to hypnotize him. When he becomes aware of the programming, he is now free to disobey it.
- It is standard policy for all agency employees to undergo brainwashing whenever a mole is suspected.
- This is the same agency that psychically zombifies the entire population of Earth into loving everything Russian, the ultimate psychotronic weapon.
- In the Shadowrun novel Night's Pawn, a Mega Corp. executive's daughter is programmed to kill her father as soon as they're alone together. Worse, she's programmed to do so with a concealed bone spur that can't be detected on scans ... and that's designed to slit her own arteries as it emerges, causing her to bleed to death and thus be unable to explain what happened to her.
- In The Dresden Files novel Turn Coat, there are abounding fears within the White Council of Wizards that there are traitors running amok after one of the Senior Council is murdered. It turns out that someone has been mucking with the heads of the entire younger generation of wizards, turning them into sleeping assassins/suicide bombers, including Captain Luccio, the head of the Wardens. On top of that, all of the other wizards have been quietly influenced by subtle mind-control enchantments over the course of the war.
- In The Stand, Tom Cullen is hypnotized and programmed to be a spy for the Boulder faction. The full moon is his trigger for returning to report his observations. M-O-O-N, that spells moon.
- Raul Diaz in Mr Blank is referred to as a Manchurian Candidate. Brainwashed by so many different conspiracies, traded as a pawn, he even gets activated to kill by accident.
Live Action Television
- Several episodes of The Wild Wild West.
- Firefly's River Tam, although it's only really seen in The Movie, Serenity. Her trigger was a subliminal message buried in a Fruity Oaty Bars commercial, which caused her to go into martial-arts-killing-machine mode.
- Talia Winters in Babylon 5, and Garibaldi in season 4.
- Spike in season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The trigger is "Early One Morning," a song his mother used to sing when he was a child.
- The Romulans do this to LaForge in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Mind's Eye".
- In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Inquisition", Bashir is accused of being a willing one of these (as in, he agreed to become an enemy agent and then suppressed any knowledge of it in order to maintain his cover perfectly) by Section 31. He's not, it's all just a test by the Secret Police to screen him for initiation into their organization whether he likes it or not.
- Star Trek: Enterprise. In the Mirror Universe, Mirror Tucker is tortured for hours after a suspicious overload shuts off the ship's cloaking device and internal sensors. Afterwards he accuses Mirror T'Pol of doing the deed and framing him for it.
T'Pol: You're mistaken.
Tucker: The hell I am! I think I'd remember if I had sabotaged the ship!
T'Pol: Not necessarily.
] What did you do to me?
T'Pol: I lured you away from Engineering with the promise of a sexual encounter. Once we were alone in my quarters, I implanted a telepathic suggestion. I compelled you to sabotage the power grid. After you completed the assignment, we melded again. I altered your memory of what had happened.
- This is the setup for My Own Worst Enemy, which features one.
- This is an inversion, though, as Edward Albright, the spy, is the original personality, and Henry Spivey, a quiet middle-management office employee with a wife and two kids, is the implanted cover.
- The whole premise of the show is the breakdown of the chip that separates the two lives and Henry becoming aware of his alter-ego. Cue the inexperienced Henry going on missions, and Edward sleeping with Henry's wife.
- A couple episodes of Stargate SG-1 use this. The agents trigger to a particular event or time after being brainwashed to do so, kill the target(s) and then themselves.
- A Tekwar episode had an agent undergo this to infiltrate a criminal organization, which screens entries using a lie detector. The criminals somehow catch on and interfere with the switch, causing a personality crisis - resolved by the main character preparing to make the coup de grace.
- This was a favourite tactic of the aliens in the 1970s British sci-fi series UFO.
- Done twice in the MacGyver episode "Brainwashed." Jack Dalton and Pete Thornton are both programmed with different code phrases buried in the speech to be given by the president of a fictional African country they're programmed to assassinate. The simultaneous missing weekend over which they were programmed is covered by Fake Memories.
- In Big Wolf on Campus, the Evil Werewolf Syndicate try to increase their numbers by doing this to Tommy; whenever he hears the code phrase he's supposed to bite the nearest person.
- The alien "sleeper agents" on Torchwood.
- Also in the episode "They Keep Killing Suzie", where a certain someone Suzie encodes multiple triggers into a hapless man she met at a philosophical group in order to get herself brought back from the dead and take over Torchwood.
- Mellie and Perrin in Dollhouse.
Adelle DeWitt: There are three flowers in a vase. The third flower is green.
- It's not perfect, though. If someone realizes they're being triggered, they may resist, to an extent. Specifically, Mellie resists when ordered to kill Paul, and opts to shoot herself instead.
- The episode "Attack Angels" of Charlie's Angels features a villain who runs a business creating examples of this trope and selling their services to other villains.
- Sharon Valerii from the 2000s Battlestar Galactica.
- Rocko from Puppets Who Kill was brainwashed into becoming an assassin for the government in one episode. The trigger to switch him between normal and brainwashed was to show him a Jack of Diamonds. Naturally, this led to a whole bunch of stuff happening that made the two scientists stop and note that they shouldn't have used something as common as playing cards for the trigger.
- Get Smart - Max is abducted and brainwashed to assassinate the Chief over their usual chess game at the club - an employee is the KAOS agent behind the scheme and knows the Chief always wins, so he makes "Checkmate" the trigger. It's Get Smart— of course it doesn't work as planned.
- And the funny part at the end after the villain is defeated, Max is still reflexively shooting at anyone saying "Checkmate" and sheepishly explaining that a bad habit is hard to break.
- Derren Brown's special "The Heist" was a real-life attempt at creating four of these.
- In case you're wondering... 75% success rate.
- In his The Events special, he picks a susceptible person in a cafe and then programs the guy to steal a TV when he sees a girl wearing red and holding a balloon. The guy does and then tries to come up with a lame excuse for his behavior when caught.
- He goes even further in the special "The Assassin". He picks a susceptible person from his audience and then spends some time programming him to respond to the polka dot pattern (which puts him into a susceptible trance after which he doesn't remember anything) and a specific ringtone (that causes him to think he's still at the shooting range firing at a target). The only other thing that is required is someone to tell him who the target is. In this case, it's Stephen Fry. The guy successfully "assassinates" the actor in the middle of a crowded theater; luckily, Derren is there to clear things up and remove the conditioning. Derren keeps referring back to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, whose killer Sirhan Sirhan has been claiming for decades that he's been programmed by the CIA.
- The Mission: Impossible episode "Mindbend", where brainwashing is used. They have a drug prepared to counter it...
- The second series episode "The Assassin", with hypnosis and biochips behind the ear.
- The Vega$ episode "Lost Monday" has Binzer being hypnotized into constructing and detonating a bomb. The hypnotist instructs him to respond to the trigger word "superstar".
- In the Farscape episode "A Prefect Murder", Aeryn is turned into one via a mind-controlling bug. There's also a subversion: after being bitten. John pieces together what's happening just in time to hand over his weapon and leave the area.
- An episode of The Outer Limits deals with a prep school which is a front for an agency training these. It is revealed at the end that their "recruits" have infiltrated many agencies, including law enforcement. Programming is done with an implanted computer chip, although it fails with someone who has ulcers due to a treatment formerly prescribed for it.
- In the (original) TV series of V, Ham Tyler is brainwashed to kill resistance leader Michael Donovan.
- In one episode of In Security, N'udu is brainwashed and assigned to kill his best friend.
- The entire human race becomes one in Doctor Who. The Silence's ability to control humanity via post-hypnotic suggestion ends up accidentally backfiring in the most spectacular way possible when one of them is recorded accidentally uttering the following words, which is then broadcast to the whole planet during the Moon-landing.
Silence: You should kill us all on sight.
- Magnum, P.I.: During their service in Vietnam, Magnum and T.C. were captured by the Viet Cong. One episode revealed that a KGB officer had turned T.C. into one of these. They activated him in order to assassinate some Japanese dignitaries, but Magnum was able to stop the plot and T.C. was sent to a hospital for deprogramming.
- A number of social Charms in Exalted do this. The standout would be the Subsidiary Personality Implant expansion of Mind-Ripping Probe, which explicitly mentions setting a trigger condition for the hidden self to come out to play.
- In Fate/stay night, asking Issei too much about Caster will trigger a bad end.
- Oasis from Sluggy Freelance.
- Unlike the common zombie-like revenants in Girl Genius, the revenants from Sturmhalten appear exactly like normal people (well, as normal as anyone in a Phil Foglio comic) until their controller issues them orders, which they carry out against their will. Interestingly, some are capable of freedom within those constraints. (Such as killing a friend so he won't suffer a Fate Worse than Death.)
- Recently, Tarvek stated that the zombie revenants are actually only, "A statistical extreme," and that the sleeper agent revenants are actually far more common. It's just that, since the zombie revenants are far more obvious, they managed to divert attention from the real things.
- Gabriel (of Penny Arcade fame) is responsible for the murder of the president of the U.S.A in one comic after presumably having the instruction planted in him after going to a psychotherapist (or something).
- Mace Windu in Darths & Droids.
- The Order of the Stick: The Monster in the Darkness has "eat Redcloak (and spit out his holy symbol)" linked to the trigger "Redcloak betrays Xykon".
- Emily the Sixth Ranger Traitor from Our Little Adventure shed her human shell and turned into a Humanoid Abomination under Angelo's command when she touched the first Magicant Piece.
- In the Whateley Universe, Team Kimba have worked out that Solange has created a Manchurian Agent among their friends. They still don't know who it is, but they're sure the agent has planted a blackmail note for Solange, and put a tracker in Fey's luggage.
- In Worm, the Simurgh mass produces these. As a powerful telepath, she gets into the minds of those she encounters and twists them until they will fulfill her needs. These agents can go undetected for years, acting perfectly normal until they get into position to influence something important, at which point they appear to snap. The Simurgh's impressive precognitive powers only makes this more effective.
- Haley in an episode of American Dad!. The trigger phrase? "I'm getting fed up with this orgasm!"
- Another episode had Steve react to a trigger that compelled him to assassinate a certain government official, as a throwaway gag.
- Using this, Sideshow Bob turned Bart Simpson into a Laser Guided Tyke Bomb in one episode of The Simpsons.
Homer: Go. Blow.
- Inspector Gadget did this once, with a game show that hypnotized its contestants (including the titular character) into reacting to the phrase "Going my way?" Turns out it did make him go their way...
- The brainwashing done by Dai Li in Avatar: The Last Airbender is activated by saying "(name), the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai." to which they respond by gaining Mind-Control Eyes and saying "I am honored to accept his invitation."
- The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron in My Big Fat Spy Wedding, where Jet Fusion is hypnotized to kill anyone who says "I have the Ring". The catch? Jimmy is the Best Man in the wedding of Jet Fusion and Beautiful Gorgeous. Sheen and Carl discovers the trick, crash into the wedding to tell Jimmy, Jimmy then orders everybody in the church to say "I have the Ring" and Libby makes up a song which its lyrics are "I have the Ring, yes I have the Ring, I have the Ring right here". Cue to a whole musical number which included DNA Production's Founders Keith Alcorn and John A. Davis dancing in the Church Crowning Moment of Funny? I think so.
- Mayor Adam West of Family Guy is a deep cover agent who is activated by the phrase "Boy, that Italian family in the next table sure is quiet." Also, Meg is revealed to be a deep cover agent as well.
- Bonus points for doing this to a character whose voice actress is fluent in Russian.
- Luna Fatale in the animated series of Spirou and Fantasio.
- Often discussed in Young Justice. Since Superboy is a clone from Cadmus, many were fearful that he's secretly programmed to spy and/or turn on the Justice League and their affiliates. Superboy is confirmed not to be one. Same episode reveals Red Arrow is a sleeper agent.
- In the lost episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the Clone Troopers are revealed to be this. Seeing how we've discovered that their obedience conditioning doesn't make them mindless and have spent the entire series with them arguing that Clones Are People Too, the chip in their head that enforces total obedience is probably the only way to explain how they all turned on the Jedi in Order 66.
- This was one of many forms of mind control researched by the CIA's Project MKULTRA and, out of all the things they tried, seems to have been the least workable (and for one of America's many insane Cold War super-science pipe dreams is really saying something). At least that's the official story...