Follow TV Tropes


Gambit Pileup / Live-Action TV

Go To

  • 24. So, it goes (more or less) like this: in the first season, there's a conspiracy formed by Serbian extremists to assassinate the most popular Senator in the California Presidential Primary, which involves two separate moles inside the Los Angeles Counter Terrorist Division (one of whom is unaware of the other's mole status), a government agent being used against his will, several different assassins (including a woman who turns out to be plotting her own side gambit with her lesbian lover to split the money she gets from her job) and a mastermind who was thought killed in a black-ops mission several years before the events of the series. The second season has a L.A.-based terrorist group, another group of terrorists led by a foreign extremist, some Private Military Contractors, the President's ex-wife and a German terrorist/businessman team (who are revealed to be the employers who contacted the final mole from the first season) all enacting gambits within the same 24-hour period. The third season has a soldier involved with the black-ops mission from Season 1 returns to Los Angeles and tries to deploy a virus throughout the city, using the help of Columbian drug lords (who are trying to run their own game in L.A.) and one of the aforementioned CTU moles from the previous season (who is working for an unknown employer and executing her own plan). The fifth season involves a shadowy cabal of government executives trying to assassinate key figures who've foiled their plans in previous years - but wait! They're controlling the President, who has his own agenda - BUT WAIT! It turns out in the sixth season that the leader of this cabal is Jack's brother, and his father is the one pulling the strings because he's working with the Chinese government - BUT WAIT!!! It turns out that all of these people were being controlled by another man who organized the events of the last three seasons. This is ignoring the fact that there are moles in every season - some of whom are secretly working to aid the main characters, some of whom are working for the terrorists and some who have their own motives. Did you get all that?
  • Advertisement:
  • Alias becomes a lot like this in its later seasons, when there's the conspiracy behind the conspiracy, and then there's another conspiracy running for x-ty years no-one else knew about, and so on. Also coupled with a few too many instances of the main characters' allegiances being questioned (in most instances even the same characters over and over again) in season 4.
  • The Gambit Pileup is the sum total of 'Allo 'Allo!. It's nine seasons of at least four groups trying to steal one painting and several other plot MacGuffins. Add in the British Airmen, the Colonel's gold, the second paintings. On top of that there's René's affairs, the occasional battle between the Gaullist and Communist resistances, and René's attempts to just stay neutral in the middle of all of this (and while trying to avoid the advances of Leutenant Gruber).
  • An episode in the third season of Arrested Development has each of the characters in the family teaching each other lessons in the form of elaborate scenes they set up using Latino painters who moonlight as actors, sound effects CDs, and two different amputees.
    • In another episode, Buster wants to get drugs for his girlfriend by asking George Michael to buy pot for him, Michael suspects that George Michael is buying drugs and decides to set up an elaborate plan to catch George Michael buying drugs and teach him a lesson that Drugs Are Bad by staging a drug bust using GOB's stripper cop ensemble (whom GOB owes money) and fake drug dealers. A real drug dealer shows up and thinks that George Michael and GOB really want to buy marijuana, and a shootout ensues when cops (not the stripper cops) arrive to ambush the real drug dealers. During the firefight, a man loses his arm, and Michael realizes that the entire thing was orchestrated by George Sr., who knew about the fake drug bust and hired the one-armed man he used to teach Michael, Buster, GOB and Lindsey lessons when they were children to teach Michael a lesson about teaching his children lessons.
  • Advertisement:
  • Babylon 5 is slightly less complex than most examples here, but it definitely tries. Every major character has at least one major scheme going on that the other races (hell, often the other members of their own race) don't know about. Every ambassador has their personal agenda, a possible house/clan agenda and then their government's agenda. Then two Sufficiently Advanced Alien species show up and use these against each other. The episode Signs and Portents starts to show the various plans and goals people are working towards with flashbacks 3 seasons later to this episode showing how the plans come to fruition. Said Sufficiently Advanced Aliens have likely spent literally millions of years enacting Gambit Roulette against one another, using what by now probably amounts to hundreds of less advanced species as proxies in a war of ideas that essentially boils down to a dick-waving contest.
    G'Kar: Let me pass on to you the one thing I've learned about this place: No one here is exactly what he appears. Not Mollari, not Delenn, not Sinclair... and not me.
  • Battlestar Galactica: Played for Laughs in "Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down", one of the few times anything was played for laughs on that show. Roslin suspects Adama of being a Cylon, Adama has brought back Tigh's wife Ellen, whom he suspects is a Cylon. Both of them order Baltar to immediately test their suspect without the other knowing, causing tests to be stopped and restarted multiple times. To top it all off, it isn't long before Tigh suspects Adama of sleeping with Ellen. When it all finally comes to a head, Hilarity Ensues as one of the darkest and most depressing shows in recent memory degenerates into pure domestic farce.
  • Community:
    • Spoofed in "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design". The episode culminates in Jeff, Annie, a drama professor, and the Dean shooting all of each other with prop guns; all of them were shot at least once and there were something like 4-5 different plans involved. The final gambit was supposed to teach all of them an Aesop about not using prop guns to shoot each other.
      Dean Pelton: (after Annie has seemingly shot Jeff) Annie! ...WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!?
      Annie: If you love Jeff Winger so much, why did you conspire with me against him?!
      Dean Pelton: I DON'T KNOW! (sobs) I CAN'T KEEP TRACK OF ANY OF IT ANY MORE! I just keep teaming up with whoever suggest it!
      Jeff: (gets back on his feet) Glad to hear you admit it!
      (the Dean screams and begins sobbing again)
      Jeff: When I called you to asked you to double-cross Annie, you didn't hesitate for a second.
      Annie: Do you even understand what a conspiracy is? If you conspire with every person that approaches you, you're not really "conspiring" with anyone. You're just doing random crap.
      Dean Pelton: I know! I'm sorry! I just wanted to have fun with you guys!
    • In a less dramatic example, in "Critical Film Studies", while the rest of the group tries to turn Abed's birthday into Pulp Fiction, Abed tries to turn it into My Dinner with Andre.
  • Doctor Who:
    • The entire history of the Earth starts looking like this if you take the long view. The planet only exists because of the Racnoss trying to hide, evolution for the past 12 million years was planned by the Fendahl, the dinosaurs were wiped out by a crashing Cyberman ship, humans won out over other hominids due to the Daemons' culling and experiments (which also destroyed at least one Atlantis), Egyptian culture was guided by the Osirians, Inca culture was guided by the Exxilons, Scaroth (last of the Jagaroth) manipulated our technological development to help us reach time travel, and from "fire and the wheel" until 1969, the Silence were controlling our society to, among other things, develop space travel and wear business suits. Every week we learn of another comparatively minor event orchestrated by yet another alien species. Not to mention all the times the Doctor has manipulated history.
    • "The Evil of the Daleks" is largely made up of a series of interlocking plans by the Doctor, Professor Waterfield, and the Dalek Emperor. Upon learning about that last one, a stunned Waterfield summarizes the basic idea in a sentence:
      Waterfield: While you were doing one thing, they were really making you do another.
    • In "The Trial of a Time Lord", the High Council wanted to cover their tracks, the Valeyard wanted to take over, the Master wanted the Valeyard out of the way, and the Doctor wanted justice to prevail.
    • "The Curse of Fenric" has Arc Welding which reveals events from the past two seasons were orchestrated by Fenric, who caused the time storm to transport Ace to Iceworld in the future so she could start travelling with the Doctor and eventually help his plan to defeat the Doctor. Fenric is also trying to perform a Stable Time Loop which will create an alternate timeline. However the 7th Doctor claims he took Ace with him as he recognised Fenric's influence. Ace claims it's like a game where only he knows the rules. Though with the Doctor, as ever, it is debatable how much he is The Chessmaster or whether he is just that good at Xanatos Speed Chess.
    • Parodied until it snapped by the parodic "The Curse of Fatal Death". To the point where the first part is nothing but The Reveal "I bribed the architect!"
    • Shows up in "Journey's End", with several smaller Gambits acting as spanners to Davros' usual Gambit and the Doctor's customary Xanatos Speed Chess.
    • "The End of Time" seems to be nothing but this, and it works. There are at least half a dozen Gambits running around, not counting the two or three played out in the first ten minutes.
    • The overarching story arc of series 6 is an even bigger pileup between the Doctor, River, and the Silence, of which the Pileup of the previous series' finale is implied to be merely the "first shot". The history of an entire species gets used as a weapon, religions and empires get caught in the crossfire, there are Doppelgangers and temporal paradoxes everywhere, time itself shatters, and Hitler gets punched in the face. And two years later, "The Time of the Doctor" reveals that Madame Kovarian's Silence were just a splinter group from the real conspiracy...
  • Earth: Final Conflict had this as a major theme for most of the series. Most Taelons had their own, often violently conflicting, agendas, as do many of the human characters, and most of them have the resources to pursue those agendas.
  • Eureka contains this trope quite often - the episode with the dreams that killed, and Martha the drone are examples. Martha, for one, was made near-invincible by her creator's wife, and then remote controlled by Larry, causing 'her' to lose control, turn invisible, and terrorize the town.
  • The three part Farscape episode "Look at the Princess" turns into one of these - Crichton accidentally stumbles on a plot by the Princess's younger brother to take the throne from his sister, the brother is actually being manipulated by a Scarran, Scorpius' plan to capture Crichton goes up against this, and the brother's fiance turns out to be a Peacekeeper deep-cover agent planning to assassinate her fiance should he take the throne. Then Rigel decides to pose as the Queen's Evil Chancellor...
  • Like its source material, Game of Thrones is made of this trope. Everyone is scheming either to control the Iron Throne or fulfill their own agendas.
  • The standard state of affairs in Gotham, with numerous criminals, conspirators, and maniacs constantly fighting for control of the city and/or for revenge on someone within. To take down whichever one is currently the most immediate problem, James Gordon frequently finds himself allied with another villain, only to have to worry about that one climbing to the top once the opposition is gone... or about a third group who was quietly planning something in the background the entire time. Villains also team up as convenient, while waiting for the right moment to remind their ally that they hate each other.
    • One especially condensed example: the fourth season two-part "That Old Corpse" and "One Bad Day," which takes place over a single day, involves Jerome's cult attacking the GCPD so Jeremiah can lure Jim Gordon out to an explosive death as a show of power to the cult, and then blow up half the city to boot. Cobblepot notices the chaos and decides to take advantage by kidnapping one of the cultists; he learns Jeremiah's scheme, tries to get a piece of the action/sabotage it, and instead inadvertently causes Jeremiah to both move up his time-table and move to the backup detonation system. Meanwhile, the cultists get in the way of Nygma's plan to break an ally out of the holding cells, forcing him to improvise, while his prior instructions for a lackey to keep one eye on Gordon winds up saving the guy from Jeremiah. Nygma and Gordon's combined knowledge is then enough to reveal the location of the bombs and foil the plot entirely. And all the while, Ra's al Ghul is observing...
  • Highway to Heaven often has this occur, where Jonathan's way of helping people involves maneuvering them together through exploitation of Contrived Coincidence (he's an angel, he can do that) and a Batman Gambit or two while they continue with their own lives and plans.
  • House episodes often degenerate into this, with the title character manipulating one character into doing something, said character manipulating back, only to turn out that this was House's plan all along, which was in turn the plan of another character. And that's when things are simple.
  • The Canadian crime drama Intelligence. In the first season, especially, about half a dozen characters would be running their own gambits against one another simultaneously.
  • Iron Fist (2017) sees Madame Gao, Bokuto, and Harold Meechum all manipulating Danny throughout the season to try and get him to aid their plans (which in each case usually involves aiming him at the other two).
  • Kamen Rider:
  • Leverage: "The Rashomon Job". It's five years before the team's founding, meaning each thief is an independent operator after the MacGuffin. Each has a really good plan to get their mitts on it using their particular specialty. Each one manages to screw up each others' attempts to get the MacGuffin in the most spectacular way possible. In the end: Nate, who was working for the insurance company, exposes the MacGuffin as a fraud. The art thefts were done by the curator, who had an antiquities smuggling "side business". In the present, Nate uses the incident as an Aesop about how the crew is a lot better working with one another than against.
  • Essentially the driving force of every Lost season since Ben Linus showed up. Somehow, it hasn't completely collapsed, mainly because it's more of a 10-Gambit Pileup than a 30. Recently, Locke was being manipulated by Ben who was being manipulated by Jacob's nemesis who is being manipulated by Charles Widmore, who may be manipulated by Sawyer, all of which may be instrumented by the spirit of the island itself. Sheesh!!
  • The Mentalist: Patrick Jane v. Red John at the end of Season 3. Never mind the fact that the guy who we all thought was Red John was just another member of his network.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus: Played for laughs in the Lemming of the BDA sketch in the Owl Stretching Time episode, involving the British Dental Association, foreign spies, the Big Cheese, and an everyman trying to buy a book (or so he said). All in the space of a five-minute sketch. Keep your teeth clean.
  • Murdoch Mysteries:
    • The backstory of "Buried Treasure" involves two Canadian government officials, during The American Civil War, secretly sending gold bullion to the Confederacy, with the aid of two Confederate officers. One of the Confederate officers was a Union spy plotting to expose the conspiracy, one of the government men was plotting to steal the gold for his own enrichment, and the other one, whose idea it was in the first place, was plotting to stash the gold elsewhere because he'd realised there was a Union spy.
    • "Murdoch Ahoy" is another cavalcade of various schemes. A bankrupt ship magnate with a soon-to-be-married daughter plans to sink the ship as part of an insurance scam, creating a fake threat and setting bombs to go off at a specific to allow for an evacuation. His daughter, however, decides to fake her drowning in order to smuggle herself and her lover out, hiding in the cargo hold. While in the cargo hold, she stumbles onto her fiancé setting up one of the bombs. The fiance knocks her unconscious and tries to accelerate the bombing plot to cover it up, even while the magnate tries to derail the plan to save his daughter. The end result is a clusterfuck.
  • Nikita's second season becomes this, as Oversight struggles to maintain control of Division, Amanda tries to keep Division under her thumb, Team Nikita tries to take down Division, Percy tries to retake control, and GOGOL has a side war with Division ( despite Amanda working with GOGOL's head). On top of that, Alex, Owen, Carla, and Sean all appear as wild cards of somewhat vague loyalties. The resulting bloody mess resolves itself with Percy and Carla dead, Amanda on the run, and Alex, Owen and Sean are now with Team Nikita, which now runs Division.
  • Person of Interest features two parts of this. The first is the power struggles between the various organized crime groups: HR, the Russians, the Five Families and Elias. On top of that there is the various groups that want the machine: Decima, Northern Lights backed up by the CIA, Root, and in season 3 Vigilance. On top of those is the non-corrupt NYPD, primarily Carter with help from Fusco, and the FBI who is both trying to go after the organized crime groups as well as find Reese and connect him to illegal CIA operations(which is actually his work for Team Machine). This is in addition to Team Machine.
    • By season 4, this is heavily reduced, as Decima largely takes over with Samaritan, and it mostly becomes about Team Machine resisting Decima wherever possible. Elias is victorious against his initial rivals, but now has to face the up and comer Dominic and The Brotherhood.
  • Revenge: Most of Emily's plots involve manipulating people into manipulating each other.
  • Rocket Jump and Key & Peele do a joint sketch parodying this. The exchange quoted below is just the first minute.
    Peele: Looks like we got a Mexican Standoff.
    Key: Guess again! We've got a sniper trained on your position.
    Peele: Nice try. But I've had an unmanned drone on that sniper's ass this whole time.
    Freddie Wong: You mean the drone our hacker just took over?
    Peele: You mean the hacker whose wife I just kidnapped?
    Key: You mean the hacker's wife...who just filed for divorce?
    Peele: Bullshit! That marriage is rock-solid!
    Key: (chuckles) I guarantee you it's not. I've been hitting that for six months.
  • Found to a certain extent in The Shield, especially when you get to Season 5 where you have Vic Mackey, Lt Kavanagh, David Aceveda and Shane Vendrell all working their own agendas.
  • Sons of Anarchy:
    • Season Two had SAMCRO in the middle of multiple interconnected gambits run by two allied groups of white supremacists, a rival biker gang and SAMCRO's gun running IRA partners. On top of that the ATF and the Deputy Police Chief were running their own gambits and some pornographers also got into the mix. SAMCRO had to figure out a way to have the various groups fight each other so they could outgambit them before the club was destroyed and the protagonists all ended up in jail or dead.
    • Season Three has everybody trying to screw everybody else over, SAMCRO, SAMBEL, Agent Stahl, two factions of the Real IRA, Charming PD, just EVERYBODY. SAMCRO wins.
  • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the double episode "Improbable Cause/The Die is Cast" starts just like a normal episode with Garak's shop blowing up. Odo almost immediately finds out the power line was rigged to overload, identifies the detonator, and interrogates a suspect. The suspect is indeed an assassin, but works with poison instead of bombs. They plant a beacon in his ship and let him go, but he doesn't get very far as his ship explodes. As it was a Romulan bomb, Odo calls the Romulan Tal Shiar, and they freely admit they assassinated him, but didn't know what he was doing on the station. Odo then meets with a Cardassian spy who owes him and finds out that five of Garak's coworkers from his time at the Cardassian Obsidian Order died at the day of the explosion from natural causes and accidents. Then it gets complicated.
  • A two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, appropriately titled "Gambit", gets convoluted to the point where Picard admits to Riker, "I have difficulty remembering whose side I'm on". There are no less than five players in the end: the leader of a group of artifact thieves, Picard (in disguise) and Riker (running separate but allied plots), Data (in command of the Enterprise, pursuing them), and a Vulcan agent who was actually a member of the extremist sect she claimed to oppose.
  • Survivor has become a veritable junkyard for this trope, with new players and alliances contributing to the ever-growing heap of wreckage.
    • Survivor is all about the Gambit Pileup. When you have 16 to 20 people are competing against one another for a million dollars it's bound to happen, since everyone has their own plan. While in the original seasons there wasn't a lot of it (one player voted people alphabetically and others decided to just use that to their advantage), in later seasons the art of manipulation has changed to the point where you can't get anywhere without lying, backstabbing or plotting. For example:
      Male A is in the dominant alliance, but doesn't like Male B so creates a secret alliance to vote him out.
      Female A catches on and tries to warn Male B, but Male A convinces Male B that Female A is trying to tear them apart in order to win.
      Male A feels more secure with Male B after they both joined together to vote out Female A, leaving his secret alliance in the dust.
      Male C and Female B of the secret alliance decide to take out Male A in revenge, who enlist the help of Female C who is close to Male B.
      Female C betrays Male B and votes out Male A, then turns traitor on Male C and Female B and joins with Male B again, but then Male B is voted out and Female C reveals she was only spying on Male A to learn more about Male D who was plotting to take them all out.
  • Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles has Cameron, the reprogrammed Terminator who is more advanced than others and may have some hidden programming and/or be defective; Cromartie, whose mission is the most straightforward, to kill John Connor; Catherine Weaver, CEO of ZieraCorp and a liquid metal Terminator who is either the leader of or working for a rebellious Machine faction opposed to SkyNet, who recruits Agent Ellison to find another Terminator; as well as Sarah and John, who simply want to stop SkyNet from being made, and then you have the running temporal war between future John Connor's human resistance and SkyNet's time-hopping Terminators as they each try to foil, subvert, or eliminate each other. Each character seems to have their own plans for the future and we don't even know what most of them are. One gambit was in play for most of the second season without anyone knowing about it: Jessie and Riley's gambit to make John distrust Cameron. This gambit in turn splits into two when Riley realizes that Jessie was trying to get Cameron to kill Riley to force the division between John and Cameron.
  • The Thick of It provided a glorious example with the hour-long special episode, Spinners and Losers. In the chaos following the Prime Minister's resignation, everyone spies opportunities to better their position and all hell breaks loose: MPs launch leadership bids, spin doctors launch smear campaigns to derail those bids, aides suck up to the potential new leaders, everyone strives to keep their dastardly plots from everyone else and numerous spanners get thrown into the works. Rising tensions lead to paranoia, Angrish and even a Food Fight... before they discover that for all but one man, their plotting was for nothing.
  • In the fifth season of True Blood, each member of the Authority is trying to execute a certain plot. As more and more Chancellors (and with them, their plans) vanish, the final episodes see Bill and Salome pitted against one another, both trying to secure full leadership of the Authority and their position as the One True Leader chosen by Lilith, while still convincing the other they are supporting them. In the end, Bill pretends to serve Lilith's blood to Salome, but switches the actual blood with silver-tainted blood. As Bill expected Salome fails to notice the silver in her haste to consume the blood. It incapacitates the 2,000 year old vampire allowing Bill to get the upper hand on her and stake her - Salome is masterfully Out-Gambitted.
  • Season 2 of True Detective involves the crashing and colliding of conspiracies involving multiple groups of Ruthless Foreign Gangsters, Dirty Cops, Corrupt Corporate Executives, a Big, Screwed-Up Family of local politicians, a Psycho Psychologist, a group of Private Military Contractors, and one revenge killer. By the end of the season, there were multiple articles just explaining it all.
  • This is pretty much the normal state of affairs in The Tudors. And while most of the characters are trying to increase their power within England, Henry VIII is trying to increase England's power (and thus his own) within Europe while other kings and emperors try to maximize their power.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959) has the episode "Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?", with a Martian conducting an invading fleet being outsmarted by a Venusian conducting his own invading fleet.
  • The Vampire Diaries:
    • It is hard to find someone, hero, villain, or neither that is there just to screw with some of the cast for an episode or 2 and disappear when they are done, it's just one attempt at out gambitting after another. For the first 2 seasons the show followed more of a villain of the week format, but that villain is always either working with or against one of the next villains in line, which combined with the I Know You Know I Know nature of the more manipulative of the villains and the heroes' attempts to kill them off or otherwise get rid of them, it can get very complicated. This has ultimately culminated thus far into Klaus, who has manipulated the entire world for over a thousand years to various ends.
    • In "Homecoming", almost every single character has their own plan and agenda.
  • The second season finale of Weeds involves blackmail, double-crossing, assassination, and theft, all over a few bags of weed.
  • The X-Files. An alien race that was the original inhabitant of Earth has returned to reclaim it by infesting humans with a sentient virus that turns them into slave drones and ultimately kills them. They strike a deal with a syndicate representing the Earth's superpowers to help breed a race of alien-human hybrids that are immune to the virus to help preserve the human race. Only the syndicate's actual plan is to use the alien DNA to ultimately create a vaccine that would nullify the virus to all humans. Only the aliens' virus doesn't just kill humans; it mutates into an alien being that gestates inside the deceased host like an incubator. And there's also another alien resistance force looking to destroy both sides. And that's just the first 5 1/2 seasons.
  • The majority of Yes, Minister episodes consisted of something to this effect - mainly Hacker and Sir Humphrey trying to out-Gambit each other, but everyone had their own agenda. Even Bernard, on occasion.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: