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Empty Promise

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The situation is dire, maybe even hopeless, and everyone is losing hope faced with certain death. The Heart or The Hero has to keep their friends and loved ones not just moving but hopeful in order to survive. So they lie. They hold their loved ones close and say "It's going to be all right", or "Help is coming." The loved one may very well know it's an empty promise, but needs and wants to believe it, because the alternative is panic or an emotional breakdown.

If the situation truly is hopeless, expect them to say "close your eyes", possibly even killing them to make sure it's a painless death. If the loved one truly has no idea of what's going on, and is on the point of death, it becomes Let Them Die Happy. Expect the hero to cradle their friend as their doom approaches.

Not related to The Promise. See also Survival Mantra. Contrast with Heroic Vow. Compare Frequently-Broken Unbreakable Vow. Often a comment on The Power of Language.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Kazuki of Buso Renkin promised Tokiko they'd fight Victor together, even if it meant they would be killed. Ultimately he valued her life too much, and broke the promise to fight Victor one-on-one.

  • In Fables book Peter and Max, Peter wants to leave to fight his evil (and extremely powerful) brother, while his wife Bo wants him to leave it to the better fighters. Bo lampshades this trope by saying that him promising her he would come back is useless to her; either he does return in which case the fulfilled Heroic Vow only serves to amplify his status as the big hero, or (more likely,) he gets himself pointlessly killed, and she wouldn't even be allowed to resent him for breaking his promise when he had "heroically" died trying to do the right thing. Either way, the promise would only serve to make him feel better about what he was doing, and would do absolutely nothing to help her, regardless of the outcome.

    Fan Works 
  • Dominoes: After seemingly having his spirit broken by his abusive father, Shinichi offers a compromise to his friends: he'll give up investigating and focus on playing soccer so long as they promise to attend the championship game if his team makes it that far. Naturally, the Irregulars agree... but are so used to neglecting their "friendship" with Shinichi that by the time the game in question arrives, they completely forget. While Kazuha tries to reassure the others that this wasn't a big deal, further underscoring how they only made that promise to placate him, Shinichi was banking on their neglect; since they broke their word, he sees himself as being freed from his promise to stop investigating.
  • In Mistake Sherlock Holmes, Lestrade finds out that Watson has been shot and is in a coma when he has to stop Holmes from killing the criminal responsible. He then tries to reassure Sherlock that "of course" Watson will be alright, not wanting to consider any other possibilities.
  • The Negotiations-verse: Many of these were made as Equestria lost ground in the war against the forces of Earth, as many of the ponies spiraled deeper and deeper into denial about how poorly their Easily Thwarted Alien Invasion was going.
  • Swinging Pendulum: After Aizen's defeat, the heavily wounded Ichigo promises Shinji that once he recovers, he'll help the Visored get out of prison. Sadly, Shinji and the other Visored are all executed by the Central 46 before Ichigo can recover enough to do anything, and he himself gets thrown into a Hellhole Prison.
  • What Is Written In Blood: Bando promises Mayu that he will return to her once he's freed Arakawa from the Institute, knowing full well that it's highly unlikely he'll survive the attempt. Thankfully, he actually manages to make it out alive.

    Films — Animated 
  • In the original run of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Rudolph doesn't keep his promise to King Moonracer by telling Santa Claus about the island of misfit toys when Moonracer allowed him to stay one night, therefore leaving the toys deserted and abandoned. This led to many viewers complaining about this, which led to the first edit of the film where a scene was made to undo this trope and give the misfit toys a happy ending.
  • In Titan A.E., Cale's father's last words to him are "I will see you again. I promise," despite the fact that he must know it's likely that he won't. Sure enough, Cale later encounters a recorded message from his father confirming that if it was activated, he is dead. The message then asks Cale to forgive him for breaking his promise.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Avengers: Infinity War, when the Asgardians have been defeated, and both Loki and Thor are at the mercy of Thanos, the former tries to reassure his brother. Then he is killed, and by the end of Avengers: Endgame, his promise remains unfulfilled.
    Loki: I assure you, brother, the sun will shine on us again.
  • In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent promises to Rachel that she will get out of their predicament alive. He genuinely hopes for that, but has no way to influence it and no reason to expect it. Sure enough, she doesn't get out of it alive. Later on, after Dent has become Two-Face, he challenges Gordon to do the same with his son, while holding a gun to his son's head.
  • In the original 1954 Gojira — which was a lot more serious than its camp successors — the mother of a family trapped in the monster's path soothes her children with the promise that they would be with their father soon. No prize for guessing their father's status.
  • Dr. Loomis to Jamie, in the school, in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. Subverted when she asks him if he really believes they'll make it out all right, and he gives a barely audible Little "No".

  • In Stephen King's Firestarter, when Charlie finds out that her mother is dead, Andy tells her that everything will be all right, though he knows "as every adult knows in his secret heart that nothing is really all right, ever."
  • The Night Angel Trilogy: Towards the end of The Way of Shadows, when Logan and Jenine have been assaulted on their wedding night, he holds her head and whispers to her that everything will be fine, she doesn't have to be afraid, it's all right... while she is bleeding to death.
  • In the sixteenth-century text The Prince, author Niccolò Machiavelli explicitly states that at times it is necessary for a ruler to make empty promises for the sake of his country.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, during the second book Jon Snow goes on a ranging mission with Qhorin Halfhand and two other veteran rangers. After being spotted, they begin traveling back to the camp and are pursued by Wildlings. When it is only Qhorin Halfhand and Jon Snow left, Qhorin orders Jon Snow to pretend to defect to the Wildlings in order to gather intelligence. Jon Snow, torn by the idea of betraying his vows (even if it's a false betrayal) asks Qhorin if he will let their Lord Commander know that he did not break his oath. Qhorin, knowing that the Wildlings will kill him when they catch up to them, responds "When I see him next. I swear it."
  • In Spock's World, Kirk wants to tell T'Pau that they're not going to die, but he feels as though the sheer blatant falsehood of it, given said character's condition, would be insulting.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Pretty much happens every other episode in 24, with Jack promising to get someone out of an impossible situation. It usually doesn't work out.
  • In the series finale of Angel Illyria shapeshifts into Fred and comforts Wesley in this fashion as he dies, telling him in particular that they'll be together afterward. However, Illyria consumed Fred's soul during the resurrection process.
    • It's implied by Illyria's changing attitudes and uncomfortable emotions that at least a fraction of Fred's soul survived, though it may have incorporated itself with Illyria's demonic essence. However, whatever may remain of it is certainly not waiting for him in the afterlife. That's okay, Wesley isn't moving on either.
  • Helo from the new Battlestar Galactica loves this one, although other characters do their fair share as well.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The "close your eyes" version happens in the Season 2 finale. Angel's soul has been restored, but Buffy can see over his shoulder the vortex that's about to pull them into the hell dimension. She kisses Angel and then runs him through with a sword, sealing the rift.
  • An episode of Criminal Minds had Hotch questioning the only witness to an arson, a woman who'd lost her husband and son in the same fire, and at the end reassuring her they were both waiting for her outside. He'd been specifically told by the doctor he could tell her whatever he wanted because she'd not live long enough to know any different.
  • Played straight then immediately inverted in Doctor Who, "Flesh and Stone"-
    Amy Pond: So what's wrong with me?
    River Song: Nothing, you're fine.
    The Doctor: (Scans her status) Everything, you're dying.
    River Song: Doctor!
    The Doctor: Yes, you're right — If we lie to her she'll get all better!
    • The Doctor Lampshades it in his first meeting with a (ten-year-old) Amy Pond:
      The Doctor: You know how sometimes grown-ups will say "Everything's going to be fine." but you know they're lying to make you feel better?
      Amy: (eyeroll) Yes.
      The Doctor: Everything's going to be fine.
  • In Haven Audrey will often tell someone that things will be okay as she tries to fix whatever damage the episode's Troubled person has caused. When the police chief is about to die she can't do anything to help him and says nothing. This infuriates Nathan who would have preferred that she at least gave an Empty Promise to comfort his father.
  • This happened in an episode of House, where the son got sick because of radioactive scrap metal. The team was able to help him a little, but he still had cancer and no immune system with which to fight it. The father still told him everything was going to be all right, even though the son was dying and there wasn't anything the doctors could do about it. Also happens on the episode "Euphoria", between Foreman and his dad, although Foreman called him on it.
  • Happens a lot on Law & Order, when the police tell a witness that they can protect him or (usually) her. The amount of reassurance the police give a witness is directly proportional to the odds they'll end up getting kidnapped or killed later. Cue "I told her it would all be okay!"
  • On Mad Men, it was Don's repeated empty assurances to Betty that everything would be all right after Kennedy was assassinated that finally drove her to end their marriage once and for all.
  • Monarch: Legacy of Monsters: In the episode 1 flashback. Cate Randa to the schoolkids aboard the Bus Full of Innocents that's dangling on the broken edge of a bridge: "Everyone, it's gonna be okay." A few moments later, she's only able to save a couple of the kids from falling to their deaths in time before the bus drops with the rest of them still onboard. And no, they don't survive the bus plummeting into the water and get fished out of the river alive afterwards.
  • Nirvana in Fire: Any time Mei Changsu promises anyone anything regarding the future when he knows he has only months to live. See his promise to stay by Jingyan's side and watch him become emperor or his promise never to leave Nihuang again.

    Video Games 
  • This is the reason Adell holds Honor Before Reason in Disgaea 2: He became a victim of an empty promise when his parents went off to fight Overlord Zenon, promising to come back. They never did. It later turns out Zenon brainwashed them and turned them into his minions, and Adell is forced to kill them without ever learning their identities.
  • Ib: In the "Forgotten Portrait" ending, Garry realizes that the traitorous Mary has started ripping the petals off of his rose, gradually killing him. He openly admits that "I'm sorry, I don't really know what to say... I don't want to lie to you... But I... don't want to tell the truth either...", then encourages her to keep going, adding, "If you need help... I'll come running..."
  • On Virmire in Mass Effect, Shepard can insist he/she'll be able to come back for whichever human squadmate you had to leave behind, when both know that's not going to happen.
  • Played for all its tear-jerking worth in Persona 3. Aigis tearfully promises that she'll devote her life to protecting the main character while, depending on your dialogue choices, he asks her not to cry and tells her it'll be okay. In reality, he's dying in her arms, and, though not outright said, it's likely they both know it.
  • Pokémon Mystery Dungeon has a lot of this between the player character and his/her partner.
  • This can potentially happen to your Ragtag Band of Misfits in This War of Mine. One day, your team can be happy as can be with plenty of supplies and casually commenting that the future looks bright, they just need to hold on... but the following night or day, someone could die, a raid could result in at least one person being injured and a lot of stuff being taken, and random illness can strike. Your survivors can end up horribly depressed as a result, especially if it happens back to back.

    Visual Novels 
  • Miles Edgeworth makes one of these in Ace Attorney Investigations every time he infers that the current confrontation with the Big Bad will be the final one.
  • In You's route in Ever17, You and the Kid are discussing the Kid's apparent ability to predict the future when the Kid says they'll definitely be rescued. You asks if that's a premonition; the Kid says that it's a promise. If you get the Bad End, the Kid ends up lamenting his inability to keep his promise as they both die.
    • Subverted in the same game: Takeshi promises Tsugumi he won't die as he launches himself out of their submarine so it will float to the surface. He drowns. However, in the True Ending, he manages to survive thanks to Hokuto/Blick Winkel.

    Western Animation 
  • In Adventure Time, we are eventually introduced to Finn's long-lost father, Martin, who is a con-man who constantly lies and takes advantage of people and appears to treat Finn no better than he treats anyone else. Detail-oriented viewers have noticed that a Character Tic he does after making a false assurance is that he winks his left eye. In the "Islands" mini-series, we learn his backstory, and later, when he's forced to leave baby Finn behind to protect him from a robot guardian trying to kill them, he tells Finn with a smile and a wink that he'll come back for him — he was ready to give up his life to save his son. Ironically, it's Finn who finds him, and due to Martin getting brain damage (including forgetting that he had a son) and lack of witnesses, everyone thinks that Martin was always a selfish jerk that took advantage of his wife and left his son to die.
  • In the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode where Jet dies, he tells his friends he'll be fine. Unfortunately, Living Lie Detector Toph is nearby, and although she waits to be out of earshot of the other two...
    Toph: He's lying.
  • In ReBoot, this trope is subverted. When Enzo appears to be losing a game against the User, AndrAIa promises Frisket everything will be ok and resets their icons. The Game Cube vanishes and the system announces "Game over, User wins," so it appears as though AndrAIa had made an empty promise, which is partly true: by resetting their icons to game sprite mode, she ensured the three of them would live even if they lost the game by leaving Mainframe with the Cube.
  • Robot Chicken uses it in a horrifically bleak, though still funny, Black Comedy way, as Voltron's Combining Mecha sequence is taking so long (this being the Dairugger XV version rather than the usual GoLion version) that the enemy's destroying the space station that had called for help. The general's young sidekick is dying in the wreckage, blind and crippled from his injuries, and asks if Voltron's arrived. The general lies and tells him yes, Voltron's here and it's all going to be okay now, before shooting him so he'll die painlessly.

    Real Life 
  • In the wake of World War II, the Soviet Union promised the Allies that they would allow free elections in the territories they occupied. Nobody was surprised when those "elections" put Communist parties in power that declared their allegiance to Moscow. Stalin managed to avert this at the same time by keeping his promise to leave Greece in the Allied sphere of influence by not actively supporting the communists in the Greek Civil War.