Sometimes, even Laser-Guided Karma misses its target.
The character has done a number of things that deserve a karmic comeuppance, most importantly things that caused harm to the innocent. But when the time comes for the hammer to fall, that's not what happens. At least, not on them. They don’t get what they deserve. Instead, they get away scot-free. They are Easily Forgiven, maybe even praised, and even elected president. And they might even have reversed the Humiliation Conga that was being planned for them. Worst comes to worst, The Bad Guy Wins and a stolen happy ending takes place at the expense of the hapless victim who may be punished in the guilty character's place.
This is it. This is all there is to the story. The show is over. The book is finished. The author isn't going to write any more. The Word of God has been spoken. Karma is out to lunch. The villain has become a Karma Houdini.
Predictably, it is often shocking or downright upsetting to see such scoundrels dodge instant karmic punishment and come out triumphant in the end. But as frustrating as it is, it does not necessarily make the story "worse" as long as it doesn't feel forced, contrived, or even shortsighted. Regardless, this trope runs the high risk of leaving the audience's thirst for emotional catharsis unsatiated, especially when they've become so invested in seeing the villain they've projected their hate onto get their full commupance that may or may not come by the end. And when it doesn't, you can expect them to complain about it and clamor for a sequel where the villain does get their comeuppance — or alternatively, they'll try to satisfy their frustratingly unfulfilled desire for retribution by writing their own.
There can be a number of reasons for this trope. Sometimes, the story is going for a Downer Ending in which the villains escape justice for their crimes. Other times, the creators overlook relatively minor offenders, whether due to not considering their actions worthy of punishment or not having the time to see them get their comeuppance within the story. Still other times, it may not be possible to exact retribution on the characters who ends up becoming Karma Houdinis. It could be that they're too powerful to be subject to retribution- any Eldritch Abomination in a horror story is likely to be this, as even if they don't outright win, they are so beyond mortal comprehension that the best the protagonists can hope for is to simply escape them. Or it could be that there's no way to legally judge them because they are above the law in some way, and the protagonists are not willing to risk it all for some vigilante justice.
Compare Butt-Monkey, for which a character ends up having many disproportionately bad things happen to them throughout the story (and may also technically qualify for this trope, as hard as that sounds). The extreme counterpart of the former trope, Cosmic Plaything, can be considered this trope's polar opposite. Also compare with No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, where the good guy suffers as a result of doing the right thing.
Contrast the aforementioned Laser-Guided Karma (when the villain's comeuppance is swift and immediate), Karma Houdini Warranty (when it only happens in a sequel) and Karmic Death (when it leads to the villain's death). Also see Idiot Houdini, when a person is forever protected from the results of their stupidity.
Note that a character doesn't necessarily need to be a full-time villain to qualify for this trope. They may simply end up doing unnecessarily hurtful things, yet not suffer the repercussions. (In contrast, when someone is too evil to kill off, but may suffer other consequences, see Joker Immunity.)
Note also: The work usually must be completed for a character to qualify as this trope. Only if there are no more opportunities for Laser-Guided Karma to strike can a character be said to have successfully avoided any consequences for their actions. Exceptions may be made in cases where Status Quo Is God,note or when a character can be said to have permanently escaped, e.g. they died peacefully in their sleep at an old age. And sometimes even that’s not enough. (Unless they somehow managed to get into Heaven and are gleefully rubbing their current state in your face). Otherwise, resist the urge to put it on an ongoing work's page.
Don't mistake a lack of direct karma for this trope. If a character, for example, murders someone and never gets caught, but a freak lightning strike kills them, they've still gotten their comeuppance even though the lightning had no connection to their crime. Think of the writer as God, with the power to punish or not punish a character who does evil.
Not to be confused with a literal Houdini-style escape by the villain to avoid justice, that's Villain: Exit, Stage Left, although the two certainly can (and often do) overlap.
This is a spoileriffic trope; spoilers shall be unmarked. You have been warned.
Note to Editors
To avoid this trope from being misused, if even just one bad or horrible thing happens to a villainous character or nasty jerk and/or if it is possible to defeat or kill them in a video game (like, for example, a fighting game if they are a playable character and/or the end boss), then they do not qualify for this trope. Karma Houdinis must have ABSOLUTELY nothing bad to ever happen to them (and for it to be impossible to attack and defeat them in a video game (see The Unfought)) to qualify for this trope.
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- In the Simple Samosa episode "Samosa Mama", Cham Cham frames Samosa for a kidnapping he never committed, let alone knew about, and comes alarmingly close to indirectly getting him killed through being eaten (he is, after all, an anthropomorphic samosa) as a penalty for it. Once Samosa is proven innocent, Cham Cham is dealt with by way of... a back massage.
- In Miserable, The Giant Woman spends a decent portion of the video chasing down the band members one-by-one and eating them alive, even as they beg her for mercy. By the end of the video she has succeeded in swallowing every member and walks away, never getting punished for what she did, and seeming quite content with her actions.
- The (extremely Not Safe for Work) video for "Skinless", by the death metal band of the same name, depicts the Hudson Skinner serial killer removing the face of one of his victims in graphic detail. The end of the video shows the Skinner relaxing in his lair while listening to a news report about the band itself being arrested for his crimesnote . Averted for the band themselves, though - they were acting as accomplices to the Skinner, even "performing" the song to the victim while he was being mutilated.
- Red and Ted from Red & Ted's Road Show, who travel the country wreaking havoc but never suffer any consequences for their actions, as they are Heroic Comedic Sociopaths.
- In Metroid Prime Pinball, Meta Ridley is a constant nuisance in the Artifact Temple, but you never actually get to defeat him.
- It is possible to invoke this in WHO dunnit (1995) if the player fails to catch the killer, either by failing the Taxi Chase or not completing The Roof chase.
- Inverted in High Speed and its sequel The Getaway: High Speed II: You play the villain (albeit a minor one whose offense is speeding) who the cops are after. How long you can stay on the table depends on how good a Karma Houdini you are (which of course depends on your skills at pinball).
- Hercules Grytpype-Thynne in The Goon Show would generally never sustain any comeuppance for using Neddie as a fall guy in his schemes. For example, after faking a disease outbreak in Lurgi Strikes Britain, he and Moriarty disappear while Neddie becomes a wanted criminal (and goes mad... OK, madder). Granted, sometimes he does have something bad happen, such as Tales of Old Dartmoor (in which he ends up inside Dartmoor Prison as it sinks into the ocean...yeah, it's a weird show), but they are vastly outnumbered by the ones where he gets off scot-free.
- Spike Milligan obviously loved this trope, so even when Grytpype-Thynne (and his frequent partner in crime Count Moriarty) fails, one of the other characters - most frequently Major Bloodnok - will succeed. In at least two episodes, The Phantom Head-Shaver and The Spanish Suitcase, it turns out to be announcer Wallace Greenslade.
- Adventures in Odyssey has a very rare intentional example in the episode "The Tangled Web". In it, Connie reads a story that Whit wrote about a boy who fibs about why the money his mother gave him to run an errand disappears. Instead of telling her what actually happened (he lost it by his own fault), he makes up a story about being robbed by a thug. As stories like this usually go, the situation escalates as he struggles to keep the lie up, but despite Connie's full expectations otherwise, he never gets found out. She is absolutely dumbfounded and questions what the point of the story was and believes it to be an example of this, but Whit explains that the message he was trying to convey is that even if you get away with a lie, the guilt you carry for the rest of your life will stay with you, which is what happens to the boy in the story.