Even the most hands-on villain can't take care of imprisoning or killing all the heroes personally. Ordering an underling to attend to such duties is common. Sometimes, the underling volunteers to "deal with" the hero ... and releases him instead.
There are several possible explanations. Perhaps the underling is a mole in the villain's organization. Perhaps the underling feels he "owes" the hero and chooses this form of repayment. Perhaps the underling is going through a Mook–Face Turn, or simply expects the good guys to win and wants to score points toward a pardon.
A variant occurs when the minions receive a letter ordering an execution from a king, often of his mysterious bride. They often exile the bride, so that when the king returns, he will not be able to carry out the sentence. The letter has usually been tampered with.
Compare to If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten! (where the villain orders an underling to "take care" of the hero as a loyalty test), Alone-with-Prisoner Ploy (which is just as likely to be information-passing as "time to escape"), Pet the Dog (where the villain shows some kindness to highlight their redeeming qualities), Even Evil Has Standards, Minion with an F in Evil, Helpful Mook, and Noble Demon. Can overlap with Death Faked for You. Contrast with Sparing the Final Mook, where a hero spares an overmatched mook, usually after defeating a whole group of other mooks.
- Gankutsuou: Baptistan finds Albert sleeping at the Count's doorstep after trying to find him and confront him over recent betrayals. Instead of kicking him out, he wakes him up, and sends him off, later giving him a communicator, and saving him with Bertuccio. At the end of the series, Bertuccio defies a direct order to kill Albert, realizing that the Count has gone too far.
- In the Arlong arc of One Piece, Nami pretends to stab Usopp to save him from the Fishmen.
- Coraline does this twice: Other Wybie rebels against Other Mother, helping Coraline escape, and is killed for his troubles. Later, Coraline's Other Father tries to help too. He's being controlled by a machine and can't do much but be an Apologetic Attacker at first, but at the last second is able to wrench his hand free and throw Coraline one of the Ghost Eyes she needs to save her real parents.
- The Hunter in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs refuses to kill Snow White on the Queen's orders, instead telling her to run away and giving the Queen a deer's heart instead.
- Force 10 from Navarone. Major Schroeder's mistress, Maritza, volunteers to take Mallory and Barnsby to recover the penicillin and to execute them if it doesn't exist. She eventually kills the German guards, reveals that she's actually a member of the partisans and lets Mallory and Barnsby escape.
- In Hot Fuzz, Danny faked stabbing Nick in order to prevent the Neighborhood Watch Alliance from killing him for real.
- The Force Awakens: Finn's inability to bring himself to join in the massacre of a village qualifies.
- Fury: A young SS trooper silently spares Norman from a A Fate Worse Than Death by not alerting the surviving Nazi platoon to his hiding position underneath the titular tank.
- Snow White's evil stepmother ordered a huntsman to kill Snow White and bring her heart back as proof. He leaves her in the woods instead, and brought back the heart of a deer. (In the Disney version it's a pig, because that's funnier.)
- Which makes another one for the Evil Overlord List: Always ask the assassin to bring back the head.
- In a Scottish variant on the tale, Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree, Queen Silver-Tree orders her own husband to kill Gold-Tree and serve her the heart and liver. Luckily, a foreign prince has recently expressed an interest in Gold-Tree, so the king has them quietly married and sent off to the prince's country.
- In "The Water of Life", the older brothers steal the water and put salt water in the youngest son's bottle, so that they heal their father, who thinks the youngest is trying to poison him. He sends a huntsman to kill him, in the woods, but the huntsman warns the prince and lets him escape.
- In "The King of England and his Three Sons", it's apples instead of water, but the same rule.
- In Charles Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty", the king leaves his wife and children with his stepmother, who proceeds to try to eat them. The cook substitutes other animals and hides them.
- In "Biancabella and the Snake", her stepmother-in-law has minions take her to the wood with orders to bring back her hands and eyes as proof.
- In Penta of the Chopped-Off Hands, collected in Il Pentamerone, an exchanged letter orders that Penta and her child be burnt; concluding the king had gone mad, his servants sent them away to protect them.
- In "The Girl Without Hands" link, collected by The Brothers Grimm, in the first edition the mother-in-law's servants spare her when the mother-in-law orders her taken to the forest and killed; in the second and later ones, the mother-in-law receives the letter ordering her death and sends her away to avoid it.
- In Franz Xaver von Schönwerth's "King Goldenlocks", the king's servants are ordered to take the prince Goldenlocks to the woods, kill him, and bring back his eyes, tongue and little finger. The servants run into a shepherd, who is willing to trade one finger and his dog for the prince's clothes, so they let Goldenlocks go and bring back the shepherd's little finger and the dog's body parts.
- In Les Misérables the situation is reversed, with the heroic revolutionaries deciding to execute the spy Inspector Javert. Jean Valjean requests that he be allowed to execute him personally as a reward for his services in the defence of the barricade. He takes him out of sight, fires a pistol into the ground and tells Javert to run.
- In the first full Ciaphas Cain novel a riot breaks out on the ship he's assigned to. In the aftermath he can't have anyone executed (since it would destroy morale, and more importantly make him likely to suffer an "accident" on the battlefield) but the captain wants blood (he was in a relationship with one of the military police killed in the riot). So Cain lets the captain hold a tribunal (the defendants of which are found guilty) and sentences them to "death" by transferring them to a penal legion to die in battle.
- Xanth Filatine from The Edge Chronicles. As a part of his Heel–Face Turn, he shoots the rope tethering the protagonist's ship instead of into Rook himself, allowing Rook to flee from the Mooks swiftly closing on his location.
- Carnosaur: Sir Darren Penward plans to kill a boy who witnessed one of his escaped dinosaurs, but the men he sent to kill him refuse to do it because they don't like the idea of killing a child.
- In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Draco refuses to admit the prisoner was Harry. Later, Narcissa crosses this trope with Death Faked for You and tells Voldemort that Harry is dead.
- In the Chivalric Romance Havelock, Havelock survives as a child because the person the usurper commissioned to kill him spared him instead, and brought him to England.
- In the James Bond novel Live and Let Die, Bond and his friend Felix Leiter have been captured by Mr. Big and are being held in separate rooms. After Bond successfully lies about their assignment, Mr. Big orders the henchman holding Leiter to "hurt him considerably" and then dump him near a local hospital. The mook, however, has taken a liking to Leiter because both of them are big jazz fans, so all he does is knock Leiter cold and then dump him.
- In Book of Exodus, Pharaoh orders the midwives of Egypt to kill any male Hebrews that are born. They refuse to do so, and get away with it by lying to Pharaoh that, in Hebrew culture, they don't wait for midwives to show up to give birth.
- Edgedancer (a novella of The Stormlight Archive): When Lift is tailing Nale's acolytes, she realizes that one of them is coming up from behind her and hides. He manages to locate her nevertheless, but rather than rat her out to his companions, he deliberately ignores her, as he's come to doubt his boss' sanity.
- Many of the naval aviators in Victoria are not fully behind the evil Federal Government, but oppose its atrocities more or less openly. After they bomb a helpless kindergarten, and see the horrible results, many of them commence passive-aggressive sabotage by deliberately missing their targets and dropping their bombs in empty areas.
- In Luther, Ian Reed pretends to be a dirty cop to get to a ritual killer for the protagonist. Painfully subverted later, though.
- In The Mentalist a child witnesses a murder on the orders of a criminal, who then orders one of his henchmen to kill the kid. Said henchman instead asks his relative to take the kid in. The criminal tries to order a different henchman to carry out the deed later and is flat out refused.
- In Supergirl, Lex Luthor orders Otto Graves to kill a young boy. It's revealed at the end of the episode that Graves faked the boy's death.
- In the Ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, Oedipus's royal parents take the newborn Oedipus to a prophet, who foretells that the baby will grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified by this, his parents order a soldier to take the baby up into the mountains and kill him. But the soldier can't bring himself to kill an innocent baby, so he abandons the child in the mountains. This leads to him being found and adopted by the royalty of the kingdom on the other side of the mountains, which eventually leads to...you guessed it.
- In Act 3 Scene 7 of King Lear Cornwall's are made to hold Gloucester so Cornwall can pluck out his eyes. One of the servants pleads for mercy for Gloucester. When Cornwall draws his sword on him, the servant fatally wounds Cornwall, trying to protect Gloucester.
- In the Japanese kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan, Iemon wants to divorce his wife Oiwa after her disfigurement, and asks Takuetsu to rape her so he can divorce for adultery. Takuetsu can't bring himself to do it, and tells Oiwa everything—not just Iemon's plan, but how he murdered her father and hid it from her.
- Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II: Kyle is stranded after a crash landing and at the mercy of Sariss. When she raises her lightsaber to strike him, Yun, the youngest of the Dark Jedi and the one Kyle spared, takes the hit.
- Jade Empire: The Emperor ordered Sun Li's family killed. The Lotus Assassins did their duty...save one. Sagacious Zu balked at having to kill a newborn and decided to smuggle the infant Dawn Star out of the palace and hide her. We also have a case with Sun Li himself sparing the Player Character as the rest of the Spirit Monks were slaughtered. But this is a subversion. He was planning all along to invoke the Genocide Backfire trope and set you up as a Laser-Guided Tyke-Bomb to kill his enemies so he could take over!
- In the street kid lifepath intro of Cyberpunk 2077, V and Jackie Welles are arrested by NCPD while attempting to steal a Corrupt Corporate Executive's expensive car. The CEO tells the police he doesn't have time to go to court to give testimony and orders them to throw the pair into a river somewhere with concrete shoes. While the officers appear to comply and beat the two unconscious, they end up just releasing the pair in a random alley.
- In the ThunderCats episode "Omens Part One" Lion-O shows mercy to two stockaded Lizard prisoners by convincing his father to set them free. In "Part Two", one of the two Lizards repays the favor during the Lizard invasion, by smuggling the key to Lion-O and Tygra's cell in some soup when they're Locked in the Dungeon, allowing them to escape.
- Hot Wheels: Battle Force 5: Zug gets a moment where he saves Stanford.
- ReBoot has Hack and Slash, who ultimately can't bring themselves to delete Cyrus. They then have an epiphany that they were only willing to do most if not all of the evil stuff they used to do because they always knew Bob would stop them from going too far anyways.