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Must Let Them Get Away

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"I like you, Jack. Well... maybe not, but I understand you. Let me tell you what's going to happen, then this way you can prepare yourself.
Soon there's going to be a knock on that door, and you will be called outside. In the hall will be a man who outranks you.
First he'll compliment you on the fine job you've done, that you're making the world a safer place, that you're to receive a commendation and a promotion... and then he's going to tell you that I am to be released. You're going to protest, you'll probably threaten to resign... but in the end I will be released.
The reason I'll be released is the same reason you think I'll be convicted. I do rub shoulders with some of the most vile, sadistic men calling themselves leaders today. But some of these men are the enemies of your enemies. And while the biggest arms dealer in the world is your boss - the President of the United States, who ships more merchandise in a day than I do in a year - sometimes it's embarrassing to have his fingerprints on the guns. Sometimes he needs a freelancer like me to supply forces he can't be seen supplying.
So you call me evil... but unfortunately for you, I'm a necessary evil."

[someone knocks on the door]
Yuri Orlov to Jack Valentine after his arrest by the latter, Lord of War

So, The Hero has been on his epic quest for quite a while now. Never tiring, he's been following the Big Bad valiantly, and now he's finally going to catch up to him. Ooh, there's so going to be an epic fight soon... And then the Hero catches up, he and his companions fight the Big Bad, and before long the Big Bad's running for it. However, before the Hero can shoot him and finally end this war, The Heart drags him back and tells him that he can't try to fight the Big Bad alone — the Big Bad's got more people on his side, or better weapons, or that the companions aren't strong enough to fight again so soon — or even worse, the Big Bad's got a hostage he's using to prevent the Hero from pursuing him. Furious, the Hero can only watch as the Big Bad flees...

Another version of the trope is when the Hero has actually caught the Big Bad, who is due to be tried and sentenced. However, there's some kind of loophole in the system, or the Big Bad's got the best legal assistance ever seen, or the Big Bad's status is enough to get him special privileges. The Big Bad's going to walk, or at least get a lesser sentence, and the Hero can only watch.

This trope is often used to enforce a Status Quo in works, to put off the final fight, or to bring back a Big Bad later for the heroes to finally fight.

Related to Conviction by Contradiction, and might be followed by We Will Meet Again. Not to be confused with Forced to Watch, or Watching Troy Burn. Contrast with Sparing the Final Mook.

This is an Ending Trope, so expect spoilers to be unmarked.


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    Comic Books 
  • Robin (1993): Jaeger keeps getting away because Tim Drake is always busy dealing with his victims or trying to repair the damage he's done to a vehicle. It's years before Tim is able to hand him into police custody.
  • In The Other Side of Doomsday, The Flash and The Atom attack the "Wind Pirates", a gang which is part of a greater criminal organization, intending to let at least one get away so they can follow him back to the ringleader. Unfortunately, Supergirl unintentionally ruins their plan by unexpectedly showing up and knocking all pirates out.
  • Zot!: The titular character signed a contract that laid down the terms for his advertising job...and forced him to not even touch the Villain Of The Week and his plot to take over the entire planet.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • RoboCop 2. At the end, the Big Bad who had OCP create a giant robot that killed many police officers and civilians is walking away.
    Officer Lewis: That son of a bitch is getting away with it and we can't even touch him.
    RoboCop: Patience, Lewis. We're only human.
  • In Law Abiding Citizen / Engineer, Shelton sees Darby walk away... and shake hands with the prosecutor.
  • Lord of War ends with the Hero Antagonist being forced to let the Villain Protagonist go free because his superiors in the U.S government want to keep using the protagonist as a gun-runner to surreptitiously supply the enemies of their enemies.
  • Shooter: At the end, the Attorney General knows that the hero is innocent and the bad guys are guilty as sin, but he doesn't have enough hard evidence to charge them with anything. He reluctantly lets the bad guys go, and tells the hero that he is free to go as well. The bad guys then find out the hard way why antagonizing one of the best snipers in the world is a really bad idea.
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968): During the climax, Devlin decides to let Hyde go, reasoning that Hyde can't help what he is, but Jekyll is the guilty one. Hyde ruins this chance by trying to kill Devlin before he leaves and is shot for his troubles.

  • Subverted twice in two separate Judge Dee novels (The Haunted Monastery and The Chinese Bell Murders) and in both cases, the villain/s connections would get them freed were they to go on trial, had it not been for what was certainly just a lucky coincidence and not a vigilante murder arranged by the good Judge. In one case, the villain is eaten by a bear; in the other, a mob takes care of him.
  • Marcus Didius Falco by Lindsey Davis:
    • In Time to Depart, Petro, The Lancer, finally catches a criminal and has him sentenced, but the criminal's status as a Roman citizen gets him a lesser sentence, and Petro has to watch him leave.
      • However, it's later subverted: the legal principle involved states that a citizen must be deported instead of killed, and can never return to Roman space. When he comes back, instead of deporting him again, Falco simply stabs him. Problem solved.
    • Later, in The Jupiter Myth, Big Bad Florius manages to escape by taking Petro hostage and leaving him in a death trap so that the heroes must spend time rescuing him instead of pursuing Florius.
  • In Relativity, Villain with Good Publicity Martin Bling is the type who makes sure that there's never any evidence or paper trail that can lead back to him. One of the subplots in the first story in the series has the heroes finally finding some solid evidence they can use against him: Long-range sniper rifles hidden in crates of Bling City souvenirs. Unfortunately, they're currently being stored in the garage of an orphanage (It Makes Sense in Context), and the heroes realize that if they call in the police, the woman who runs the orphanage would become a suspect even though she knows nothing about it, and because of the negative publicity, the orphanage would most likely be shut down. (As it turns out, they do confront Bling with the evidence later, and he suggests that someone else planted the weapons in the crates — which means that if they had called the police, Bling still probably would have gotten away with it anyway.)
  • Tortall Universe
    • Joren of Protector of the Small isn't a "big bad" per se, just a minor annoying antagonist for the most part, but in Squire, Joren only gets fined for kidnapping Lalasa, Keladry's maid, due to their respective class statuses as a noble and a servant. In fact this is why he kidnapped Lalasa rather than Kel herself, which he knew would have led to far more serious consequences. Of course, the Chamber of the Ordeal is not bound by legal restrictions.
    • In the second Beka Cooper book, Sir Lionel is eventually brought up on charges of allowing Pearl free rein through the city, but due to his status as a noble and his family connections, he gets restricted to his family holdings, rather than placed in jail.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Pelant loved this on Bones. In his first appearance, he was on house arrest and used his hacker skills to make that his alibi. After framing Brennan, he hacked his identity and Booth had to let him go with the Egyptian authorities since he made an idea from that country. After stealing Hodgins’ money, Booth shot him but only wounded him and couldn’t stop him as he drove away.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: In "Passion", Giles goes after Angelus after he kills Jenny Calendar, setting his hideout on fire and beating him with a flaming baseball bat before Angelus overpowers him and knocks him out... and then Buffy comes in and takes the fight to the catwalk. While she's winning, when she realizes that Giles is at risk of being burned alive, she's forced to let Angelus escape to save him.
  • In Life, Crews and Reese arrest a murderer but have no proof. They end up putting him away for the only charge they could get him convicted for- parole violation, which was a mere one year of jail. However, the victim's father is in the same prison...
    • In the same season, when they finally catch Russian mob boss Roman Nevikov, they're forced to let him go when an FBI agent comes in, claims he's an important confidential informant for the feds, and waltzes him straight out the door. In the second season, they find out that the FBI agent actually works for Nevikov, not the other way around.

    Video Games 
  • Played with in the final case of Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth. The culprit abuses the circumstantial nature of the evidence and his ambassadorial privileges to avoid facing consequences for the crime; first by blocking the investigation, then by claiming diplomatic immunity, finally by trying to just leave. This being Ace Attorney, the culprit does not get away - but not before dozens of nitpicking testimonies, no less than four parties bursting in with new evidence that changes everything, and the removal of said ambassadorial privileges, all while the villain constantly threatens to just walk away.
  • Mass Effect 2: Shows up in Zaeed's loyalty mission. For a bit of background: You're helping him with an outstanding contract to liberate a refinery that's been taken over by the Blue Suns mercenary company. During the course of the mission, Zaeed reveals he has an ulterior motive for taking on the contract: he wants a chance to kill his traitorous ex-partner, Vido Santiago. Shortly afterwards, you confront Vido, and Zaeed deliberately ignites the refinery's fuel lines and sets the entire place on fire, with the enslaved workers still trapped inside, at which point you're forced to choose between immediately pursuing Vido or stopping to help the workers. If you choose the latter, you save most of them, but you catch up with Vido just in time to watch his ship take off. Zaeed is not happy in that case ("You just cost me twenty years of my life!"), but it is possible for a sufficiently fast talker to give him a well deserved chewing out and secure his loyalty anyway. Or just leave him to burn. (He's trapped under a girder that fell on him because of an explosion he caused)
    • Also happens in the "Bring Down The Sky" DLC for the first game. If you want to save the hostages, you have to let the terrorist go.
  • Surprisingly enough there's a heroic version of this in Tales of Vesperia. Flynn spends a good chunk of the second act trying to arrest Yuri for jailbreak and eventually murder, but he never seems to get around to it, usually because somebody else is doing something immensely evil that he has to take care of first.


    Western Animation 
  • The Herculoids. In "The Gladiators of Kyanite", the Emperor Neron forces the Herculoids to fight in his gladiatorial games. At the end:
    Dorno: There goes Neron! He's escaping!
    Zandor: It doesn't matter, Dorno. As long as he's gone, the threat of these deadly games is ended forever.
  • Happens often in Samurai Jack where Jack is almost about to defeat Aku, who then gets away.
  • Parodied in The Simpsons spinoff "Wiggum, P.I.":
    Big Daddy jumps out the window, and swims for it. Slowly.
    Skinner: He's gradually getting away, Chief.
    Wiggum: Ah, let him go. I have the feeling we'll meet again, each and every week. Always in more sexy and exciting ways.
  • Danger Mouse lets Greenback and Stiletto go at the conclusion of "There's A Penfold In My Suit" since they really had done nothing of a criminal nature in the episode.

Alternative Title(s): Must Let Him Get Away, Forced To Watch The Escape