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Redemption Failure

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"Have you thought this through? I mean, chewed down to the bone? You got out once. You dip so much as a pinky back into this pond... you may well find something reaches out... and drags you back into its depths."
Winston to John Wick, John Wick

After undergoing a genuine Heel–Face Turn (often after a "My God, What Have I Done?" experience), the formerly-evil but now honestly good character is forced by the circumstances (usually a great injustice done to him or the death of his loved one) to revert to his evil and violent ways again, losing everything good that he earned during his benevolent phase. A form of Tragic Monster.

The Aesop being: Being Good Sucks but Being Evil Sucks even more and circumstances will conspire to tempt you from one to the other.

Compare Chronic Villainy, where the ex-baddie has an inner compulsion to commit evil again (rather than being forced into it by external circumstances); Reformed, but Rejected, where everyone thinks that he will revert even though he does not; and Heel–Face Door-Slam, where an evil character wants to go clean but is not even allowed to start. Contrast Heel–Face Revolving Door, where the bad guy changes alignment so often, it's hard to speak of any redemption in his case. Compare and contrast Trapped in Villainy, where someone may wish for redemption or to abandon some evil deed, but are unable to do so, often because either they or their loved ones will be killed if they should try. May be a motive of an Accuser of the Brethren, especially when he's not convinced of The Atoner's sincerity.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Roberta in Black Lagoon quits the Professional Killer business to become an simple maid, only to resort to massive violence again after her master is thought to be killed. Though she is stopped and it is shown that she may resume retired life.
  • In Dragon Ball Z, Buu is convinced to stop his rampage by Mr. Satan/Hercule for a time, but after a criminal shoots his pet puppy and wounds Mr. Satan, Buu's destructive nature breaks free and takes control. Fortunately, after Buu's evil side is destroyed, his innocent half is spared and is allowed to live on Earth.
  • Throughout the first half of Durarara!!, we see reference to the original leader of the Yellow Scarves abandoning the gang after a turf war went bad. Then, in part 2, Masaomi Kida is revealed as that same original leader when he retakes control of the group to defend themselves from The Dollars and The Slasher. While he was never evil, per se, he treats it like an example of this.

    Comic Books 
  • 52: The very Anti Heroic, if not outright villainous, Black Adam decides to start flying straight under the influence of his two new Morality Pets and turns his dominion Kahndaq into a rather utopian place. Then, both Morality Pets are killed by the Intergang. And one of them suffers a Heroic BSoD on top of that, instructing Adam to go on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge. Which he does, becoming the most wanted mass-murderer on the planet for a while.
  • Batman: This is the Central Theme for the Annual # 1 of the The Batman Adventures, with four stories:
  • Daredevil: The Gladiator (no relation to the X-Men character) had redeemed himself for a time, but between the manipulations of Alexander Bont and Mr. Fear, his original Heel–Face Turn was undone after Melvin is forced back into a life of crime by the former threatening his family and the latter driving him insane with his fear chemicals.
  • Nightwing: In Nightwing (New 52), set in the New 52 universe, Anthony Zucco actually does try to turn his life around to be a good role model for his son Brian... then he learns that his wife and son left him and he decides to embrace being evil.
  • Preacher: Since he's something of an Expy of Clint Eastwood's characters, Saint of Killers gets a backstory about his life as a retired outlaw and gunslinger. Things rapidly go awry in fashion very similar to what befalls Eastwood's character in Unforgiven. See the Film section for more details.
  • Venom: The Venom symbiote is cleansed of its hatred and rage in Guardians Of The Galaxy 2013 and becomes a heroic Agent of the Cosmos... only to have its cleansing undone by Mercurio in Venom: Space Knight and has a momentary and unwilling return to villainy, before reuniting with his former host, Eddie Brock and staying as a benevolent, if very violent hero.

    Film - Live-Action 
  • In American History X, some alternative endings have Danny's murder cause Derek to revert back to his old, racist ways.
  • In Chisum, Billy the Kid is taken in by Henry Tunstall, who believes he can give up his outlaw ways, but when Tunstall is murdered, Billy goes on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge against the murderers.
  • The Godfather Part III has Michael's famous "Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in."
  • The plot of Kill Bill plot is driven by this trope. The Bride faces a major Redemption Failure at the very beginning of the film: in the little chapel of Two Pines (Texas), the rehearsal of her wedding is ruined by former friends from her former assassin's life. They kill everybody in the chapel but miss The Bride, who, although very badly hurt, survives. The last three and half hours of film depict her vengeance. A vengeance that feeds on what she wanted most to forget about: her mind-blowing killing-machine skills. During their final confrontation, Bill uses a Truth Serum to force her to admit that she really enjoyed it and states that her effort to blend in, no matter how well-intentioned, was doomed to failure even if he hadn't committed that massacre. The Bride herself cannot dispute this.
  • William Munny in Unforgiven is a former badman, who tried to make a go at being a farmer. When his farm fails he decides to take just one more job and for a time goes back to his old ways. (Although it's hinted at at the end that he eventually returned to a mundane life once more.)
  • The Wrestler: Randy is a middle-aged, washed-up wrestler whose Glory Days are long behind him. He tries to mend his relationship with his estranged daughter Stephanie and becomes romantically involved with Cassidy, an aging stripper with a heart of gold who is clearly considering settling down with him. He fails at both by not showing up for dinner with his daughter because he was experiencing a hangover, then alienates Cassidy as well by continuing a wrestling match that could kill him because of his heart problems. In the end, it's strongly implied that Randy dies in the ring.

  • Thomas Raith in The Dresden Files becomes a Vegetarian Vampire after nearly killing his love interest but reverts to a full-on vamp after being tortured and forced to lethally feed on humans by a resident Eldritch Abomination. Still, even as he announces his return to full vampirism he doesn't deny that he still cares for his loved ones, and he claims he won't fatally feed on people. The reasons he gives for this fall into the Pragmatic Villainy category, but it's ambiguous whether he really means it or is simply trying to convince himself that he's going to be a Pragmatic Villain rather than a true good guy. As of the end of Cold Days, his personality doesn't seem to have changed all that much, and his refusal to willingly kill innocent people, his tear jerking reaction to Harry's death and return and his absolute joy at being able to reunite with the woman he loves suggests that his self-proclaimed Redemption Failure was more of a short-term reaction to his horrible trauma than a true shift in personality. He was never truly evil to begin with, and was at worst a Noble Demon with Morality Pets, so it's difficult to tell how much of a change there really was.
  • In Sukhinov's Emerald City series Corina, the Disc-One Final Boss, starts helping the the protagonist Ellie mid-series, and even starts bonding with her. But when they are captured by Big Bad's forces and threatened with A Fate Worse Than Death, Corina caves in and declares allegiance to Big Bad, thus becoming evil again.

    Live Action TV 
  • Lindsey on Angel becomes a Heel–Face Revolving Door as he abandons his evil employer but can't manage to not return, once it seems he finally has he comes back anyway plotting against Angel out of jealousy, after failing he agrees to team up with Angel again, but with the realization that he will turn on the team again when things go bad, Angel has Lorne, a member of his team eliminate him.
  • Hemlock Grove: In the second season Olivia Godfrey starts to regain her emotions and tries to make amends for what a horrible person she's been when she learns that she's dying, even deciding to give up her own life so her daughter Shelley can be happy. Nobody buys it, and her lover Norman is so livid when he discovers that Olivia killed his wife that he decides to rub her miserable fate in her face. Olivia then decides to screw over everyone out of spite and go back to being the same murderous, cold-hearted bitch she was before.
  • In Justified, Boyd Crowder tries to go straight but circumstances keep pointing him back toward a life of crime.
  • This happens in one episode of Person of Interest, with a One-Shot Character. The character in question being a former safecracker for a team of thieves. Near the end, the safecracker is tempted to kill his employer, but Reese manages to talk him down to avoid his sentence being more severe than it already will be. He gets off with only probation while the rest of the team goes to jail, and returns to his old life.

    Video Games 
  • Ray McCall in Call of Juarez is a criminal who became a priest after killing his brother but takes up his guns again when his other brother is murdered.
  • Dragon Age II has two examples, both of them party members. After killing (or nearly killing) an innocent girl in Act 2, Anders realizes that he's losing control over his body to Vengeance and resolves to stop working with the mage underground because he is so furious about the oppression of mages that he fears what he'll do if he stays with the cause. But by Act 3, as the mage/Templar conflict escalates and Knight-Commander Meredith has most of the mages killed or imprisoned in solitary confinement, he's back with what little is left of the underground, more fanatical and furious than ever, and eventually blows up the Chantry to incite mage revolution. Sebastian's previous character development had him realize that Revenge Before Reason is a bad idea, but if you refuse to kill Anders at this point, Sebastian (who was a brother in the destroyed Chantry and lost his beloved mentor in the attack) not only vows revenge on Anders and Hawke, but vows to completely destroy the city of Kirkwall before leaving. This trope fits well into the game's recurring theme of people doing terrible things for understandable reasons.
  • Hitman contains an Anti-Hero (or possibly Anti-Villain) example. In Silent Assassin, 47 abandons the life of crime to become a gardener for a priest, yet he's forced back into it when his employer is kidnapped. In the end, he realizes that, being essentially a Super-Soldier, he can't turn his back on the business of death and goes back to being an assassin.
  • In Red Dead Redemption, John Marston quits the life of an outlaw after his "friends" leave him to die, but The Government kidnaps his wife and son and orders him to dispose of his old comrades. He is forced to go back to his bad ways and although the player largely determines whether he becomes evil again, even with a good karma he still kills an awful lot of people on the way.

    Western Animation 
  • Played with in Avatar: The Last Airbender; Prince Zuko finally gives up on being bad, understanding that it really hasn't worked out for him, and seems content to live peacefully. However, in one of the series' most famous moments, when the opportunity to return to his old ways in such a way that he will likely be successful, he embraces it, though he later does a complete and permanent Heel–Face Turn. The ambiguity here is that his personality during his temporary Heel–Face Turn is so radically different from his previous one that it seems likely that he's putting it on, (even if the falsehood is only subconscious and he genuinely did think he had changed). This is supported by the fact that during his later permanent redemption he is still just as brooding and hot-tempered as before, he simply became an Anti-Hero rather than an Anti-Villain. There is also the fact that, though his recidivism was brought on by outside events, they did not compel him in any way, and merely offered him the chance to fulfill his villainous goals.
  • This was a recurring theme in Batman: The Animated Series:
    • Harley Quinn in "Harley's Holiday" is pronounced sane and release from Arkham, and plans to live as a law-abiding citizen. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding while purchasing clothes make her think she's being arrested even when she's doing nothing wrong, and she goes on an actual crime spree to avoid getting caught.
    • Another episode, "Birds of a Feather", had the Penguin be released from prison turning over a new leaf. A gold digger dates him for the publicity, but soon starts to grow fond of him. It crashes down when her motives are revealed.
  • In Ben 10: Ultimate Alien, Charmcaster undergoes a Heel–Face Turn once she is returned to her home dimension and is able to liberate it from its tyrannical overlord. But once this only creates a power vacuum that causes everyone she freed to fight a war over the throne, she crosses back into villainy, after which she remains in the Heel–Face Revolving Door for the remainder of the following series.
  • In Elena of Avalor, when Esteban's past betrayal that he had kept secret out of shame and self-preservation is revealed, he desperately tries to genuinely apologize but keeps excusing his actions. No one buys it. His reaction to his sentence (which was originally much harsher, for the record) being to break out of jail before he can be transferred and also freeing a bunch of supervillains to protect him soon leads to both parties essentially telling him to stop trying to hold back and be good because it won't matter either way to his now-estranged family.
  • Miraculous Ladybug: After getting her hands on the Bee Miraculous, Chloé becomes Queen Bee... and immediately reveals her Secret Identity to all of Paris. When this doesn't immediately land her the praise and adulation she craves, she attempts some Engineered Heroics. Still, Chat Noir convinces Ladybug to give her another shot, letting her remain one of their temporary holders. Unfortunately, everyone still knows who Queen Bee is, and while Chloé makes some token efforts to become kinder, she's still very much a Spoiled Brat who expects special treatment. After Hawkmoth and Mayura nearly manage to get their hands on the Bee, Ladybug decides it's too dangerous to entrust Chloé with it any longer. Hawkmoth then convinces her to work with him by offering the power and recognition she desires. This results in a chain of events that leads to all of the other temporary heroes being forcibly retired after Chloé exposes all of their identities to the villains. Ladybug then makes it clear that she's off the team FOR GOOD, with everyone else in Paris now refusing to give her another chance.
  • In The Simpsons, Marge tries to help an inmate rehabilitate by getting him a job. However, after Skinner allows him to take all the blame for a poorly received mural (which Skinner had suggested) the inmate snaps and burns both the mural and Skinner's car.
  • An episode of Xiaolin Showdown featured Jack Spicer going through such an event, with hints of Reformed, but Rejected from almost everyone except Omi.