Zhao: Oh My God! Did you really just miss me point blank?!
Zuko: No, I, um... I did it on purpose so, um... let that be a lesson to you!
Zhao: Oh, so instead of being completely talentless you're just completely ball-less! Nice save there, Chief!
There's a Dramatic Pause as the goodie mentally debates whether to kill the baddie. In the end, however, they will throw the sword away and let the bad guy be captured by the authorities (unless, of course, they're an Anti-Hero). Another variation has them throw the sword right next to the villain in a way that makes it clear that they could have killed them but didn't.
Alternately, if the hero simply sheathes the sword instead of actually discarding it, the baddie inevitably rises up one more time once the hero's back is turned, only to get struck down in a single dramatic stroke.
This trope can just as easily be done with firearms. Often by the hero firing a shot, only to have aimed away from villain at the last second.
If the roles are reversed and the villain has the hero at his mercy, it can go either way. If he chooses to spare the hero, we might be looking at I Need You Stronger. Otherwise he'll decide to finish the hero off, but be prepared for a Thwarted Coup de Grâce.
Warning note... there are plenty of spoilers here. Be ye warned.
Oh, and there are supposedly a few types of sword actually designed to strike the killing blow with an overhead strike that splits the target's skull. It doesn't have to be that literal to count as this trope.
- In Episode 13 of Cross Ange, Ange, from inside her Villkiss, has her massive energy sword hanging over her traitorous brother Julio. This awful man was responsible for ruining her life by exposing her as a Norma, resulting in the loss of her rights and being conscripted into serving as Cannon Fodder. He also had their parents killed to take over the throne, corrupted their little sister Sylvia into hating Ange, goaded Sylvia into torturing Ange when they captured her via a Wounded Gazelle Gambit, and eventually attempted to have her and the rest of the Norma killed in a purge. Even though Julio has complied with Ange's demand to stop the massacre, Ange has decided the coward is not worth sparing, and despite his pleas for mercy, she slashes in his general direction... only to be stopped by Embryo, the Big Bad of the story. Embryo intervenes on the premises that she would "taint" herself by stooping so low to kill someone like Julio... or so he says. Either way, he politely offers to "bear that burden"... by blasting Julio's ship with his Hysterica, obliterating Julio and his entire fleet.
- Dragon Ball Z:
- Vegeta, after a ridiculously long, grueling battle, lays nearly crippled on the ground at the mercy of Krillin, who is holding Yajirobe's sword to his neck. After Goku pleads with Krillin for several minutes to let Vegeta go, he throws the sword away against his better judgment and allows the half-dead antagonist to escape. Which totally saves their collective asses during the Frieza and Cell sagas. Vegeta's The Lancer for a reason.
- Then Goku tried it again after defeating Frieza after his legs and arm had been cut off, and actually gave him what he figured was enough power for him to live and escape the about-to-explode planet. But apparently this time Goku forgot that Frieza had committed genocide on at least two different occasions, and as soon as he flew off, Frieza used the energy he received to take one last shot at him. And then Goku demonstrated just WHY he could take that chance; because when Frieza tried shooting him, he responded by turning around and shooting an energy beam at Frieza, killing him. Or... not, as later episodes show.
- Happens a lot with Vash in Trigun, especially once the Gung Ho Guns show up. He is ultimately forced to go through with it and kill The Dragon Legato Bluesummers.
- It didn't work out so well when Wolfwood did it, though.
- Subverted in an odd variation in Yu-Gi-Oh! GX when Austin O'Brien duels the Masked Knight of Laughter. O'Brien plays a combo that, if executed properly, will win him the duel on his first turn. The Knight begs for a chance to play a little more, so O'Brien interrupts the combo and lets the Knight take his turn... before he realizes that O'Brien is walking away as his last card activates, wiping out his remaining life points anyway.
- Subverted in Rurouni Kenshin. Eiji is stopped from killing a helpless Senkaku by the Anti-Hero Saitou, but only because there is a law against revenge killing, and Saitou needs the criminal for interrogation where a more grisly fate awaits Senkaku in the form of torture and the death penalty. Kenshin, however, appeases the vengeful youth by appealing to his better nature.
- See also Kenshin with Kurogasa/Jin-e.
- Who kills himself rather than be disgraced and useless.
- See also Kenshin with Kurogasa/Jin-e.
- This happens to Winry in Fullmetal Alchemist; She had just discovered that Scar killed her parents and levelled a gun at him. Fortunately, Ed convinces her that "If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him!"
- And then we have Roy with his flame powers and Envy in his fetus form. He is convinced by Ed, Scar, and Riza to not go through with finishing Envy off. Envy dies anyway by committing suicide because Ed inadvertently makes him feel too insulted to live.
- Subverted in Rave Master when Haru the sword over Shuda's head, drops it, and then Shuda picks it right back up, drops An Aesop, then falls to his death. Only, not quite his death.
- It happens again later when Haru goes berserk on Lucia. The later actually faints, and everyone starts pressing Haru to sever his head, but Haru still can't bring himself to take a life.
- In Corsair, Canale does this at the end of the fight with his brother. He does follow through in actually killing him.
- Tower of God: When Ja Wangnan spared Kim Lurker. Ja's friend Nia had been set up to betray Ja and the team by the loan company Lurker was working for so that Lurker and his team could advance to the next floor. After the successful betrayal, Lurker killed Nia to be on the safe side, since he was betraying his employers as well and couldn't risk leaving any witnesses behind. When Lurker is defeated and Ja is about to activate the grenade jammed between his jaws, he realizes that the only thing he can do is forgive him, because he forgave Nia for betraying him just as Nia was betrayed, because the three of them were basically not so different in being coerced to stop others, causing their inevitable demisenote and because in a world of constant struggle, a pragmatic reason for killing somebody is way better than any ethical justification of revenge.
- Played almost perfectly straight in Higurashi: When They Cry, during the climactic duel between Keiichi and Rena, when Rena is holding her hatchet over her head.
- In Alive: The Final Evolution, Taisuke spends the whole of the series coming to terms with the fact that his best friend (Hirose) is not only capable of murder but a mass murderer with no sense of guilt. Cue the final showdown between the two of them, when Taisuke overpowers Hirose and has him in a chokehold. Taisuke ends up trying to kill him twice before breaking down and letting go. This turns out to be the right decision, however, as it's only with Hirose's power that they manage to destroy the incoming Nuke.
- In Legend of the Galactic Heroes, the Battle of Vermillion ends with Yang having Reinhart's flagship — and Reinhart with it — dead to rights and defenceless and only an order away from killing him. While the cast begins discussing amongst themselves whether to finish him off or not, Reuental and Mittenmeyer conquer The Federation's headquarters, and the politicians surrender and order Yang to stand down. He does.
- Tiger & Bunny when Barnaby and Kotetsu defeat Jake, Barnaby ultimately decides to have him arrested, though Jake dies while trying to escape.
- In one of the Fifth Doctor stories in Doctor Who Magazine, a ruthless bounty hunter is attempting to kill the Doctor on orders from an evil industrialist. Things backfire somewhat, and he accidentally succeeds in badly wounding himself and mortally wounding the Doctor's companion, Gus. Tears in his eyes and a murderous expression on his face, the Doctor picks up the bounty hunter's gun, shoots several times...and we then find that he simply shot the hunter's helmet, whose headphones were ironically playing "We'll Meet Again". However, this is then promptly subverted as the industrialist's slimy henchman visits the hunter in hospital, calmly trashes his life-support systems ("No loose ends"), and walks out as the hunter chokes his last.
- In All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, Batman brings Dick Grayson the man who killed his parents, gagged and tied up. He then offers Dick a battleaxe and tells him to 'Choose. Avenger or detective.' Dick raises the axe over his head and brings it down... right next to the thug's face, slashing open the gag and one of his cheeks, but not his skull. The thug spills the beans.
- Subverted in Jamie Delano's run on Captain Britain. After sister Betsy replaces Brian Braddock as Captain Britain, Brian's old foe Slaymaster takes her on and beats her savagely before putting both of her eyes out. An appalled Brian arrives, and a titanic fight ensues, which ends with Slaymaster on his back and Brian holding a huge rock over his head. At the last moment, he seems to force himself to stop. Slaymaster, being a villain, can't stop himself from coming out with an I-Don't-Think-You've-Got-The-Grapes taunting speech. In a flash of fury, Brian sweeps the rock down on Slaymaster's head. SPLAT.
- In a non-canon Star Wars Expanded Universe comic, a Not Quite Dead Darth Maul tracks Obi-Wan Kenobi down to Tatooine and engages in a short but vicious fight with him that ends with Obi-Wan's deactivated lightsaber against Maul's forehead. Thumb hovering over the activation stud, Obi-Wan wavers indecisively until a badly injured and pissed off Owen Lars blows Maul's head off.
- In Swordquest: Fireworld, Torr spares a pair of fire-goblins (who were previously attacking him) after they are backed into a corner and cowering for mercy.
- Marvel's Voices: Indigenous Voices: Echo handily beats Saarl and holds a spear over his face, but decides not to kill him because there has been enough violence.
- Occurs complete with actual sword over actual head when Rogue defeats Vargas in a swordfight at the end of the X-Treme X-Men "Invasion" arc. Vargas encourages her to kill him as predicted by Destiny's diaries, and the ultimate result is deliberately not shown, but Rogue's reactions both during and after the incident make it fairly clear that she didn't go through with it.
- Jubilee faced this choice after she hunted down the men who killed her parents. In a slight variation, Wolverine — the only witness — told her exactly how she could use her powers to make the deaths look like natural causes. She let them live, of course.
- Another example went the opposite way, this time involving Wolverine. In What If? v2 #43, "What if Wolverine had married Mariko?", Mariko is eventually killed by her brother, Harada Yashida AKA Silver Samurai, in a plot with the Kingpin. Wolverine is enraged by this and after beating Harada within an inch of his life, Wolverine has a sword of honour held over his head. He swings it...and deliberately misses. Harada breathes a sigh of relief....until Wolverine shoves his fist under Harada's chin, growling "Just decided the honor sword's too good for you. It shouldn't be stained with a traitor's blood. Me? I'm not so fussy." and since this is Wolverine we're talking about, the very next panel we see is blacked out with a VERY telling SNIKT sound effect overlaid on it.
- In the climax of Beauty and the Beast, Beast is holding Gaston by the neck over the ledge of the castle threatening to drop him to death. However, he can't go through with it and grudgingly spares Gaston giving him a firm Get Out!. However, Gaston responds by stabbing Beast in the back still trying to kill him, only to lose his balance and fall to his death.
- In Mulan, when the protagonist is revealed to have been a woman, Shang is about to kill her... but then decides not to as she did just save the entire army. And his life during the avalanche.
Shang: A life for a life. My debt is repaid.
- When heroic Justin and wicked Jenner engage in a swordfight in Don Bluth's The Secret of NIMH, Jenner raises his sword for an overhead stroke. Justin uses the opportunity to deliver a simple jab that pierces Jenner's left lung. Jenner cries in pain, drops his crooked sword and reels backward, clutching his wound. Justin, having no desire to hack at a wounded adversary, drops his sword to extol his fellow rats to complete the exodus that the slain Nicodemus planned. Jenner, however, recovers his sword and makes another attempt to cleave Justin. Jenner's cohort Sullivan, in a Heel–Face Turn, throws a dagger that fells Jenner before he can strike.
- In Disney's Tarzan movie, Tarzan has Clayton at his mercy, aims Clayton's gun at his throat, and imitates the sound of a gunshot. He then destroys the gun. Clayton tries to attack Tarzan afterward but inadvertently hangs himself, despite Tarzan attempting to warn him that he's doing so.
- Kaamelott: Premier Volet: At the end, King Arthur readies Excalibur to deliver the Coup de Grâce to a disarmed Lancelot who's laying on the ground... but ultimately doesn't kill him and lets him flee, after having a tragic flashback of his youth in the Roman army.
- A version of this trope without any weapons happens twice in the film The Karate Kid Part II. At the very start of the film, Mr. Miyagi sees the bad guy teacher from the first movie physically abusing his own students and decides to put a stop to it. After some Deadly Dodging, when he has the Evil Teacher at his mercy, Miyagi repeats that teacher's own motto that mercy is for the weak, winds up for a major blow... then harmlessly tweaks his nose. At the very end, Daniel holds his opponent's life in his hands and asks him, "Live or die, man?" When his opponent says "Die!" Daniel instead copies his mentor and just gives his opponent's nose a tweak.
- Star Wars:
- In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin disarms Count Dooku and finds himself in a position where he can decide Dooku's fate. Palpatine tells Anakin to kill Dooku. Though reluctant, he actually goes through with it and scissors Dooku's head off (at Palpatine's encouragement).
- Also in Revenge of the Sith, when Mace Windu attempts to arrest Palpatine after finding out he's the Sith Lord behind the Clone Wars and has him disarmed and at swordpoint. Anakin shows up despite being warned not to get involved and pleads with Mace not to kill Palpatine, while Mace himself mentally debates whether he should kill him (which would be better for the galaxy but goes against the Jedi's morals) or leave him alive (which would be morally right but extremely risky). There is plenty of Dramatic Irony since Anakin found himself in the exact same situation before with Count Dooku but still executed him even though he knew it was wrong.
- Also in Revenge of the Sith, at the Battle of Mustafar, Obi-Wan prepares to finish off Anakin in an overhead downward swing, only for his efforts to be blocked. Strangely, the maneuver seemed more appropriate for Anakin's aggressive fighting style, rather than Obi-Wan's defensive style.
- In The Empire Strikes Back, Anakin, now Darth Vader, disarms Luke and has him at his mercy in the carbon-freezing chamber on Cloud City. He takes a swing at Luke, but doesn't really try to kill him because he wants Luke alive so he can become stronger and help overthrow Emperor Palpatine. Instead, he tries to herd Luke into the carbonite pit to turn him into a Human Popsicle, but Luke jumps out of it, retrieves his weapon and continues fighting.
- In Return of the Jedi, Luke finally defeats Vader and is about to kill him until he is encouraged by Palpatine, and Luke quickly realizes what he is extremely close to becoming in doing so. This convinces Luke to toss his lightsaber aside and show mercy instead of killing his own father, creating a sort of point of divergence between Luke and Anakin's histories. In the exact opposite of Anakin killing Dooku 23 years back, Luke spares Vader. This act of mercy is what ultimately causes Vader to return to the Light Side of the Force and become Anakin Skywalker once again.
- A variation in Predator. Dutch does this over the fallen title monster, but using a large rock instead of a sword. He relents after noticing the Predator coughing up (green glowing) blood, showing that he's no longer a threat.
- In Deadpool, the titular hero has the big bad who tortured him nonstop to activate his mutant genes, ruined his body and kidnapped his girlfriend under a gun and helpless. Colossus attempts to intervene with a heartwarming speech about what it means to be a 'hero', encouraging Deadpool to relent in his anger and be the better man. Deadpool, being Deadpool, responds by blowing the big bad's brains out.
- Variant in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. After Robin defeats the Sheriff of Rottingham, he turns away, compliments his sword, and makes to sheathe it ... and accidentally runs the Sheriff through as he tries to backstab Robin.
- The climax of the film The End Of The Spear, which is based on a true story, is built around Steve Saint struggling with whether or not to kill the tribesman who killed his father. (However, as The Other Wiki notes, "the dramatic climactic reconciliation between Steve as an adult and Mincayani did not actually happen as depicted in the film". They did, however, become and remain friends.)
- In Hook, Peter Pan does this with Captain Hook at his mercy, only to have Hook lunge at him and claw his arm instead.
- The Princess Bride: After the Man in Black defeats Inigo, Inigo begs for a quick death... but is knocked out with the hilt of the sword.
Inigo: Kill me quickly.
Man In Black: I would sooner destroy a stained-glass window than an artist like yourself. However, since I can't have you following me, either... [hits him with the hilt] Please understand, I hold you in the highest respect.
- Miraz in Prince Caspian. Three times in one movie, by two characters, twice in fairly rapid succession, and none of them in the original book.
- In the Michael Bay film Bad Boys (1995), Will Smith's character does this at the end with the drug kingpin who murdered the woman he kinda loved. He doesn't fire. Then the baddie pulls a gun from behind his back, giving Smith's character all the excuse he needs to empty his gun's clip into his body.
- Inverted at the end of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, which finishes with Max surrounded by Auntie Entity and her armed goons. She lets him go:
Auntie: Well, ain't we a pair? Raggedy man.
- In Gladiator, this seems to be the standard end to a matchup when one gladiator is disarmed. Caesar is supposed to decide what happens, but Maximus lets his opponent live anyway.
- Occurs twice in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers:
- Frodo captures Gollum and holds him at swordpoint, but decides to spare him out of pity. It pays off in the end.
- After Gandalf breaks Evil Chancellor Wormtongue's hold over Theoden King of Rohan, Aragorn says that Wormtongue should be allowed to live, because he's so pathetic and seemingly harmless. This is a very nice job of breaking it since Wormtongue goes to tell Saruman that the people of Rohan are going to Helm's Deep, and how the fortress can be attacked.
- Near the end of Maverick, Marshall Zane Cooper does this (with a stick) to the Commodore.
- Played straight in The Lion in Winter, when King Henry II lifts his sword over his head to execute his son Richard, but can't bring himself to go through with it.
- In Serenity, Captain Malcolm Reynolds (after his moved nerve cluster allows him to escape a paralyzer from The Operative) hits the man in the larynx and steals his sword, but instead of killing him uses the sword to secure him to a railing, forcing him to watch as the truth about Miranda is revealed.
- In The Tenth Kingdom, the heroes have the evil Huntsman at their mercy and Wolf is preparing to kill him when Virginia stops him. Wolf correctly points out that this will only leave him to follow them and that she would regret the decision. This leads to pretty much every reversal the heroes face for the rest of the story.
- Lock Up: A variation is used since swords aren't exactly common in prison. After Frank wins a fight against a gang leader who made it personal by killing First Base, Frank places him on a bench press and holds the weights over his head, ready to drop it. Despite much prompting from the prisoners and even a distant Warden who's looking on from his office window, Frank realizes that killing the man will put him away for life and relents. He gets shivved for his troubles.
- Fearless (2006) : The unarmed variation. Jet Li's character Huo Yuanjia knows a Dangerous Forbidden Technique that causes his opponent's heart to explode. He himself is dying from poison and the only way he can win the match is to use it. Right before he dies, he shows his opponent that he could pull it off, but chooses not to, having gone through a movie's worth of Character Development to realize that pride, even for one's own nation, is not worth murdering somebody over.
- Maverick: Cooper knocks the unarmed Commodore Duvall (who had just double-crossed him) to the ground. Coop picks up a heavy branch and is about to smash his head in:
Coop: I've never committed a cold blood murder in my life!
Coop: ... and I won't. Not 'til I find Maverick.
- Daredevil has the Kingpin at his mercy and is about to deliver a skull crushing blow with the Kingpin's own walking stick (which may have been used to kill Matt Murdock's father), but instead slams it on the floor and allows the police to arrest him.
- Gemini Man. Henry Brogan and Clay Jr. know that Clay Varris will go on to create a Clone Army if left alive, but Henry stops Junior from killing his Parental Substitute, knowing the act will scar him for life. Henry takes the shotgun off Junior, and Varris smiles in triumph...only to be shot dead by Henry.
- The Lord of the Rings: In addition to the examples of Gollum and Wormtongue, noted above under the Films entry, Frodo does this to Saruman at the end. After Saruman has all but destroyed the Shire out of spite, he then tries to personally kill Frodo (to no avail thanks to Frodo's hidden mithril-mail shirt). The other hobbits are just about to kill Saruman when Frodo to stop them, partly because he wants no more killing at all, and partly out of respect for Saruman's former status and nature. Saruman starts to leave, apparently honestly this time, only to mistreat Wormtongue for the last time...
- The nature of this trope, particularly the alternate ending (namely, that killing in self-defense is acceptable, but killing in cold blood is not), is explored towards the end of the Narnia book The Horse and His Boy.
- Subverted in the novel The Silent Blade by RA Salvatore, Drizzt and a nearly suicidal Artemis Entreri have just finished a fight to the not-quite-death. Drizzt sheaths his sword and walks away when Artemis charges him from behind. Drizzt gets his guard up, draws his blades, and stabs Artemis through the torso...but unbeknownst to either of them, a psionic barrier has been placed around Artemis' body by one of Jarlaxle's lieutenants, which channels the kinetic energy from Drizzt's strike into Entreri, who then uses it unconsciously to punch a hole barehanded through Drizzt's chest. Unbeknownst to Entreri however, he gets better.
- Played straight in Men at Arms when Vimes wants to kill a man (to be fair, he was under the influence of the gonne). Carrot eventually convinces him not to, saying "Personal isn't the same as important." Of course, when the man himself goes for the gun, Carrot kills him, running the man through as well as piercing the foot-thick granite column behind him.
- A different force is tugging at Vimes's base urge for vengeance in Thud!!, and when it lets loose he leaves a significant body count, but relents before he either strikes the Big Bad or rips apart from the stress of not doing so.
- This is a manifestation of one of his defining traits - the constant temptation to take the law into his own hands (by killing the villain), and his constant refusal to give in to that temptation. Even when he kills Wolfgang in The Fifth Elephant, he gives Wolfgang every warning and chance to surrender first. Wolfgang doesn't really believe "Mister Civilized" is capable of killing him. He's wrong.
- In the climax of Mort, the title character is in a position to seemingly kill Death but knows that doing so would just mean taking his place for the rest of Eternity. Death responds by kicking him in the groin.
- Akin to the Hornblower example below, the first Flashman novel has a variant on the pistol duel—after his opponent has shot his ball and missed, Flashman spends some time trying to make him squirm, before dramatically pointing his pistol to one side and firing without looking. By sheer fluke, Flash's shot takes the top off a wine bottle on a nearby table, giving him an unwarranted reputation as a crack shot...
- Older Than Feudalism: The Aeneid invokes this trope when Aeneas pauses with his sword raised over his vanquished archenemy Turnus... only to see Turnus wearing the belt of Aeneas' protegé Pallas. Even in antiquity, this subversion was upsetting to numerous commentators.
- This happens twice in E. E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark Series (from the 1930s). Twice the arch-enemy gets in so far over his head that he's forced to call on the hero to rescue him, and incidentally wipe out a threat to human civilization.
- Near the end of book 1 of the Gone series, Sam has just defeated Caine and could easily kill him with his super powers. Caine tells Sam to "Go ahead and do it", but Sam just tells him to leave Perdido Beach. Might be a case of Thicker Than Water since they are also twin brothers.
- Late in Blood Meridian, the kid (well, he's a teenager) and the ex-priest Tobin find the monstrous Judge Holden trapped and at their mercy, and Tobin actually tells the kid to take his gun and do it, kill him now, but the kid — even though the alternative is to let him die of thirst — chooses not to. The judge gets out, later, and nothing good comes of it.
- The Man with the Terrible Eyes: A variant with electrical powers rather than a physical weapon. After he's won their fight and has the Supervisor on the ground at his mercy, the Man stands over him and is torn between the desire to kill him after all he'd done to him and his disgust at the thought of murdering him in cold blood. He eventually decides to let him live.
- The Killer Ascendant by Barry Eisler. Hitman with a Heart John Rain considers doing this with CIA Rogue Agent Jim Hilger (who had kidnapped and tortured his friend Dox) because he's considering changing his ways from being a cold-blooded killer. As a concession he allows Hilger to make a phone call to his sister as a Last Request, has a sudden thought that Hilger is using the call to activate a bomb remotely and kills him. Later Rain wonders if he allowed Hilger to make the call just so he'd have an excuse to kill him.
- In the third book of the Prince Roger series, Roger does exactly this to his traitorous father, and is only talked down by his fiance'.
- Occurs near the end of Shadow of the Conqueror when Ahrek, after managing to beat Daylen in their Trial by Combat, struggles with their similarities and his years of empty hatred while Daylen urges him to do it. To Daylen's utter surprise, Ahrek instead chooses to forgive him, and the sword doesn't fall.
- 24 did it in season one when Jack caught an escaping Nina. The same scene was repeated in season three, except that on that occasion Jack shot her dead. And the first time, he didn't know she had just killed his wife.
- The Adventures of Superboy episode "Mine Games" features a shovel-over-head moment. Lex Luthor and Superboy are trapped in a mine, and Luthor starts attacking Superboy with chunks of Kryptonite over Superboy's protests that they could both die. It ends with Superboy standing over Luthor, poised to kill him, and Luthor outright eggs on him as hammily as possible.
Luthor: Go on! Kill me! Kill me! If you don't kill me, I'll kill you, you stupid, spineless, weakling simp! MURDER MEEEE!
- Subverted at the end of Angel's fight with Connor in "Home". After interrupting his trauma-ridden son's Suicide by Cop attempt, Angel ends up holding a knife over him. He promises to prove that he really does love Connor — and brings the knife down. Thanks to a deal with Wolfram & Hart, Connor is magically given a normal life.
- In "A Hole in the World", Gunn incapacitates Knox and holds a large object over his head, wanting to smash Knox's head in, but can't do it — probably because he knows that the team need to get as much info out of Knox as they can. (Wesley does him in later).
- Blake's 7: This happens several times in the first two seasons, as Travis (and sometimes Servalan) has Plot Armor, since he has to survive to serve as Blake's Arch-Enemy. The reasons given include Blake knowing that the Federation would just send someone else (and he's convinced he can always beat Travis), because he's worried he'd enjoy it, or as a Cruel Mercy (because Travis will be punished for failing, or because he's lost everything after going Rogue Agent). When Anti-Hero Avon becomes the leader, he's not burdened by such qualms, so Servalan usually arranges a Mexican Standoff or Villain: Exit, Stage Left However, Avon (and Tarrant in "Sand", despite Servalan arranging the death of his brother) seem equally reluctant to kill her as Blake was to kill Travis.
- In Bones, Booth escapes serial killer Howard Epps by one hand as he dangles over a ledge and can't hold on. He later goes to psychological counseling for a different matter, where it comes up that he feels guilty because he isn't sure if he tried hard enough to keep Epps from falling to his death.
- Breaking Bad: An early episode had Walt debating whether or not to kill the captive Krazy-8, even going so far as to write up a pros and cons list. He eventually realizes that Krazy-8 is too dangerous to let live and strangles him to death.
- In the mini-series Brotherhood of the Rose, adapted from the novel by David Morrell, CIA assassin Saul is confronting his treacherous Parental Substitute Elliot with an Uzi. Elliot has killed Saul's brother and has just tried to kill him under the guise of a truce, so at this point in the novel, he dies. In the mini-series however, Saul knocks him out with the Uzi but then blows up the secret cache of blackmail files Elliot has been using to maintain his power in the CIA, forcing him into retirement.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
- In "Angel", the eponymous hero attempts Suicide by Cop by provoking Buffy into killing him. Eventually, Buffy gets Angel in her crossbow sights; to Angel's surprise, the Slayer intentionally shoots wide and her bolt thunks into the wall beside his head.
Angel: Little wide...
- Buffy nearly overpowers Angelus in their first encounter ("Innocence") but can't bring herself to finish him, so she settles for a kick to the groin instead.
- In "Angel", the eponymous hero attempts Suicide by Cop by provoking Buffy into killing him. Eventually, Buffy gets Angel in her crossbow sights; to Angel's surprise, the Slayer intentionally shoots wide and her bolt thunks into the wall beside his head.
- Variations of this trope happen several times on Chuck:
- Sarah has Fulcrum operative Mauser at gunpoint after a particularly savage fight and prepares to arrest him. Mauser then begins to taunt her about knowing Chuck is the Intersect and how his compatriots will do everything in their power to free him. Sarah hesitates for a moment and lowers her gun, then subverts this by snapping her gun back up and shooting him dead.
- While under the effects of an experimental drug intended to suppress the emotions of agents in the field, (thus allowing the Intersect to function normally) Chuck lifts a mook into the air by the throat and begins to strangle him. He finally releases the man when Casey and Sarah arrive and he realizes what he very nearly did.
- After a short close-range fight, Shaw takes Sarah prisoner and holds Chuck at gunpoint, but allows Chuck to live since he holds no ill-will towards him. This gives Chuck the opportunity to come to Sarah's rescue and shoot Shaw.
- Later in that same season Chuck has Shaw by the throat in a death grip. Shaw attempts to provoke him into finishing the job, but Chuck comments he already did in a Call-Back to the above scene and releases him.
- In Dexter when he is about to kill Rudy by draining him of all his blood, holds the knife above his neck. But he then kills him anyway, mid-sentence no less.
- Doctor Who:
- A lot of times in the Classic series the Doctor plays this straight. Even in the Darker and Edgier New Who series, it's played straight with the Master, whom the Doctor is reluctant to kill despite having every reason to do so.
- "The Christmas Invasion": The Doctor, who has defeated the Sycorax Leader in a swordfight while maintaining a running monologue about what sort of person his new incarnation is, accepts the alien's surrender and walks off. When the Sycorax gets up and charges at him, he uses a satsuma to knock him off the ship, without breaking stride. "No second chances. I'm that sort of a man."
- "The Doctor's Daughter": After the nearly happy ending, the baddie kills the Doctor's daughter (Opposite-Sex Clone) out of spite. The Doctor takes his gun and points it at his head, breathing fast and heavy for several seconds before throwing it away and saying "I never would", finally encouraging those around him to forge their society on the principles of the man who "never would". It should be noted his daughter came back to life, though she didn't regenerate... Having two hearts sure comes in handy.
- Firefly has Malcolm Reynolds holding his opponent at swordpoint at the end of a duel to the death.
Mal: Having to lie there while the better man refuses to spill your blood. Mercy is the mark of a great man. [lightly stabs his opponent in the side] Guess I'm just a good man. [stabs him again] Well, I'm alright.
- An unusual choice occurs in the Heroes episode "Shades of Gray": Sylar finally confronts his father, Samson Grey, his motives for finding him having changed after realizing that he is responsible for killing his mother. A few interesting facts and one borderline Hannibal Lecture later, he gives Sylar a choice point-blank — kill him now... or kill the fuzzy bunny. Sylar hesitates, then kills the bunny and they keep talking.
- A couple in Highlander. Richie can't bring himself to kill Annie during his first duel as an immortal, and Duncan won't kill Kristen despite being betrayed by her twice in "Chivalry".
- Horatio Hornblower, "The Duel": Midshipman Hornblower fights a duel with Midshipman Simpson. Simpson fires early and causes only superficial injury before begging for his life, and Hornblower points his pistol up into the air and fires, refusing to kill Simpson purely out of spite. This psychs out Simpson who tries to stab Hornblower In the Back with a knife and is killed by Captain Pellew, their commanding officer.
- Defied in Kamen Rider Drive with Professor Banno. He's at Gou's mercy, who he had played like a fiddle thanks to being his father. When Banno tries to have Gou spare him under the pretense of improving the world, Gou doesn't even listen and simply takes his dead friend's weapon and murders Banno for all the things the asshole's ever done.
- In the first episode of Luther, the titular detective is chasing a Serial Killer through an industrial site when a gantry gives way and the latter is left dangling. Luther doesn't try to help him up; the guy falls and ends up in a coma.
- Merlin (2008) Arthur has several of these moments: with Olaf in series 2 (though he's not exactly a villain), with Derian in series 4, and with Odin in series 5.
- In NUMB3RS, the guy helping the cops killed several people, but has the real baddie's money. The baddie kills his dad and holds the sister hostage, and after a complex series of actions, ends up with the Big Bad's gun with a SWAT team pointing guns at them. Since he vowed to confess to his earlier crimes if they rescued his sister (they had), he says he has nothing to live for. Don convinces to lower the gun.
Big Bad: See you in Leavenworth.
Guy: [shoots him in the leg, drops gun] That's so I can hear you comin'!
- Power Rangers Samurai: Antonio has such a moment with Deker in "A Stroke of Fate". Deker is semiconscious after the previous episode and is key to Serrator's plan. It would be easy to stab him and thwart Serrator's plot then and there. But Antonio cannot bring himself to kill a defenseless opponent, and so sheathes his Barracuda Blade and walks away. But he's still guilty over leaving the threat of Serrator's plan out there, so he later tries to track Deker down; leading to a second instance of this trope as Deker basically dares him to attack. He still can't do it.
- Rizzoli & Isles Jane Rizzoli has Hoyt, "The Surgeon" in this situation, though with a scalpel instead of a sword (incidentally, a scalpel he had just cut her and Dr. Isles with). Unlike most of the trope examples, She follows through.
Jane: I win! And you're going to Hell alone.
- Sharpe: In Sharpe's Revenge, Richard Sharpe gets involved in a pistol duel at dawn. He lets his opponent shoot first, and miss. The opponent and the witness beg Sharpe to show mercy, and eventually, after much consideration, Sharpe does: he shoots his opponent in the arse instead.
- The book averts this — Sharpe aims for the other man's belly, hoping to give him a slow and painful death (bear in mind that this guy had left Sharpe and a handful of men to face certain death, and a lot of them didn't make it out). Unfortunately, the pistol pulls slightly to one side and instead pierces his buttocks.
- Star Trek:
- Star Trek: The Original Series:
- A variation in "Where No Man Has Gone Before". After beating up Gary Mitchell, Kirk holds a large rock over his head, threatening him, but hesitates over killing his friend. He loses his chance when Mitchell regains his power.
- Similarly, in "Arena", Kirk has the Gorn captain at his mercy, then throws his weapon aside and declares that he refuses to kill him. This turns out to be how he passes a Secret Test of Character.
- Subverted in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Reunion" — Duras kills K'Ehleyr, so Worf goes over to his ship to fight him and knocks Duras down onto his back. At this point, Riker and Data arrive — Riker calls out to Worf, but is completely ignored, and Worf kills Duras.
- In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Blood Oath", Dax balks at killing the Albino, despite having sworn a blood oath to do so. Ironically this is mistaken for Only I Can Kill Him by Klingon warrior Kang, who stabs the Albino In the Back while he's mocking Dax's lack of resolve. Kang then thanks Dax for allowing him to strike the death blow.
- Star Trek: The Original Series:
- In Witchblade, Sara holds the point of the titular Witchblade against the throat of the man who killed her father, best friend, and partner. In the end, she chooses to arrest him.
- Musical example: in Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime II, the protagonist has the Big Bad Dr. X at gunpoint for a song, debating whether or not to do him in. On the last line, he pulls the trigger.
- William Shakespeare's Hamlet: As Claudius kneels to pray, Hamlet is given the perfect chance to slay him and avenge his father's murder. Unfortunately for everyone, Hamlet decides that killing Claudius in prayer would send him to Heaven, and he'd rather send him to Hellnote . He spares Claudius for the time being, ultimately causing the tragic end to the play.
- In Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins, Lord Gohda is engaged in a swordfight with his uncle, who has led a revolt against him, and ends up knocking his uncle's sword away. Of course, being the good and noble lord, Gohda hesitates and lowers his weapon. His uncle then repays this kindness by pulling out a gun and shooting him. It is then that the player-controlled Rikimaru steps in, cuing a boss fight. After the fight, the trope occurs again, with Rikumaru poised over the uncle. Of course, being a ninja, Rikimaru slashes, but Gohda leaps in and takes the slash to his back. The uncle, touched by this, proceeds to scamper off and kill Gohda's wife and kidnap his daughter. Nice guy.
- Happens constantly in the Dynasty Warriors / Samurai Warriors series of games especially cutscenes thanks to scripted deaths (beating the prior to the time you should, personally, just makes them run away and say a snarky comment or berate themselves), though sometimes accomplishing totally unrelated missions will allow you to dispatch a few of them early.
- Used in both endings of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.
- In the "Dark Side" ending, Emperor Palpatine tells Starkiller to prove his loyalty by killing Kota, a Jedi. After a moment's hesitation, he turns and attacks Palpatine. It doesn't end well.
- By contrast, the "Light Side" ending has Palpatine not only at his mercy, but demanding that Starkiller strike him down. Starkiller nearly goes ahead and does it, but is talked into not giving into his anger and spares him. This turns out to be exactly as bad an idea as it sounds when a moment later, Stormtroopers flood in while Palpatine catches his breath, gets back up, takes another shot at Starkiller and successfully kills him in a rematch. Whoops.
- Different variations are used a lot of times in Jedi Knight and the sequels.
- After Kyle defeats the first of Jerec's Dark Jedi, Yun, he has him at his mercy but lets him live, leading to his extra-quick Redemption Equals Death later on in the Light Side story or another duel in the Dark Side one.
- With Maw, the situation is similar, but Kyle is being tempted by the Dark Side and simply cuts him down.
- In the Light Side ending, Kyle has disarmed Jerec but decides to give him another chance and give him back his lightsaber. Jerec lunges at him again, and, well, if you read the trope description you'll know what happens.
- In Jedi Outcast, instead of literally threatening someone with a weapon, Kyle dangles Tavion in the air with Force Grip at the end of their duel and is about to kill her. He lets her go after she tells him she didn't really kill Jan Ors.
- After Jaden Korr defeats Rosh Penin in Jedi Academy, they seem to be about to enter a situation like this, but are interrupted by the arrival of Kyle Katarn and Tavion. They return to the setup when they next meet when Rosh is hardly much of a villain anymore but Jaden is still angry at him. Whether the player chooses to attack Rosh next or not determines whether you get the Dark Side or Light Side ending.
- Towards the end in the Light Side story in Jedi Academy, Tavion is determined to avoid this fate after being beaten by Jaden, and as a result ends up possessed by the dead Sith Lord she has been worshipping. In the Dark Side version, she tells Jaden to Get It Over With, and they comply. And then have to fight Kyle Katarn instead.
- Happens in Tales of Symphonia shortly after The Reveal, with Kratos raising his sword to deal the finishing blow to Lloyd. He can't do it, because Lloyd is his son. The Big Bad shows up a moment later to kick the party around more and then do it himself, which provides La Résistance enough time to mount a rescue.
- If you do actually win the battle, the situation is reversed; Lloyd is about to finish off Kratos when the Big Bad arrives.
- At the end of Assassin's Creed II Ezio kneels beside Rodrigo Borgia in the same Animus back room used for every major assassination in the series. Then, he retracts his blade and walks away.
Ezio: No more killing. I'm done.
- If you play as a Fighter in Quest for Glory II, you will encounter TWO duels which provide an example of this trope. First time is a duel which you have to pass in order to be accepted to the Fighter's Guild, where you are encouraged by the guild to kill your opponent, yet are able to spare him. Second time is the swordfight with Khaveen, in which you knock his sword from his hand and can either finish him off or allow him to pick his sword. Khaveen will knock your sword as well, and will not hesitate before hitting you. It does take him some time to do this, though.
- In The Matrix: Path of Neo if you have a katana or nearly any sword and do a fully charged killing blow, after the enemy is knocked into a kneeling position, Neo raises the sword above his head before bringing it down.
- Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2: Raziel holds the Soul Reaver over his head in order to execute Kain, only to spare him in the last second, changing his destiny and the course of history forever.
- Resident Evil 6 is an odd case of this being between two heroes, namely series veteran Chris Redfield and newcomer Jake Muller, the son of series villain Albert Wesker. When it's revealed in the final chapter of both their routes that Chris is the one who killed Wesker before the events of this game, Jake grows enraged and draws his gun on Chris, intending on shooting him in the face. He pulls slightly to the side at the last second, grazing the side of Chris's face.
Jake: There are bigger things than you and me...
- At the climax of Xenoblade Chronicles 1, Shulk is preparing to strike down Egil, the engineer of the Mechon and mastermind behind the attacks on the Bionis, but Shulk hesitates, even as Zanza yells at him to go through with it already. While Shulk takes the swing, he refuses to go through with killing Egil, as he realizes that the two aren't so different, and seeks to reach a mutual understanding.
- In The Order of the Stick, Elan must decide whether or not to let his brother Nale fall over a cliff to his death. He pulls him up.
- Subverted much, much later in the story, when Elan finds himself in a similar situation with his father Tarquin. This time he lets him fall, but only because he knows that, as a high-level character, his father has enough hit points to survive the fall, and because it was one of the few ways to deny giving Tarquin anything he wanted in that situation.
- In the "To Thine Own Self" arc of General Protection Fault, Nega-Trudy ponders killing Nega-Nick, but Nick-Prime convinces her not to do it by saying that having been around his Evil Counterpart, what he could potentially have been, and that Nega-Trudy could, by doing so, become what she hated most.
- Girl Genius: Jenka gets Othar disarmed and has her sword to his throat, but threatens him rather than kill him, possibly because she was hoping to learn what he'd done with Da Boyz. Da Boyz interrupt by pseudo fighting her which throws her for a loop and she tosses Othar aside even though she could have easily removed his head at any point.
- In El Goonish Shive, Raven has Abraham at his mercy after their sword fight and asks him to surrender so he doesn't have to kill him.
- Critical Role: When Trent Ikithon is defeated by the Mighty Nein after his attack on the Blooming Grove, he is quickly surrounded and pinned down. Essek paralyzes him with Hold Person, Beau sits on his chest with her first reared back should he try anything, Fjord holds a blade to his neck, Veth aims a charged crossbow bolt at him, Yasha steps on his groin while jabbing her gigantic greatsword into his sternum, just deep enough to draw blood, and Astrid is ultimately the one to trigger the Collar of Silence, shutting him up for good. All of them want him dead, but Beau and Caleb ultimately stop Astrid from finishing the job, not because they don't think it would be the right thing to do, but because they want Trent and the institutions that enabled him to be held accountable.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender:
- Prince Zuko leaves his arch-rival, Commander Zhao, unscathed when he's perfectly poised to kill him after defeating him in a Firebending duel. Zhao does rise up to deliver a flaming kick to the head from behind but is effortlessly deflected by Zuko's mentor, his uncle Iroh. Zuko appears more than ready to finish the fight after this action but is instructed by Iroh not to taint his victory and honor.
- Katara decides in "The Southern Raiders" that if someone is pathetic and weak enough to end up in this position in the first place, there would be no satisfaction in finishing them off anyway.
- In the Final Battle, Aang passes up two opportunities to kill Ozai; including a Finishing Move when he is trapped and helpless. Instead he takes away his Firebending.
- Reboot: After an intense showdown, Matrix has Megabyte in this situation but with a trident instead of a sword, Matrix says how Megabyte has ruined his life and brings the trident down... just an inch from his and then says: "Surprised? Don't be. You're not worth it. Mainframe will always endure. Remember this defeat, this humiliation! Remember that you can never win!
- In the Justice League Unlimited episode "Double Date", Huntress prepares to shoot Stephen Mandragora, the thoroughly despicable mob boss who killed her parents in front of her at a young age, and seems perfectly willing to put a crossbow bolt through him... until his son, Edgar, shows up behind him, and she finds she can't bring herself to inflict the same trauma on the boy.
- Subverted in the South Park episode "Red Sleigh Down" where after being freed from his torture, Santa takes a gun and shoots the person who tortured him. It looks and sounds like he shot to the side but then we see the victim and Santa says "I just couldn't do it, I just couldn't let him live. He shocked Santa's balls." It's probably a reference to a scene from the movie Three Kings, where after saving Barlow from his Iraqi torturers Major Gates hands Barlow his pistol. Barlow stares at the pistol, then at his interrogator, who wasn't so different, and finally points it to the side at the last minute and empties the clip into the wall.
- Transformers: Animated "Endgame" Optimus Prime has Megatron at his mercy a is filled with a vengeance after learning that Prowl has been Killed Off for Real, he swings the mighty Magnus Hammer to deliver the final blow, only to strike his fusion cannon and merely cuff Megatron instead.
- Since the Magnus Hammer needs a few moments to charge for a full-powered lightning strike, it's possible that Optimus only hesitated to charge rather than the moral dilemma of letting Megatron live.
- At the tail end of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003)' "City at War" arc, Karai does this to one of the defeated Foot Elite. She takes the swing but refrains from cleaving his head, settling for destroying his hat instead.
- Subverted in Transformers: Prime. Arcee is about to kill Megatron (who is badly damaged and on life support), but is convinced to stand down because Megatron has information the Autobots need. As soon as they get it, Arcee cuts Megatron's life support. Megatron survives this, but only because Arcee was in too much of a hurry to make sure she succeeded.
- Played straight twice later with Optimus and Megatron.
- The Dan Vs. episode "Dan Vs. Chris" culminates in an "Amok Time"-esque battle in the rain over a piece of sci-fi memorabilia, ending with Chris at the edge of a cliff, Dan apparently considering it... but a montage of memories seems to convince him otherwise. A minute later, spoofing the formula, Dan gives us the following dialogue:
Chris: Why didn't you kill me?
Dan: I was going to. But then I thought: 'Nah.'
- In an episode of Transformers: Prime, the Decepticon Starscream finds himself hammered into submission with Arcee's blade against his neck. Having promised to defect to her side, boasted about killing her partner without thinking, tried to snivel his way out of a fight to the death and nearly killed her himself when she started to show mercy, he's certain that begging for his life won't do him any good at this stage, so (seemingly recognizing the routine) he pleads with her, with wide eyes, to finish him herself and get it over with.
Starscream: Go on! Do it! Megatron will only terminate me for treason if I dare return to the Decepticons now. You may as well be the one to put me out of my misery.
Arcee: [hesitates, then pulls blade back] As if I needed convincing.
Starscream: [realizes she's actually going to do it] What?! WAIT! NO!!
- At that moment, her fellow Autobot Bumblebee happens to show up, and that puts her off of killing him.
- In Samurai Jack, a katana-wielding robot does this, in a direct reference to the Star Wars example above, including the line "All too easy."