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The Puppet Cuts His Strings

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So. The Conspiracy managed to do it: they put a Puppet King on the throne and now rule as The Man Behind the Man. The puppet was carefully selected to be stupid, ignorant, tractable, and totally dependent on them, and yet look like a Reasonable Authority Figure to the other people. They now have free rein to enforce their agenda without anyone realizing anything before it's too late.

...except that, to the conspirators' surprise, the man turns out not to play his role nicely. He starts acting on his own, taking his own decisions, disobeying the conspiracy, and sometimes outright opposing those who put him into power. It is frequent that he eventually acquires some form of control over them, the puppeteer and puppet ironically switching roles.

There are mostly two types of this:

This trope can feature a clear moral reading grid with the redemptive (and thus good) Puppet King eventually opposing the evil conspiracy but is far more likely to have a Grey-and-Gray Morality.

For reasons that should be obvious, No Real Life Examples, Please.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Gintama:
    • The Shogun, Shigeshige, used to be a loyal figurehead to the Tendoshuu, but starts changing his tune once his uncle is caught up in a massive scandal regarding his past misdeeds. He tries to abolish the shogunate, but pays with his life once the Tendoshuu blackmail one of the Shogun's friends.
    • The next Shogun, Nobunobu, becomes a more willing puppet, and a rather tyrannical one to boot, but he also changes his tune after seeing the country changing for the better, defies the Tendoshuu and also pays with his life.
  • Gundam:
    • Supplementary materials for Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam and Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ reveal that Haman Karn was originally appointed head of Axis Zeon by the Axis ruling council, as they thought she, 16 years old at the time, would be easy to control. She very quickly proved them wrong, and by the time we see her in the anime, she's cemented herself as the face and de facto leader of Axis Zeon.
    • Relena Darlian in Mobile Suit Gundam Wing was appointed as figurehead of the newly formed World Nation by Duke Dermail in order to deprive her of any real power and rehabilitate the image of the Romefeller Foundation. However, Relena is very quickly able to win over support with her idealistic views, turning her figurehead position into a real one, and ousting Dermail from power, in quite the Reassignment Backfire.
  • In One Piece, Buggy the Clown accidentally became one of the Four Emperors due to people attributing the creation of the Cross Guild (an organization dedicated to hunting down the Marines), with the real creators Sir Crocodile and Mihawk deciding to keep him as a figurehead to keep heat off of them while ostensibly serving as his lieutenants (which further adds to Buggy's Villain Cred). Eventually however, upon learning that his old friend Shanks is pursuing the One Piece and sick of being constantly under bootheels, Buggy decides to publicly declare that the organization will also be joining the hunt for the One Piece, with the puppetmasters being forced to go along with it.

    Fan Works 
  • Dear Diary: Ghetsis intended N to be his puppet and a front for controlling Team Plasma, but N is fully aware of what Ghetsis is trying to do and has his own ideas, especially when Zekrom gets involved.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Dave: The eponymous Dave impersonates US President Mitchell so his senior staff could reap the benefits of controlling the White House. This continues until Dave learns Mitchell's policies are going to shut down a homeless program and he convenes a budget meeting to slash redundant programs. When the staff tries to stop him, he quite calmly points out he is President and begins actively pushing his own agenda to help the disenfranchised.
  • Star Wars:
    • We somehow have this for Palpatine (the "hidden chessmaster" flavour). While never depicted as a weak person, as a chancellor he poses as an efficient but soft-spoken and cautious leader, and he is put into power by a coalition led by Padmé mostly to enforce her policies (and those of her Jedi allies) in a time of trouble. Of course, he secretly engineered the trouble from the beginning just so he could take power, have his own army, exterminate the Jedi, get rid of most of the Galactic Republic's democratic structures, and proclaim himself Galactic Emperor.
    • This actually happened on a meta-level during the production of Return of the Jedi. The Emperor was initially supposed to be a Puppet King to his council of regents and administrators, until it was decided that, with Vader's redemption, a final Big Bad was needed to tie the story together. The Emperor was thus switched from a weak-willed figurehead to a Sorcerous Overlord.

  • The Elenium: Played straight in The Tamuli by David Eddings. The ministers of the Tamul Empire believe their king, the Emperor Sarabian, is an ignorant fool. In fact, he's very intelligent, speaks multiple languages, and is almost frighteningly competent after he seizes power from the bureaucracy — although his competence is displayed mainly in understanding that he should listen to Queen Ehlana and her companions, and follow their advice.
  • Left Behind: The rise (and even the conception) of The Antichrist Nicolae Carpathia is engineered by a secret society of Satanists and funded by the richest man in history. When Carpathia achieves his goal of becoming Secretary General of the UN, he murders his benefactors in cold blood, revealing that he'd never intended to be their puppets.
  • Played straight in The Lord of the Rings, with old king Théoden of Rohan. He is made a puppet by his advisor Gríma (who answers to Saruman, who is himself in league with Sauron), through a mix of sorcery and applied psychology. Then Gandalf arrives and shows him the evil of Gríma and how to be once again a great, proud, and noble king.
  • The Sunne in Splendour: The Earl of Warwick fully expects the young, immature hedonist Edward IV to be guided by him. Edward shows him otherwise, fostering a historic and dangerous amount of resentment.
  • The Wheel of Time:
    • The Salidar Aes Sedai Hall of the Tower raises Egwene to the Amyrlin Seat because she's young, inexperienced, untrained, and without any political power. Since the Hall is split into various factions that can't agree on anyone, this seems like a good compromise, each faction secretly thinking that they can control Egwene and use her against the other ones. A few months later, they realize much to their horror that they have raised one of the most powerful and strong-willed Amyrlin in the history of the tower. This failure can be attributed not to any kind of evil agenda from the Hall, but to their overly proud and disdainful Aes Sedai nature. These old powerful women are so much used to ruling that they have forgotten they can lose their power, and they can't even imagine that a mere 17-something half-trained girl could challenge their authority.
    • This happens with Elaida and Alviarin. Initially, after her coup against Siuan, Elaida is the Amyrlin Seat, Alviarin is her Keeper of Chronicles (secretary) and there is not much more to it that it seems (well, except that Alviarin is the head of the Black Ajah). But after the botched attempt by the Tower to capture Rand, Alviarin blackmails Elaida and effectively turns her into her puppet, threatening to spill the inconvenient truth about her failures (which would at the time be enough to have her deposed and probably stilled) if she ever disobeys her. This goes on for a while, then Alviarin leaves for a few months on Black Ajah business. During that time, Elaida manages both to clear herself by putting the responsibility of her own failures on other people, and to discredit Alviarin enough to have her removed as Keeper and destroy much of her influence. When Alviarin finally returns, Elaida is free, she is in control, and she exerts painful revenge on her former blackmailer.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5:
    • A Downplayed Example with Captain Sheridan, who is chosen by the Clark administration on the basis of his loyalty to Earth (including a highly public incident during the Earth-Minbari war where he destroyed one of their war cruisers). Unfortunately for them, after he takes command, he wastes no time in establishing that he is loyal to Earth — not necessarily the man leading it.
    • A very straight example with the Centauri emperor Cartagia. Put on the throne by a conspiracy of noblemen believing he's nothing but a dimwitted and weak-willed leech, he not so much cut the strings as hacked them off with an axe while laughing maniacally and is on the verge of turning his entire planet into a sacrificial pyre for his own ascension to godhood promised to him by the resident Cosmic Horror. This didn't come into play until after the primary puppeteer, Lord Refa, was killed by Londo Mollari for other reasons, so it's not entirely clear how much of this trope was due to Cartagia's own efforts, and how much was due to this specific event.
  • Designated Survivor is all about the man The Conspiracy selected for the eponymous role, expecting him to be out of his depth as United States president and willing to hand power off to one of their people. He instead treats the conspiracy as an enemy to him and his country, falling firmly into the "more capable and strong-willed" type.
  • On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Dominion installs Legate Damar as the Puppet King of Cardassia after his predecessor, Gul Dukat, went bonkers from the death of his daughter. For almost two years, Damar watches as Cardassia loses more and more freedoms to the Dominion; this ends when he gets fed up and starts La Résistance.

    Video Games 
  • Destiny 2: According to the Cabal Booklet, the coup that ousted Emperor Calus and put Ghaul in charge of the Cabal empire was backed by the Praetorate, a "military aristocracy" that was previously overthrown by Calus when he came into power. Ghaul was far more than they bargained for, however, and Calus describes him refusing to be controlled and "[dragging] them forward by their own reins", and there's no further mention of them in the base game.
  • Depending on the course of action chosen by the player, this can happen in Fallout 3 with president John Henry Eden. Eden styles himself the President of the United States and is nominally the leader of the Enclave. When you meet him, you discover that he is actually an Artificial Intelligence designed to sound like a Reasonable Authority Figure, and that he has almost no power and is a puppet of Colonel Autumn, who actually runs all of the Enclave operations. Eden is much more naïve and deluded than bad-intentioned, though, and the player can point out that he has no power and is useless, and convince him to finally cut his strings by destroying himself.
  • Heroes of Might and Magic III: The Shadow of Death expansion (which takes place before the main game) shows that Sandro's fallback plan after the failure of the one taking up most of the expansion included backing the rise of a king, Finneas Vilmar, to serve as a puppet ruler of Deyja. Then Finneas Vilmar outmanoeuvres Sandro by tricking him into attacking a loyal Deyjan lord, giving Finneas cover to imprison Sandro and hijack control of the war plan. This doesn't last long, as the subsequent invasion of Erathia had the Deyjans raise the old King Gryphonheart (whose death had thrown the Erathians into enough disarray to allow the invasions)... who promptly turned out to be uncontrollable, killed Finneas and made himself King of Deyja.
  • The nobles rallying behind a claimant in King of the Castle are only doing so on the understanding that, once the claimant gets the throne, they'll let the nobles hold the reins of power while they act as a front. However, not only is the claimant free to act as they please if the dynasty is continued, but several schemes feature a "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue revealing that, even if they succeed, the claimants quickly prove more troublesome than expected.
    • If the Modernization scheme, which involves the Barons of the March re-equipping the military and leading it against the capital to topple the reigning King, meets its three objectives, the epilogue notes that the army quickly fell into disarray thanks to nepotism and corruption on the part of the Barons, while the claimant proved more difficult to control than they hoped.
    • The Propaganda scheme entails the Barons persuading the population that their claimant is the strong, intelligent leader the Kingdom needs, and if the three objectives succeed, the epilogue observes that the would-be puppetmasters in the March are already concerned that the new ruler is pulling their own strings.
    • In the Possession scheme, the Counts of the East aim to summon one of two demons to possess the King and make them do the East's bidding until they go insane and die (if they don't become a Baleful Polymorph first). However, the epilogue notes that the Counts found it more difficult to control a ruler who doesn't have a demon living inside their head.
    • The Conspiracy scheme revolves around the Patricians of the Coast taking advantage of the Kingdom's empty coffers by giving the Treasury and the other regions loans with sky-high interest rates and then either bleeding the Kingdom dry or offering to cancel all debts in exchange for the throne. If they pass their final objective, the epilogue remarks that the Patricians were surprised to discover their claimant wasn't the obedient puppet they thought them to be.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Hate Plus we have Councilor Ryu. Everyone else in the Council sees him as a weak and unassuming man, if not as a complete idiot. Even his position as Councilor for Captaincy is ridiculed and seen as useless and mostly honorific. That's exactly why he is appointed as Chief Councilor by why what is essentially a conspiracy led by *Mute. Then, by very cleverly using other people's political agenda, he manages to have most of the other councilors replaced by his allies, to create an independent police force that answers to him and not to *Mute, to remove the laws preventing politicians from holding multiple positions concurrently, and finally to get elected as the Ship President in addition to Chief Councilor, effectively becoming a dictator and killing poor old *Mute. In the greatest tradition of evil ass-kicking, he finally proclaims himself Emperor Ryu and founds a dynasty that will last for centuries of absolute power. In some of the final logs, Ryu proclaims that although he is not the spineless and stupid guy his fellow councilors saw in him, he is not a particularly ambitious man either and he just used the power the conspiracy gave him to begin with. It is also strongly hinted that most of his plotting and grab for power was actually encouraged and planned by his extremely intelligent and devious future wife.

  • The Order of the Stick:
    • Lord Shojo, the supreme lord of Azure City, pretends to be an incompetent ruler who talks to his pet cat but is quite privy to the machinations of the various nobles and political factions.
      Shojo: I have found it easier to let them believe that I am senile and easily swayed. When I rule in their favor, they assume that they controlled me. When I rule against them, they assume that one of their rival nobles controlled me. I can make the decisions I feel are necessary without worrying about being killed over them.
    • Attempted by Lord Tyrinar the Bloody, the previous puppet ruler of the (not-yet-called) Empire of Blood. He tried to make changes that riled up Miron and Tarquin, the puppetmasters who put him on the throne, including a more democratic form of government. Unfortunately, that meant he was of little worth to them, and thus he was deposed (and eaten) after a short 11-month reign.

    Western Animation 
  • In one episode of The Critic: Duke Phillips incorrectly learns he is dying, and mentions how his Bucket List included telling off his boss. But Jay points out that as the CEO, he doesn't have a boss. Jay is then press-ganged into a roleplaying scenario that involves Duke busting into "Jay"'s office and reading him the riot act, complete with pantomiming cutting the proverbial strings.
  • President Morty was set to be a figurehead ruler in the Council of Rick and Morty as the true rulers continue their decadence unbridled, but he soon kills his enemies and spares those who didn't want him to be a puppet. Helps that he's Evil Morty, though.