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Pyrrhic Victory / Live-Action TV

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Pyrrhic Victories in live-action TV.


  • 24 excels at this. America always wins but at the cost of many lives and politically, nothing ever changes; another group of terrorists will just show up in the next season. Living in the world of 24 just sucks.
  • The Battle of Witchhead in Andromeda turned into this for the Nietzscheans, although they arrived at the battle preparing to ambush a fleet of 100 High Guard ships with an armada of 1500, which would've been a Curb-Stomp Battle. Then Hunt (AKA the Angel of Death) shows up and wipes out 1000 ships, damaging the rest, and sewing disarray among the Nietzchean ranks. The High Guard fleet shows up shortly after and is still wiped out, but the Nietzscheans are left with hardly anything themselves. In fact, the ruling Drago-Kazov Pride was supposed to form the dynasty for the new Nietzschean Empire, but their losses mean that they no longer have the power to unite the warring prides, resulting in a 300-year power vacuum.
    • Interestingly, the pride that turned on the Drago-Kazov and prevented them from forming an empire ends up allying with Hunt 300 years later, as they have been mortal enemies with the Drago-Kazov since then.
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  • In the series finale of Angel the main cast has successfully set back Wolfram and Hart's plans for the apocalypse by at least several years. The cost is the loss of their control over the firm's earthly assets, the death of two major characters, abandonment of a third, severe wounding of a fourth, and a textbook Bolivian Army Ending. And despite all of that, they decide to make their end memorable.
  • Londo Mollari on Babylon 5 had a few of these.
    • In the third season, Londo collaborates with G'Kar to assassinate the villainous Lord Refa, which ultimately removes the only moderating influence on an even worse leader, the insane Emperor Cartagia.
    • And then in the fourth season, Londo and Vir kill off Cartagia and Morden and blow up all the Shadow ships stationed on Centauri Prime, finally freeing the planet from the Shadows' influence... only to cause the Drahk to take over the place in revenge in the final season, leading to Centauri Prime's isolation from the rest of the galaxy, the firebombing of its cities, and just general devastation of the whole planet. And not only does Londo have to watch all this unfold, but he also gets possessed by a Body Snatcher — and he has to live with all this for the rest of his life. Brr....
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  • During the evacuation of New Caprica in Battlestar Galactica, the Galactica and most of the civilian ships manage to escape the planet...at the cost of massive damage to Galactica and the loss of the high-tech, advanced battlestar Pegasus, which was capable of building Vipers. Nice job breaking it, Lee.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 2 ended with her killing Angel to save the world, right after his soul was already restored. That and a combination of Buffy's mother rejecting her and Kendra's death getting pinned on her caused Buffy to run away to Los Angeles.
  • Burn Notice:
    • Season 2: Michael sticks it to Management and loses the Burned Spies Organization's "protection" so his cover is blown and his old enemies will probably be gunning for him. He's also stuck in the middle of the ocean and has to swim back to Miami.
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    • Season 3: Michael defeats Simon and saves Management but he is captured and sent to a secret prison.
    • Season 5: Michael saves a team of spies from getting burned but Fiona turns herself in to the police for the accidental British embassy bombing so she won't be used as leverage against Michael anymore.
    • Season 6: Michael gets off the blacklist but his family and friends are disappointed.
  • The Chinese Paladin (Xian Jian Qi Xia Zhuan) TV Series definitely qualifies here, as the main character, Li Xiaoyao, literally loses everyone dear to himself except his newborn daughter a couple of scenes right after the "final battle."
  • Delete: Daniel tries to tell the AI letting the US destroy technology using EMP blasts from detonating nukes would be this since it would get left holed up in a few shielded servers. It doesn't care, however.
  • Doctor Who:
    • "The War Games": The Doctor is forced to call on the Time Lords to end the War Games. The humans are sent back to their own times, the Big Bad is dematerialised, but Jamie and Zoe are sent back to their own times with their memories erased and the Second Doctor is exiled to Earth and forced to regenerate.
    • In the final episode of "Earthshock", the Doctor, having just learned that, instead of destroying 26th Century Earth, the space freighter will crash into the prehistoric Earth and cause the extinction of the dinosaurs, tells the Cyber Leader: "You've lost!" The Cyber Leader retorts that the Doctor "will not enjoy the victory", meaning he will not be alive to enjoy it. Instead, the Doctor doesn't enjoy the victory because it is overshadowed by Adric's death. (Adric, unaware of the freighter's significance in Earth's timeline, is killed trying to prevent it from crashing.)
    • "Dalek": The Doctor seems to be feeling this after the Dalek self-destructs.
      Rose: Is that the end of it then? The Time War?
      The Doctor: I'm the only one left. I "win". How about that?
    • At the end of "Last of the Time Lords" the Master gets shot by Lucy Saxon after the Doctor's ended his regime over the Earth. Rather than regenerate (and subsequently spend the rest of his life imprisoned on the Doctor's TARDIS) he chooses to die, leaving the Doctor alone as the only living Time Lord once again (for the moment). It's a pyrrhic victory for them both.
      The Doctor: You've got to! Come on. It can't end like this. You and me, all the things we've done. Axons! Remember the Axons? And the Daleks. We're the only two left. There's no one else... REGENERATE!
      The Master: Look at that...I win!
      • However, the Master pulls a Thanatos Gambit by anticipating his death and getting his cult to resurrect him a year later. But he's not the only one. Lucy Saxon has also made arrangements to prevent this, and ends up making a Heroic Sacrifice to prevent her husband's resurrection; he ends up Coming Back Wrong.
    • The Doctor's victory in "The Waters of Mars". He saved the remaining crew but changed history in the process, believing that the rules of Time will bend to his will. Adelaide realizes how wrong the turn of events is and subsequently kills herself in order to correct the timeline. The only thing her suicide did was cause the Doctor to realize how wrong he'd been, thinking that he's untouchable. The timeline was already altered, as the survivors revealed what happened to the authorities; in the original timeline, the events on Mars remained a mystery.
    • "The Woman Who Fell to Earth": The Doctor manages to stop an alien headhunter from claiming his target... unfortunately, Grace O'Brien dies in the process, not to mention the other people the alien killed during his hunt.
  • For the People: Comes with the territory, since there are plenty of times where the prosecution successfully punishes someone who's morally innocent, or the Defence successfully defends a bad person who's only technically innocent.
    • Leonard clearly feels guilty about winning his first case, since Sandra clearly had the moral high ground — her client was clearly being entrapped by the FBI.
    • Jill feels terrible about having to defend a DEA Agent who locked up an innocent man and forgot about him for four days and winning, especially since she's the one who insisted the US Attorneys charge him in the first place.
  • Played for laughs in Friends when Chandler got the highest score in Ms. Pac-Man but his hand became spasmed and stuck in a "claw" formation.
    I got the highest score, but at a price.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • King Robert in the season 5 Blu-ray lore about the Dance of the Dragons describes how Rhaenyra Targaryen sacrificed her sons to (temporarily) win the Iron Throne. It's also probably an omen of his wife Cersei doing the same thing in the season 6 finale after she blows up the Great Sept of Baelor using wildfire with all of her political rivals inside it. While this action places her in the Iron Throne, it turns what is left of the country against her. The Reach and Dorne have joined forces with Daenerys and her invading armies. The North and Vale have declared independence under the new King in the North, Jon Snow. With the death of Walder Frey and his two most prominent sons, the Riverlands can't be counted on for support. Even the Westerlands are suspicious since one of the people she killed was her uncle Kevan, the ruler of the Westerlands.
    • Robert's Rebellion in the backstory, especially for Robert whose main motivation was to rescue his beloved Lyanna Stark from Rhaegar Targaryen. When Lyanna died at the end of the war, Robert was left with the throne and married to someone he despised instead of the woman he loved. It's even worse that in truth, Lyanna and Rhaegar did fall in love with one another and married in secrecy. The entire rebellion is based on poor miscommunication on the parties involved which makes it very tragic with Robert having no idea that his beloved left him for another man.
    • By Season 4, House Lannister holds the Iron Throne with their enemies all either broken or retreating. However, their manpower is badly depleted from hard fighting, the Crown is deep in debt to the Iron Bank, their gold mines have dried up and they have been forced to concede a lot of power to the Tyrells, putting them in a very fragile position. The only thing they have going for them is that no one else knows for sure how bad their situation really is. The dire situation becomes unmanageable after the demise of Tywin, the only one able to clean up the mess.
    • Daenerys overthrows the regimes in Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen and frees the slaves, but as soon as she is gone the Wise Masters of Yunkai return to slaving and her regime in Astapor is overthrown by a freeman butcher named Cleon.
    • In Season 7, Jaime deliberately engineers one. When Dany's forces plan to attack Casterly Rock, he strips it of all its supplies and leaves behind only a token force, sending the bulk of his forces to attack Highgarden and wipe out one of Dany's major allies. At the same time, Euron's fleet destroys the ships that brought them in the first place. This victory nearly destroys Dany's forces. However, the assault was so incompetent that they only won at all because the keep was empty; if he'd mounted a traditional defense along with Euron's assault the Unsullied (attacking unsupported in a role they're bad at) would have been annihilated.
    • Despite managing to kill Oberyn during the trial by combat, the Mountain is ultimately rendered comatose by Oberyn's poisoned spears and left at the mercy of the torturously pragmatic Qyburn.
    • King Aegon III Targaryen becomes king at the end of the Dance of the Dragons but he and his wife are the Sole Survivor of the whole family.
    • King Aegon II Targaryen outlived his opponent Rhaenyra, both of his sons, his wife, and his dragon Sunfyre. However, Aegon never really recovered from his injuries. Living in pain for the rest of his days, his reign would only last for about 6 months, with his own supporters eventually poisoning him when it became obvious that they couldn't win the continuing civil war. And, adding insult to injury, the crown passed to Rhaenyra's child, Aegon III, when he died without (male) issue. Rhaenyra's claim was vindicated in the long run.
  • Sylar finds this out the hard way in Volume 5 of Heroes. He's got everything he ever wanted. He's the most powerful Evolved Human on the face of the Earth. He's immortal and invulnerable to harm. There's maybe a grand total of two people (that we know of) who could realistically pose a threat to him and he can easily take all the powers he wants. He's also killed the only two people who ever cared for him and realises that he's now going to be utterly alone, wretched and despised for eternity. It's enough to make him have yet another Heel–Face Turn, this one seemingly more permanent than the previous ones.
  • In How I Met Your Mother, Marshall was able to win a lawsuit against a pharmaceutical company but the judge was unwilling to hurt the company by fining them with the intended 25 million dollars and so, reduced it to 25 thousand (0.1% of the original). Marshall was very upset since more was probably spent on court fees and lawyer paychecks for each side. This event would inspire him to apply to be a judge so he would have more influence on the system. An earlier episode revealed that Marshall's law firm kept itself afloat by settling all their cases and avoiding fighting any cases where they could experience one. Marshall inspired them to contest cases in court again which resulted in his case ending up as one. By the end of the season the law firm is broke and has laid off almost all employees.
    • Ted experiences this when he ensured that Robin would go after Barney at the expense of leaving him alone at the opening of the building he designed. The last scene is him looking out a window depressed while the rest of the gang was happy.
  • Jeopardy!: Since consolation prizes were eliminated in 2002, a challenger who beats the champion with a final score of less than $1,000 actually ends up taking home the least money for the day (second place gets $2,000, third gets $1,000, and the champ keeps whatever he/she has already won). However, they do get to come back for another game to try and win more.
  • Married... with Children: For the most part, even when Al wins, he loses.
    • "Born To Walk": Al, having lost his license, and sick of getting no help from his family when they cost him a chance to win money at a horse race, vows to never help his family again, nor for them to help him. The next day, he passes the driving test, but the instructor runs over his foot.
    • "Tooth and Consequences": Peg finally gives in to Al's demand and makes an amazing dinner for the family... Which Al can't eat because he had recently taken a trip to the dentist.
    • "Just Shoe It": Al gets to star in a shoe commercial, but it's just an excuse for him to get crushed by Ed "Too-Tall" Jones, beaned by a pitch by Steve Carlton, and knocked out by Sugar Ray Leonard. And then he doesn't even get to appear in the commercial, his feet only being shown getting knocked out of the shoes that were being advertised.
    • "A Shoe Room With a View": Thanks to Al's efforts, the aerobics studio next to the shoe store gets an attractive trainer, who brings many attractive clients with him. However, since he fell out of a window and was left in a wheelchair, he couldn't look through the holes that were drilled in the shoe store to ogle the attractive women, like his friends were.
  • Nikita season 1 ends with Operation Sparrow getting foiled and Michael running away with Nikita with a Black Box in their possession but her relationship with Alex is damaged and she stays at Division under Oversight's supervision.
  • Person of Interest. Team Machine's victories have become more pyrrhic since season 4, often ruining innocent lives to save them from Samaritan. What's sadder is that no matter what they do, Samaritan just keeps winning. Defeating Samaritan once and for all required the team to fry the entire internet while they preserved the Machine by uploading it to a satellite and then have it download back to Earth after the virus ran its course. Root, Reese, and Elias were all killed by Samaritan agents by the time it was all over, and Finch faked his death in the same explosion that killed Reese so that he could have a personal happy ending with Grace in Italy.
  • In Power Rangers RPM, in the Grand Finale, after three long years the rangers win the Robot War... but by the time the Big Bad goes down, at least 90% of humanity is dead, with the entire planet outside of Corinth's protective dome having been bombed to a post-nuclear war wasteland. Plants are just starting to regrow in the less radioactively "hot" areas, but the global ecosystem is by and large too far gone to recover most of the lost biodiversity or return with new life with any speed.
  • The Red Dwarf episode "Meltdown" has Rimmer leading "good" waxdroids of famous historical figures against "evil" waxdroids. His plan ends with Kryten turning the planet's boiler up, thus melting every last waxdroid. Since they had more or less become the figures they were based on, this is akin to mass murder on all sides. Rimmer, however, considers the ordeal a victory for himself.
  • In Revolution the rebellion led by Miles Matheson is winning victories against the Monroe Republic but for Miles every such victory is pyrrhic. Every fighter he loses is someone he cannot replace and the enemies he is killing are old friends and protegees of his. Even if he removes Monroe from power, the Republic will be finished and it will become part of the Georgia Federation.
  • In The Shield's series finale Vic Mackey succeeded in getting away with everything he's done, but no friends in the world, his family relocated out of fear from him, his reputation as a cop destroyed for good and his new employment is guaranteed to be Hell for the next three years (an Ironic Hell he has to endure or his immunity deal is void and he goes to prison for life). So yes, he won, but the cost was obscene.
  • The eponymous team of Stargate SG-1 is accused of this from time to time in the show. In one episode they're bragging that they've done more in the last few years to defeat the Goa'uld than other groups have managed to do in centuries. The ally they're talking to points out that all they've really done is create power vacuums among the System Lords that have almost inevitably resulted in even worse individuals attaining power. Since Jack is usually the one this is directed at, his response amounts to "at least we're trying."
  • From Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
    • Discussed in the two-part special "The Way of the Warrior" when the battle between Deep Space Nine and a Klingon attack force reaches a stalemate.
      Worf: Consider what you do here today, Gowron! Kahless himself said, "Destroying an empire to win a battle is no victory."
      Gowron: "And ending a battle to save an empire is no defeat."
    • In the opening battle of the Dominion War, Dukat managed to capture Deep Space 9, but lost over fifty ships, let Starfleet take out a vital shipyard while the fleet was otherwise occupied, and failed to bring in reinforcements through the wormhole thanks to Starfleet blockading it with self-replicating Space Mines that took months to get rid of. Oh, and just to set the tin lid on it, Starfleet was able to hold the combined Cardassian/Jem'Hadar fleet off long enough to evacuate all their personnel and comprehensively trash the station itself. Dukat being Dukat, he was perfectly fine with this... At first. Retaking the station was the last time anything went well for him for some time.
    • Invoked in "What You Leave Behind" by the Female Changeling. Graceful Loser she is not. Penned in by the allied fleets, now including the better part of the Cardassian military after a Heel–Race Turn sparked by her Orbital Bombardment of a city to quell a popular uprising, and near death from a biological weapon, she orders the Jem'Hadar to slaughter the entire Cardassian species. She only relents in exchange for Odo delivering the cure for the plague to the rest of the changelings, by which point 800 million Cardassians are dead.
      "You may win this war, Commander, but I promise you, by the time it's over, you will have lost so many ships, so many lives, that your 'victory' will taste as bitter as defeat."
  • Supernatural:
    • There's an odd example at the end of the fifth season. Sam and Dean manage to defeat Lucifer, but at the cost of Sam having to jump into Lucifer's cage. Particularly heartbreaking because all Dean was trying to do was save his brother for most of the series. Then it turns out that Sam's actually alive after all... but we find out in S6 that he's now The Soulless and The Sociopath. When he gets his soul back, he also gets back the memories of being tortured by Lucifer in the Cage for over 120 years, and the resulting PTSD nearly kills him. Though technically, Eric Kripke intended to end Supernatural with season five, and both Sam and Dean were supposed to go into the cage.
    • Season six ends with Well-Intentioned Extremist Castiel preventing Archangel Raphael from restarting the Apocalypse. To do so, he only allies with a demon he then betrays, kills his closest angel allies, breaks Sam's mind, then absorbs all the monster souls from Purgatory for the power to declare himself the new God.
    • And if this wasn't bad enough, season seven opens with Castiel smiting numerous angels who opposed him and humans who offended him, and losing control of this power so it releases voracious, unkillable monsters from Purgatory on the world.
    • Season 7 has Sam and Dean successfully kill the Leviathans and save humanity from a future of being mindless cattle, but Dean and Castiel are sent to Purgatory in the ensuing blast, Meg and Kevin are captured by Crowley's demons, and Bobby by then has passed on. So basically Sam is alone with Crowley in control of the power vacuum caused by the Leviathans.
    • Another one at the end of Season 4. Sam kills Lilith, the season's Big Bad, but in doing so breaks the final seal and frees Lucifer from his Cage.
    • At the end of Season 10, Sam cures Dean of the Mark of Cain... but the result is the freeing of the Darkness, the original source of evil in the Universe.
  • In That Mitchell and Webb Look one episode of Numberwang went on for so long that the game went into Sudden Death. The first contestant to inhale enough of the poisonous Number Gas won. But, y'know, died.
  • Occasionally happens on Top Gear with their races or challenges. For example, in the four-way race across London during rush-hour traffic between a bike, a car, public transportation and a motorboat down the Thames, Hammond, riding the bike, won, but he spent the entire episode cursing out traffic lights and almost getting hit by buses. He was also visibly exhausted by the end. Jeremy came in second on the boat, but he had by far the most relaxing and least stressful journey.
    • As this is a show all about how awesome cars are, the fact that the winners all beat a car caused Clarkson to declare that the entire race was a lie and he, in fact, died when his boat exploded.
    • The end of the Bolivia and especially the Argentina specials. Having driven their cars all that distance, they certainly didn't achieve much for their trouble.
  • At the end of the Torchwood miniseries Children of Earth, Jack manages to save the world. However, in order to do so, he had to kill his grandson. Not to mention that his boyfriend also just died in the previous episode...
  • The Twilight Zone episode "The Masks" has a benign, rich, and dying Jason Foster having to deal with his greedy, callous, and hypochondriac daughter, her husband, and their vile children in the last hours of his life. They are there just to see him die so they can inherit his vast fortune and he knows it. So he makes an addendum to his will: if any of them removes a special mask he had made for them before midnight, one which, he says, reflects the opposite of their "true" face, note  they will inherit only enough money to take the train back to Boston. They succeed and Jason soon dies after midnight. When they remove the masks, they see their faces have contorted and shifted to be perfect matches for the ugly masks they were just wearing for hours. Now they must live with these faces that reflect their inner vanity and pettiness.
  • The Wire is a whole series of pyrrhic victories as the police generally succeed in jailing drug lords, only to have even worse ones take over in the aftermath. Not to mention that the aftermath consists of gangs violently battling for control of the drug trade.
  • This is tackled in the Xena: Warrior Princess episode "A Good Day". She and Gabrielle save a village caught in the middle of Caesar and Pompey's war by performing a Salt the Earth campaign. As they light funeral pyres for their dead, Xena tells Gabrielle "it was a good day of battle".


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