Examples of characters unwittingly aiding their foes?
July 24, 2013 6:36 AM   Subscribe

What are examples in fiction of characters who think they are subverting the bad guys only to learn that they were unwittingly doing what the bad guys wanted all along? SPOILERS follow.

The examples I already have in mind come from film [SPOILERS FOLLOW]: in Total Recall Quaid seeks out the mutant leader of the rebels intending to help the resistance movement, but later learns that his actions were part of a plan hatched by the bad guys and Quaid’s former identity as Hauser to locate and kill the rebel leader. The Matrix Reloaded builds up to Neo going to the source believing that doing so will defeat the evil machines somehow, only to meet the Architect who informs him that Neo is fulfilling a necessary role for the machines who knew all along he would reach this place and choose between saving Trinity or resetting the Matrix. In Zardoz, Zed instigates an assault on the Vortex and starts killing the Eternals, but it is revealed that Zed is the result of an External’s genetic experiments to breed a superman who would invade the Vortex and kill the Eternals, thus releasing them from their moribund existence. In all these cases the characters believed they were acting to thwart their enemies, only for it to be revealed that they were in fact unknowingly helping to accomplish their enemies’ goals. What are some other examples from fiction (not necessarily film)?
Follow-up question: is there a name for this trope?
posted by mediated self to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's frequently called the Xanatos Gambit. There's a terrific list of Xanatos Gambits in the relevant section on TVTropes. (Warning: timesuck TVTropes link.)
posted by pie ninja at 6:40 AM on July 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

In Martin Amis's The Information, the protagonist is his nemesis's patsy.
posted by kandinski at 6:58 AM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you're really talking about the Batman Gambit practiced upon an Unwitting Pawn scenario. The Xanatos Gambit is kind of a "heads I win, tails you lose" setup, where no matter what the hero does, the villain gets something that they want. Doesn't necessarily need to be the same thing, i.e., if the hero does X, then the villain gets A, but if the hero does Y (or nothing) then the villain gets B, both of which are win states for the villain.

But unlike the Xanatos Gambit, which if executed correctly has no failure conditions, the Batman Gambit definitely has a failure condition, frequently including the target simply doing nothing, but includes efforts to manipulate the target into choosing the desired course of action. So in this setup, if the Unwitting Pawn simply leaves bloody well alone, the villain would lose. Or at least not win nearly as much.

Take Total Recall for example. If Quaid had simply said, "You know what? Screw these guys. I'm going to Hawaii." The villains don't get what they want, and the rebels can continue on as planned. It's only by trying to help the rebels that he puts them in danger. Or the game Darth Sidious plays in the Star Wars prequels. If Queen Amidala had simply refused to move for the vote of no confidence, Sidious would never have come to power. Etc.
posted by valkyryn at 7:04 AM on July 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

The new BBC Sherlock series plays with this quite a bit, particularly through the Moriarty storyline.
posted by mochapickle at 7:04 AM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Skyfall is the most recent example I can think of.
posted by cmfletcher at 7:04 AM on July 24, 2013

The novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John La Carré. I haven't seen it, but because it's such an essential element of the novel it would certainly be in the film as well.
posted by Green With You at 7:19 AM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

In Die Hard, one reason they use terrorism as a cover to their robbery is so the FBI will take command and cut power to the building as standard procedure. This disables the last set of electronic locks to the vault.
posted by mikepop at 7:36 AM on July 24, 2013

Massive spoiler this, but the denouement of Arlington Road fits this pattern exactly.
posted by hydatius at 7:43 AM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Another massive spoiler: The Spanish Prisoner.
posted by mochapickle at 7:48 AM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Sherlock! What a great show. Also, pretty much all of the X-Files.

And the Whitecloaks in the Wheel of Time books, if that's your sort of thing. Also (forgive me) Katniss Everdeen in . . . well, you know.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 8:12 AM on July 24, 2013

It's been a while since I read it, so I may be mis-remembering, but I think The Golden Compass might fit the bill.

There was also recent AskMe about villains that get caught on purpose that would add a few movies to your list!
posted by amarynth at 8:13 AM on July 24, 2013

There's an argument to be made that the recent Avengers movie was an elaborate Xanatos gambit.
posted by namewithoutwords at 8:17 AM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cloud Atlas (at least one story and its historical fallout)...
posted by acm at 8:20 AM on July 24, 2013

The Usual Suspects
posted by an animate objects at 8:51 AM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pretty much everything that happens in the first 4.5 books of the Fablehaven series.
posted by procrastination at 8:59 AM on July 24, 2013

The entire plot of Oldboy.
posted by 1adam12 at 9:28 AM on July 24, 2013

The second act of current movie "The Fast and Furious 6" (SPOILERS, DUH) involves the attempted theft of an item from a military base. One of the criminal gang members is caught on base in what appears to be a theft attempt, so the good guys decide to move the item via highway convoy to another location. What better way to protect something from a gang of thieves who do their best work on the highway using supercars, I wonder?

Many murder mysteries revolve around two apparently unrelated crimes, and it's pretty common for the inevitable establishment of the relationship to go the way of one crime being committed in order to create the conditions for another. The first episode of NCIS involved a murder of an officer who serves with the President, and the inferential security threat of that murder caused the Air Force to change which of two planes serving as Air Force One they were using for a particular trip. They swapped the upgraded one for the one with different security on its weapons lockers, and boom, the badguy had access to weapons he couldn't access on the first plane.

The who change the conditions away from normal in response to a crime or catastrophe (caused by the killer/crook), thereby creating the opportunity for the intended crime, aren't always the protagonist good guys, but they're always unknowingly part of the plan.

PS I almost walked out of Arlington Road-- I found it frustrating. Soooo glad I didn't; wow.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:50 AM on July 24, 2013

On an entirely different note, Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice is the instrument through which Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett are brought back together as a result of her efforts to keep them apart (of course LCDB is the "bad guy" in this scenario, but the "the very thing I am doing to subvert you turns out to help you" logic is the same).
posted by yoink at 10:17 AM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

What, nobody mentioned Brer Rabbit yet? Oh no, PLEEEAAASE don't throw me in that briar patch!!
posted by CathyG at 4:28 PM on July 26, 2013

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