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You're watching or reading something, and you're approaching a moment where the villain is on the spot. He's got a choice: continue being his old bad self, or do something nice. He does something nice. Aww, a Heel Face Turn, isn't that sweet?
But it's more complicated than that. What if it's not the villain who does it? What if it's the protagonist in a story of Gray and Gray Morality? What if you weren't at all sure the character was going to do something good, because everything was lining up for a World Half Empty Downer Ending? That's Adopt the Dog: it's when, to quote a wise old man, someone chooses to do what's right instead of what's easy; if Kick the Dog is when the character decides to be bad, then Adopt the Dog is when he decides to be good. And for greatest effect, Adopt the Dog applies itself to a character who was sort of morally neutral. This isn't really a Heel Face Turn; this is a character who decides to be a Face after, previously, being neither.
In addition to having an effect on the character (declaring themselves Good instead of Neutral, occasionally followed by death), it also has a profound effect on the audience. When you're dealing with morally ambiguous protagonists and (more often than not) spending a lot of time in the drowning end of the Sliding Scale pool, you're never sure what the ending's gonna be like, who's gonna win, or whether you're going to be happy about it. Adopting The Dog is when the audience believes it might be possible to Earn Your Happy Ending - or, for that matter, that the character has earned it - and begins to actively be on that character's side. Adopt the Dog is not just about the character's choice, it's also how that choice completely changes the tone and message of the story.
As previously mentioned, can lead to Earn Your Happy Ending, Redemption Equals Death / Redemption Earns Life, and Big Damn Heroes, since there finally is a Hero who can Big Damn. Compare Last Second Chance, in which the character is given the choice, instead of making it out of their own heart. Contrast The Atoner: a character who Adopts The Dog may not have actually done anything that requires atonement.
Unmarked spoilers ahead.
Anime & Manga
- Lancer in Fate Stay Night. He's Lawful Neutral serving Neutral Evil Kotomine. He despises his orders, but feels honor bound to follow his wishes anyway. However, he will neither work with Gilgamesh even though he knows he can't beat him, nor will he kill Tohsaka after protecting her so much. Therefore, in the latter, he pulls off multiple CMOA (check FSN's page for details) before making a Heroic Sacrifice gets to Go Out with a Smile.
- Famously in Dragonball Z, when Piccolo takes the brunt of a blast intended for Gohan. His dying words (in the manga and in Kai) include bemoaning having done something so noble, after years of being a Big Bad.
- Adolf Hitler gets one in The Authority's Jenny Sparks spin-off. It's surprisingly touching. In part of Jenny Spark’s ability to befriend Young Future Famous People, Hitler and she were friends while he was still a struggling artist. Years later, a considerably more powerful Hitler happened upon Jenny Sparks being tortured by Nazi interrogators. He utilized his position to have her released immediately.
- In Elf Quest, Rayek allows Cutter to beat the crap out of him, after he had forced Cutter to spend several thousands of years without his family. It effectively finally solves a conflict that had existed since issue 2.
- A small moment in Watchmen: Rorschach apologizes to Dan for being a shitty friend and promises to help save the world, instead of focusing on his violent hatred of... pretty much everything.
- Frank Castle has one at the beginning of the MAX comic "Kitchen Irish". He's in a diner when a bomb goes off across the street, and the big glass window of the diner turns into a deadly hail. He finds a man with a hole in his chest through which his heart is visible, and all the man can gasp is "Help...me." So he does. Instead of getting out of there before the police arrive, he works on the man's heart until an EMT gets there, and then they both work for half an hour until the man is stabilized. Granted, the rest of the comic is Castle brutally killing the people responsible for the bombing and their enemies, but the moment remains an Adopt The Dog example.
- In American Beauty, in which the main character has spent most of the movie lusting after a sultry cheerleader his daughter's age. When he finally gets a chance to seduce her, though, she reveals that her sexualized act is just that, an act, and he can't go through with it - instead, he just wraps her in a blanket and tries to actually help her.
- followed by his sudden demise.)
- Luke Skywalker rises above the need to kill his father.
- In A New Hope, his last-minute change from mercenary rogue to hero when he swoops in to save the day at the end.
- In The Empire Strikes Back Han tries to leave Hoth so he can repay Jabba, but first risked his neck to save Luke who was freezing to death, and the Imperials show up in the system.
- And then in Return of the Jedi, he did it again when he accepted command of the assault team.
- In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the Man with No Name shows a lot of compassion in the last half hour to soldiers on both sides, often at great cost, after spending most of the movie an apathetic True Neutral.
- When Ludacris, who has done various bad things, including breaking his own 'no black on black crime' rule, releases the Asians from the minibus he's stolen at the end of Crash, instead of selling them.
- In The Dark Knight, two boats full of people are faced with a Sadistic Choice: explode the other boat, or face dying in an explosion themselves. In a boat populated by convicts, one of the convicts stands up and approaches the guard holding one of the detonators:
"You don't wanna die, but you don't know how to take a life. Give it to me. These men will kill you and take it anyway. Give it to me. You can tell them I took it by force. Give it to me, and I'll do what you should've done 10 minutes ago". The instant the guard obliges, the convict tosses the detonator out the window so that exploding the other boat is no longer an option.
- Twice at the end of Casablanca: first, Rick tells Ilsa to stay with her husband for her own good and the good of the world, and then Louis refuses to turn Rick in for shooting Major Strasser and agrees to join the resistance. "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
- The Searchers. Ethan Allen says that, when he finds his niece, he's going to do her a favor and put a bullet in her brain. When he finally does catch up with her, he takes her up in his arms and says, "Let's go home."
- In one of the Bean sequels to Ender's Game, the current presidents of India and Pakistan (two nations who have been hostile to each other for a very long time) are encouraged by the resident Manipulative Bastard to form a non-aggression pact so that they can conquer other neighbors than each other. Then it turns out that they have been betrayed by said Manipulative Bastard (duh)... And, as a bit of Epistolary, the prime minister of India publishes an open letter to the ruler of Pakistan, inviting Indian from both nations to unite against the barbarian invaders.
Live Action TV
- In the Doctor Who episode "The Parting of the Ways", the Doctor is prepared to commit another double genocide... and then he decides that no, once was bad enough, he's not doing it again.
- In "Journey's End", we're led to believe that Dalek Caan is prophesising the triumph of the Daleks... when actually he's constructed a gigantic Batman Gambit- only saved from being a roulette by virtue of the fact that Caan has seen all of space and time - to bring down the Dalek Empire once and for all. But he forgot the Daleks have Joker Immunity.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Intervention". Pretty much the definitive moment in Spike's change from evil to good (which is different to his Heel Face Turn, strangely enough). To elaborate: Spike is in love with Buffy and has a soft spot for Buffy's little sister, Dawn. Then the Big Bad abducts Spike for information about the location of a a magical living Key—who Spike knows is actually Dawn. Despite brutal torture, Spike refuses to give Dawn up and is rescued. Later Spike's adoring Buffybot offers to reveal the Key's identity and so protect Spike from future harm, but Spike forbids the Buffybot to do so: if Buffy lost Dawn, it would destroy her, and Spike "couldn't live with her being in that much pain." After this point Spike still commits morally questionable to downright horrible acts, but he never pulls a full Face Heel Turn again. And this was before he got a soul.
- On Dollhouse, the amoral Topher gets this in "Belonging" when he refuses Adelle's order to basically sell Sierra to Kinnard. Adelle makes her own final choice in "Stop-Loss" when she decides to turn on the Rossum Corporation (though this isn't revealed until the end of the next episode, "The Attic").
- The ending of the Firefly pilot episode has Mal choose to adopt the dog when he takes on River and Simon rather than cut them loose on the border worlds. Later on, in Serenity, he does it again when he chooses to take River on board once more after learning of how dangerous she was when he killing-programming was activated.
- In Mega Man Zero 2, Harpuia spares the title character. This point onwards starts his large amount of Character Development, firmly establishing himself as an Ensemble Darkhorse and Hero Antagonist.
- The Martyr in Hunter: The Reckoning has this as her backstory. Initially a Spoiled Brat who did nothing but party and spend her father's fortune, Kassandra Cheyung experiences an epiphany when the cops raid the party she's attending. Her small friend is knocked down by the ensuing rush for the exits, and Kassandra wasn't strong enough to move her to safety, so she shielded her with her body and was subsequently trampled. The experience had a dramatic effect on her, and from then on she gave her time and energy to helping others, making her perfectly suited for the Martyr path when she and the others become Empowered.
- Brad Evans of Wild Arms 2 is a convict (named "Prisoner 666") on the run from the government at the start of the game. He comes across a lost puppy in the rainy forest. Bonus points for actually adopting a dog.
- If she survives the suicide mission, at the end of Mass Effect 2, Jack is essentially morally neutral. On one hand, she finds closure with her past, risks her life to save humanity, and is loyal to Shepard. On the other, she doesn't seem to have much faith in anything or anyone besides Shepard and remains callous about killing. By Mass Effect 3, Jack has taken a position teaching biotic students for the Alliance and is firmly on the side of good. Although still an Action Girl, she's become a Mama Bear instead of just a sociopath.
- Kronos from Wayward Sons was revealed to have adopted the young survivor or a village that was brutalised by one of his more sadistic minions. He wiped the boy's memory as an act of mercy, named him Menes and raised him as though his own flesh and blood, even growing to love him as a father. Such a shame for him, then, that, upon discovering the truth, Menes became The Mole against him for Suras' side.
- Played with in The Order of the Stick, with Belkar. He has performed unquestionably good acts during the comic, such as preventing an assassination attempt, refusing to join the Big Bad when it could have been beneficial to him, and even literally adopting a cat whose owner was killed. Every time this happens, the rest of the Order is pleasantly surprised. However, he always has a selfish reason for doing so: the would-be assassination target could have reduced his jail sentence, he just wanted to kill Xykon's recruiter, and he wanted to kill said recruiter with the cat. Reportedly, he's still Chaotic Evil.
- Prince Zuko in Season 3 actually fits here better than in Heel Face Turn, because he was always more morally conflicted than most Firebenders and by the end of Season 2, there really was no telling which way he would have gone. His side-switch also coincides with a significant slant back towards the "Idealistic" end of the sliding scale.
- Andrew Jackson once adopted a young Creek Indian orphan. He was an orphan because Jackson had just led an army that massacred his entire village.