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I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
—Ecclesiastes 1:14, the theme of King Solomon's final book
Alice sacrifices everything she cared for—her home, her reputation, the love of her family and friends—in order to save the world. In Alice 2: Back For More, the police clear her and her family forgives her.
Bob spends months of agonizing time and effort to kick booze. He manages to become sober...and then, five episodes later, he's off the wagon again.
Chris spends a whole season learning to trust his rival at the agency. Then it turns out the rival was The Mole all along, and every single thing Chris learned in this season was a chump's lesson.
Why did we have the first half of each story again? It was All for Nothing.
Sometimes, a Story Arc completely destroys the point of an earlier arc in the same story. It could contradict the early story's aesop, or it could reveal that the events we cared about never happened or weren't what they seemed. A hero's decisions don't seem so heroic if it turns out that they were perfectly manipulated every step of the way. And if a character goes through a Face Heel Turn or Heel Face Turn, their earlier stories might seem irrelevant when we know they'll disavow it all.
When done badly, this trope can feel like outright cheating the audience—their whole story had no meaning. When done well, it's used to set a story on the cynical end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism—nothing lasts forever, and something that seems so important may be just a passing moment. Yes, the farm boy may have risen to become king and gotten the girl, but his life doesn't end there, and things can still go downhill. Another use for this is to deliberately shock the audience—a Face Heel Turn hurts so much when the character we cheered for six seasons turns on us.
In general, it's more forgivable when it's done as an event, rather than as a Retcon. If a hero's efforts are undone, that's not as frustrating as if it turns out that they never mattered in the first place. The audience is also more likely to forgive it if we're shown the change, rather than it being done with Second Hand Storytelling.
A storyline that is All for Nothing is not always a happy thing ruined by bad events. A tragic scene of people losing everything can feel very cheapened if things get better too easily.
Distinct from Status Quo Is God in that it doesn't always bring things back to where they started - it often leads to genuine change.
The story of the first three Jewish kings in the Bible (Saul, David, Solomon) make this trope Older Than Feudalism
Not to be confused with All or Nothing.
- A somewhat more comedic version of this. In School Rumble, class 2-C was divided between whether they should do a play or cafe for the School Festival. They then devoted the next mini-arc to a dramatic war game held in the school between the two groups using fake guns. The very next day, while being punished for the game, their teacher Kooriyama suggests they just do both.
- The basic premise of the final episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Despite all the efforts he made at connecting with others, Shinji is ultimately abandoned by everyone for their own selfish reasons. Despite all their efforts at preventing Third Impact, the pilots failed because their superiors wanted them to fail in order to trigger their own, somewhat better version, only to be in turn foiled by Rei and turn the entire planet into a barren wasteland with humanity all but extinct.
- Except that it was Shinji's efforts at connecting with others that led to Rei rejecting his father and instead turning the reins of Third Impact over to him. This results in a battered and destroyed world, true, but one that has a hope of recovery as all of humanity can choose to re-embody if they really want to. Who knows if they'd even have that much if Gendo's plan had gone through.
- Subverted in Green Lantern with the origin of GL Sodam Yat. As a boy, he grew disgusted with his planet's murderous xenophobia, including when his fellows murdered an alien astronaut whose ship crashes on his planet. In response, he labored for years to repair the alien's ship and leave, but just as he was finished, a power ring arrived to induct him into the Green Lantern Corps. While that meant that now he didn't need the ship to leave the planet, the fact that he worked with that much determination to repair a ship he didn't know, nor how to pilot it or even where he could have gone after he launched, all for the sake of leaving a place and its evil is an incredible display of courage worthy of the Corps.
- In With Strings Attached, the entire quest is bullshit. The original motive for sending the four after the Vasyn pieces was simply Jeft giving them something to do; the curse that the Vasyn was supposed to remove didn't really exist; and while change was accidentally effected by the restoration of the Vasyn, there's no guarantee that it was actually good. However, the four were never told any of this (except the curse part), so they didn't complain.
- In the porn Parody Interrogating Lara Croft , Lara Croft is interrogated about the location of a sacred artifact. She refuses to talk, even while being tortured, then it is revealed that her interrogator managed to find the artifact without her help, causing that both the torture, and the determination of Lara not to speak, were totally useless.
- Horror movie franchises are infamous for this, such as killing off the Final Girl of the previous film (Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome) in the first two minutes of the sequel. All the struggle they had to defeat Jason or Freddy, and now they just die?
- The third Alien film kills off two characters who Ripley spent the whole second film protecting... in the first few minutes... off camera.
- Similarly, the second Terminator film has the characters Screw Destiny... but the third film reveals that You Can't Fight Fate, and all the efforts in the second film to stop apocalypse were pre-destined to fail.
- In the Director's Cut of Das Boot, the German submarine crew survives many dangerous encounters to make it home—only to be killed by an Allied air raid on their port.
- In Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Orange was a cop, after all.
- In Dirty Dancing, Baby says this when her efforts to get Johnny cleared of theft charges get him fired anyway for having a relationship with a guest.
- Star Wars:
- The Clone Wars. It never about the Separatists revolting against the Galactic Republic's corruption. It was just to further Chancellor Palpatine's power and allow him to turn public opinion against the Jedi to turn everything into The Empire and enact Order 66.
- The Original Trilogy. As the Star Wars Expanded Universe revealed during the Time Skip between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, Mon Mothma was so ineffective as the Chancellor of the New Republic, by being too eager to demilitarize and refusing to fully punish the Imperial remnants, that the Imperial remnants managed to reorganize free of any New Republic interference and emerge as the technologically advanced First Order. And The Rise of Skywalker takes it even further by revealing that a Body Surf allowed Palpatine to survive the Battle of Endor and retain his Bigger Bad status.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier reveals that World War II was ultimately pointless in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as HYDRA survived and managed to rebuild stronger ever than ever. Natasha notes however that Steve seems rather okay with this.
- In Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series, Liu Han is a classic Science Hero aside from being female. She goes from ignorant farm girl (or rather, woman) to one of the leaders of the anti-alien resistance, survives endless torture and abuse without becoming embittered, and captures the villain who had brutally held her prisoner. In the sequel Colonization series, she's become a callous Knight Templar, and she gets re-captured by the same villain, making her achievements seem hollow. This could be seen as an attempt to say that life goes on and the world doesn't follow mythic cycles.
- In Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince Harry and Dumbledore fight through all of Voldemort's protections on his locket Horcrux, only for Harry to later discover that it was a fake.
- There's a different sort of example in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire: Most of the drama for the first 3/4 (at least) of the book surrounds Harry's performance in the three Tasks of the Triwizard Tournament. The drama is removed from this on all-rereadings, when you know that Harry was aided, manipulated and guided through the first two by the villain, and the villain's entire plan hinged on Harry winning the Tournament.
- A disappointing example occurs in the Sword of Truth series, in which the dramatic climax of the (relatively good) first book turns out to have been all for naught. Umpteen books later, in the final book of the series, we discover that Dark Rahl would have died no matter what box he opened. So much for The Power of Love.
- Essentially the entire plot of The First Law turns out to have been this, in the sense that nothing truly changed and the protagonists were only tools. Certainly all of Logen's and Jezal's quest in the second book qualifies, as does, to an extent, Glokta's defense of...Ah, hell, like I said, the entire plot.
- Stephen Donaldson does this in his Thomas Covenant books, to the point that Lord Mhoram advises: "If boots nothing to avoid his snares, for they are always set about with other snares". It's a very, very standard part of his fiction.
- Kevin Landwaster, who destroyed the land in order to snare it
- The Unhomed - who were wiped out in a genocide
- Whatshername who tried to warn the lords about the ur-vile ambush, and who was enchanted to be unable to so that her very attempts to warn them would delay them long enough for the ambush to be sprung
- The story of Sunder and Hollian and their son Anele - who outright loses the staff of law
- Convenant's daughter Elene, who locates all the macguffins needed to get to the earthblood, then completely screws it up when she does
- Drool Rockworm, who tried to win freedom for the cavewrights from Lord Foul, and who was just being led along by LF to recover the Illerth Stone.
- The Star Wars Expanded Universe reveals that Emperor Palpatine came back to life after the events of the Original Trilogy, so... though it should be noted he's destroyed again by the end of the Dark Empire stories.
- Well yeah, but the second Death Star didn't reform from nothingness, so this doesn't quite apply in that situation.
- Not to mention that the Galactic Empire (founded by Palpatine, who had some idea they were coming) would've been a much better armed and more unified front against the Jedi-hating Yuuzahn Vong than the fledgling New Republic and New Jedi Order, questioning whether the Rebellion's victory in the original trilogy was a good thing in the first place. Han Solo himself comments, "Why isn't there a Death Star lying around when you need one?" By the time the war is over, the New Republic no longer exists, and a new government substantially based on the Imperial remnant takes it's place place, and then in the far future of Star Wars: Legacy, the Empire has reformed entirely.
- Well yeah, but the second Death Star didn't reform from nothingness, so this doesn't quite apply in that situation.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 has all the drama of Joyce's brain tumor. Then she dies of an aneurysm after the tumor is removed.
- Degrassi High is extremely fond of torturing the audience this way, to the point where it feels like dropping a bridge on audience expectations.
- In Degrassi Junior High, L.D has to deal with trauma from her mother's dying of cancer. She finally learns not to fear and distrust all things relating to health—and in Degrassi High, L.D. gets leukemia.
- Much of Degrassi Junior High is Big Ego, Hidden Depths for Joey, who learns not to be such a lazy ass. In Degrassi High, all that talk about getting off his butt and working hard is rendered meaningless when it turns out he has dysgraphia. (It still fits his character arc, since he still has to cope with feelings of inadequacy, but it's a huge shift.)
- The Do They Know It's Christmas Time? episode of Degrassi Junior High is about Arthur and Yick learning to stay friends even though Arthur is richer and Yick is more rebellious. The lesson sticks for the whole series. But in Degrassi High, they almost stop being friends completely for those same reasons.
- As the resident Anti-Hero, Wheels is always getting shoved through the Heel Face Revolving Door. More than once, he turns heel off-screen, with no warning until we're suddenly told that he's been acting this way for weeks. Second Hand Storytelling makes the perfect tool for manipulatng the audience.
- 24's second season had Jack recover some of his ordinary life by the end. The third season reveals that he has completely screwed it up between seasons, becoming (among other things) a heroin addict.
- In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode, "The Omega Glory," Captain Ronald Tracey blatantly violates the Prime Directive and gets involved on a primitive planet's war, takes Kirk and his landing party prisoner, murders their Red Shirt in cold blood and throws Kirk in with savages to possibly die, all for the sake of getting a serum that supposedly can extend a humanoid's lifespan by centuries. Needless to say, he didn't take it very well when Dr. McCoy discovered that the natives simply evolved that way and thus there is no serum to isolate.
- On Lost, Jacob has become the Island's protector reluctantly, almost against his wish. He wants it to be different for his replacement, so he sets up an elaborate system of candidates that last for at least a few dozens if not hundred years, affecting and ending the lives of hundreds different people. Near the end it appears to pay off, as Jack takes on the job consciously and willingly. However, he then performs a Heroic Sacrifice within the following day and passes the job to Hurley, who us extremely reluctant to take it from him and even went as far as saying "Just glad it's not me" when Jack himself volunteered for the job. Jacob's entire plan eventually resulted in nothing.
- Another example: The Oceanic 6 spend 3 years lying about the time they spend on the Island and the fates of people that they left behind, believing themselves to be protecting their friends from Charles Widmore. This causes most of them some serious guilt issues. However, it is later revealed that Widmore performed an off-screen Heel Face Turn and, while still a big jerk, was actually on the same side as our heroes. Even then, he couldn't have possibly harmed any of the people left on the Island, as those were stuck in a completely different time period. Sorry, Hurley, the Lie was All for Nothing.
- Could be argued that most of the characters' storylines became All for Nothing at various points through season 6, the writers just killing them off seemingly without a care for any kind of subplot they still had going on. Probably worst of all when Sun spends almost a season and a half returning to the island and finding Jin so they can return to their daughter before both simply drown.
- John Locke's entire story arc also seemingly turned out to be All for Nothing, as he was simply a pawn in The Man In Black's game all along. However, Locke's life and death did had one major consequence: he had finally managed to convince Jack in the truth of his beliefs, thus allowing all events of the last two seasons to happen.
- The Myth Busters have made several very complicated myth setups, only for them to completely blow up in their faces.
- A giant Lego ball that took hours of work of about a dozen people to make, after getting both all the lego's from Lego Land and the largest private collector, completely broke apart before it even made it halfway down the setup track.
- When they attempted to retest the JATO Rocket Car myth from their pilot episode, they went through a lot of trouble securely attaching the engine to the car as well as constructing the remote control system used to drive the car and making a ramp to drive the whole thing off of, all in order to give the contraption the best chance of getting crazy air and looking completely awesome in the process. So when it comes down to actually perform the test... the car explodes on the ramp in a giant fireball.
- The worst part of it was that they A) didn't get a useful result, and B) couldn't reset for another chance at one. This was perhaps the only time since the first season that they couldn't give a verdict of "busted", "plausible", or "confirmed". As this was the "Supersized Special", they ended up calling the myth "appropriately supersized"; after all, they'd still gotten a consolatory fireball.
- In the episode "Adam's Ribs" of M*A*S*H, Hawkeye and Trapper go through great lengths to get an order of ribs delivered from Chicago to their outfit in Korea. The moment the ribs are served and the cast is about to have dinner, casualties are arriving and they're all off to the O.R.
- Well, they have the ribs, they'll just need to be reheated. So this is more like delayed gratification.
- In "The Day of the Doctor" in Doctor Who, the Doctor pulled off the achievement of their lifetimes and saved Gallifrey at the end of the Last Great Time War. Then Series 12 had the Master spitefully destroy Gallifrey for unbelievably petty reasons in an act that redefined Disproportionate Retribution, undoing the Doctor's hard won victory. To add insult to injury, Series 12 closes by unleashing a shockwave that destroys all organic life that might have been left on Gallifrey.
- How I Met Your Mother is about Ted Mosby telling his kids... well Exactly What It Says on the Tin and the show spent a lot of time setting up Robin as Ted's Romantic False Lead, even pairing her up with Barney as a way to wrap up the Ted/Robin arc. And after the audience waits nearly a decade for Ted to meet the Mother/Tracy, the show ends by revealing that Ted is still pining after Robin and was telling his kids the whole story as a roundabout way of getting their approval to go after her.
- Both The Fantasticks and Into the Woods do this deliberately as a Deconstruction of fairy tales. The first act is a mythic tale with beginning and end, and the second act is life going on and not ending so neatly.
- Call of Duty: World at War multiplayer matches often end this way:
Sgt. Roebuck: A lot of good men died today - all for nothing!
- In Betrayal at Krondor, the renegade moredhel Gorath goes to insane lengths to prevent his people from starting another suicidal war with the humans and by extension achieving peace between the two nations. These "insane lengths" include giving up leadership of the clan he's led for over two centuries and defecting to the humans, thus getting branded traitor and earning his people's hatred and his wife's contempt. In short, he gives up everything. By the end of the story, it is revealed that his efforts mostly only forwarded the villain's plan to get his hands on an Artifact of Doom. He lays down his life to prevent said artifact from destroying the world. Any success towards achieving peace or making his nation less war-crazed? Nada.
- Though this was a Foregone Conclusion, since the game takes place in between two books that had already been published, with no major change to the political landscape between them.
- At the beginning of Knights of the Old Republic, you are on a planet trying to get past the Sith fleet that has the entire planet blockaded. Along the way, you are given chances to help people or hurt people (generally, being good costs a lot of money, while being bad gets you money, and this is the only place in the game where credits don't grow on trees). At the end of the sequence, the Sith carpet-turbolaser the entire planet, killing effectively every person you helped or hurt or didn't help or hurt in the first quarter of the game, making your decisions moot.
- Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines becomes this in a meta example. Due to its place in the Old World of Darkness timeline, Gehenna is literally right around the corner when the game ends. Then again, White Wolf's official stance on their canon is that if we don't like an aspect of the lore, we're free to ignore it...
- The most greatest example must be in Halo. The Forerunners built nine "halo" rings, which were galactic WMDs, in order to use them as an absolute last resort against the Flood, who had conquered pretty much the entire galaxy and had survived and prevailed any advanced weaponry or strategies the Forerunners had tried to use to stop them. When the Forerunners fought their last stand, they activated the halo rings and wiped out the Flood through the galaxy, stopping them from taking over it...the problem was that when they did it, they not only wiped out the Flood but themselves and all intelligent species through the galaxy as well, making it lifeless. However, life returned when the Forerunners' constructs cloned back the species and returned them to their homeworlds but the Forerunners were extincted forever. 100,000 years later, the Flood returned and started to mess things up again so in the end, the Forerunners' sacrifice was all for nothing.
- Mass Effect 3 players were expecting the numerous decisions, struggles, and sacrficies they'd made over the series to have some impact on the game's ending. What they got instead created one of the largest InternetBackdrafts in video game history.