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A mysterious character who hides in the background and employs or somehow directs the heroes, villains or both. Mysterious Employers tend to stay uninvolved themselves, preferring to use money, MacGuffins, or some other way of rewarding their employees for carrying out desirable actions.

Can be a Super-Trope of Big Bad or Big Good, but more often than not the Employer is a neutral party who benefits from pushing the heroes/villains down a particular path.

Very frequently The Chessmaster or, in the event of a group, the Omniscient Council of Vagueness.

Especially common if the heroes/villains in question are Hired Guns.

Compare Anonymous Benefactor and Mysterious Backer.

Note that the identity of the Mysterious Employer is sometimes left secret; his identity itself, as well as his motivations, can be a substantial Reveal... if there is a Reveal at all.

Examples of Mysterious Employer include:

Anime and Manga

  • In Haruhi Suzumiya, three out of five brigade members each have their own.

Comic Books

Film

Literature

  • In William Gibson's Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, Bigend is this.
  • In Greg Egan's Quarantine, Nick is hired to investigate Laura's disappearance by an anonymous client. While Nick goes on to uncover the causal foundations of the universe, he never discovers who his client was.
  • Played with in A Scanner Darkly, in which everyone knows they work for the police... but none of the police know one another's actual identities.
  • Wintermute in Neuromancer.
  • In the unfinished Dirk Gently novel, The Salmon of Doubt, Dirk's employer is definitely mysterious. Especially because the book was never finished.
    • In fact, not only does Dirk not know who is employer is, he doesn't even know what he was hired for. He just reads his bank statement and discovers that somebody's been paying him a generous weekly retainer for more than a month without any explanation why.
  • Does Our Father Below in The Screwtape Letters count?
  • Abel Magwitch in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.
  • Mr. Wednesday in Neil Gaiman's American Gods is an excellent example of this trope. He hires Shadow, seemingly knows everything about him, and yet tells the guy nothing about his role in everything until almost the very end.
  • So is Sunday in G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday.
  • The name of the client in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Illustrious Client is never given. He only interacts with Holmes through an intermediary. Holmes and Watson independently figure out who it is (Watson by spying the client's coat of arms, Holmes by unknown means), but all that is ever revealed to the reader is that the client is a very influential nobleman.
  • In The Wise Man's Fear, Denna is working for a mysterious patron who Kvothe nicknames "Master Ash", who hires her to research ancient events and recast a mythical villain as a hero for unknown reasons.

Live Action TV

  • Charlie of Charlie's Angels.
  • Similarly, Robin Masters on Magnum, P.I. was a famous but reclusive writer, and later seasons played up the idea that Magnum et al. had never actually seen him. (The first season had Magnum hanging out with Masters in an episode that became Canon Dis Continuity.)
    • Wasn't there a running gag that Thomas Magnum came to suspect Higgins was actually Robin Masters (really wrote the books and owned the estate and the Ferrari) because no one had actually seen Robin Masters, with the person heard but not seen being a hired actor? If memory serves, Higgins made a confession of sorts near the series' end to a comatose Magnum in an ICU after a car wreck—so of course said confession could be disavowed later.
    • Higgins confessed outright to Magnum close to the end of the series, in the final few minutes of the last episode Higgins tells Magnum "I lied." with a giant grin on his face.
  • Karla is a little like this in Burn Notice. So is "Management"
  • O2STK in The Middleman. Wendy at first mistakes it for the name of a real organization, before Ida explains it's an acronym for "Organization to Secret to Know."
    • One of the previous Middlemen used "WTHWWF": "Whoever the Heck We Work For"
  • Lost: After Sayid leaves the island, he becomes an assassin who is revealed to be working for Ben.
  • The Rossum Corporation in Dollhouse, which by Season 2, is revealed to run multiple dollhouses, and have a super-secure headquarters in New Mexico, the whole corporation was masterminded by Boyd Langton, who had been in the series the whole time
  • A few Power Rangers seasons did this, though it's very, very rare. Most notably Power Rangers RPM with Dr. K.
  • Management in the first season of Carnivale

Professional Wrestling

  • The mysterious general manager of WWE Raw, the "Anonymous RAW GM" "hired" after Bret Hart was fired from the position. S/he communicates in text messages that are read by Michael Cole.

Tabletop Games

  • This is an entire category of characters in Shadowrun, known in the biz as a "Mr. Johnson." They tend to work for a Mega Corp, and act as liaisons between the legitimate face of a company and our less than legal protagonists. One of the major mysteries behind each mission, for those who care to find out, is exactly who they are working for and what their motive is. Given the existence of twenty-first century cosmetics, hackers, counter-hackers, and possibly magic, many players would rather just Get On With It Already.

Video Games

  • In the ultra-violent WII game MadWorld, Protagonist Jack is sponsored by a shadowy figure with a thick eastern European accent who calls himself "13". As the story progresses he reveals bits of information relevant to the ultimate purpose of "DeathWatch".
  • The hero of Bioshock's Mission Control: There ain't no Atlas, kid.
  • Played with in Metal Gear Solid 2 series, where the initially quite ordinary boss gradually comes to seem more and more mysterious as the plot thickens.
  • Gordon Freeman's sponsor in Half-Life; still no Reveal as to who it is.
    • Also the G-Man, unless, of course, they are the same person.
  • Grand Theft Auto is big on this trope from time to time. The main characters of most of the games will likely run into a pay phone in which an anonymous employer offers assasination jobs to the player's character. Features in Vice City, Grand Theft Auto IV and possibly several others.
    • Grand Theft Auto San Andreas had C.J. being led around by a mysterious voice on a loudspeaker who reveals himself to be the thought-dead Mike Toreno.
  • The Cerberus leader, known only as the Illusive Man, in Mass Effect 2. While his goals are clearly stated and he makes no apologies for his actions, as an individual virtually nothing is known about him. Even his right-hand woman admits that she knows virtually nothing about him.
  • Starcraft II: Jim Raynor jumps back into action after being informed by his old friend Tychus that the "Moebius Foundation" is purchasing Xel'Naga artifacts from anyone who can find them for a hefty price. The Foundation is eventually revealed to be owned by Valerian Mengsk, son of Arcturus, so he can use the assembled artifacts to cure Kerrigan.
    • Furthermore, the head scientist of the foundation is named Dr. Narud.
  • Team Fortress 2: RED and BLU are the mysterious employers, and it's revealed in para-game materials that the same Administrator runs both teams.
  • In Sonic Heroes, Team Chaotix is thrust into the adventure by a client sending a radio to them and requesting they do missions for him, promising a huge reward. The voice on the radio is very squeaky and hamstery, but as the story goes along, thanks to all of his strange reactions along with blatant foreshadowing in a mid-story FMV, it becomes fairly obvious that he's Dr. Eggman long before they actually find him.
  • In The World Ends With You, the Composer directs the Reapers from an unknown location, and only the Conductor ever gets to see him or speak to him. As such, the latter is necessarily tasked with acting as a representative of the former.
  • Mr. Hadden from The Lost Crown. Not only are his motives unclear, but it becomes apparent that he's got Nigel under constant surveillance, possibly via supernatural means, and may not even be directing events from the same decade as Nigel.

Web Original

Web Comics

  • Schlock Mercenary has several of these; Petey/the Fleetmind is the most notable.
  • Little Worlds has The Accountant, who seems to be a reclusive, plot-engineering kind of fellow.

Western Animation

  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force parodies this in the episode "Der Inflatable Fuhrer".
  • Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget was so mysterious he and his nemesis Gadget never actually met (though Gadget heard his voice a few times and noted it 'sounds familiar'). The underlings he sent to kill Gadget usually only spoke to him via telescreens.
  • Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incoperated - the team is sent on missions by "Mr. E".
    • Until recently, we never saw what he looks like.
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