Facing deathis a big,bigmoment. As Rimmer in Red Dwarf once stated, "All most of us get is 'Mind that bus, what bus, splat!'" This trope describes those who have some lead time, have some time to tidy our affairs, get our house in order, say our final goodbyes.
If you've led an exceptionally adventurous or questionable life, it may be time to throw out all the rules and go on that last run, complete that final mission, settle that one score. When you literally have nothing left to lose, that's when you can truly give everything you've got.
This trope gives a writer a lot of flexibility in writing for a character. Heroes can become villains, villains can try for redemption, utterly minor characters can step into the spotlight, sane characters can go Ax-Crazy or turn into The Unfettered, Power Limiters are removed, Thanatos Gambits are prepared, characters are suddenly not left handed, and no one is Holding Back the Phlebotinum. Dancing The Last Dance can have lasting repercussions for a show, changing the dynamic.
For the dying character, The Last Dance can blend with Do Not Go Gentle or the Bolivian Army Ending, but it is more personal; the rest of the world goes on. A common twist is for the character in question to find out that they're going to live, and have to deal with the consequences of their actions after all.
Frequently overlaps with Living on Borrowed Time, if the character manages to lengthen their life beyond the expected span. Time-Delayed Death is a related trope for characters who do not realize that they are doomed.
Compare Rasputinian Death, Convenient Terminal Illness. Compare also with Like You Were Dying for a last dance of joy. Not to be confused with Heroic Sacrifice, where the last act is the cause of death. Of course, a dying character is more likely than otherwise to make a Heroic Sacrifice or to employ Taking You with Me tactics; after all, they aren't giving up all that much extra time. If they extend The Last Dance to last for way, way longer than the song's supposed to go, then they're Living on Borrowed Time. One should be careful when invoking this trope around creatures of vast magical power - you can still get a Fate Worse than Death...
Often used to make a Last Stand.
An Ending Trope, so unhidden spoilers abound.
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Anime and Manga
Elfen Lied Manga: the end Lucy/Nyu's body begins to melt from overuse of their powers and reviving Kouta. The third personality takes control here to try and bring down as much of humanity with her as she can, all the while murmuring "Painful."
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann Looooves this trope. In the first arc, Kamina pulls off the first Giga Drill Breaker after being clinically killed by Thymilph, then we have Kittan doing his first Giga Drill Breaker after entering the absolute killzone of the Spiral-Energy Absorption machine, and last of all with Nia of all people who teams up with the rest of the gang to take out the Anti-Spirals and makes it through sheer Heroic Willpower to finally marrying Simon before fading into non-existence, having known and accepted that that would happen all along..
Code Geass: After losing everything (his friends, his allies, his confidant, both his family, and as a result, his hope), Lelouch decides to pull out all the stops in order to defeat his enemy. This includes violating his own code of ethics and using his Hypnotic Eye to make people his slaves, then marching into the mystical realm where his father is preparing to enact his plans and destroying the only exit.
But what happens next is even worse. His mom whose death he wanted to take revenge on the Emperor for turns out to be alive and well and a co-conspirator of the Emperor. So he has to kill them both. Now, with the last of his primary motivators gone (avenging Marianne), but certainly no more optimistic from the experience, he refocuses on making a better world for everyone, involving taking over the freaking planet and being so much of a tyrant that everyone's anger gets focused on him, and then dying.
Full Metal Panic!: Gauron's original mission in infiltrating the Tuatha de Danaan was to deliver the submarine and the Whispereds on board to Leonard of Amalgam. He chose such a risky method and didn't seem to particularly care if the de Danaan and all its passengers were destroyed because he had pancreatic cancer and would soon die anyway.
In Naruto there's Kimimaro, the most loyal of Orochimaru's servants, who admires Orochimaru so much that he is willing to be his next vessel. However, due to his disease, he can't, and so decides to help bring the only other worthy vessel to Orochimaru in his literal final hours. To do so he just had to defeat two of the main characters including the main character without breaking a sweat while enduring incredible pain, and then almost defeat Gaara, twice surviving an attack that uses sand to completely crush someone and make a Rain of Blood out of it/them (that never before failed) and being buried only to be stopped by is own disease killing him. Made all the more tragic by his last words in which he declares that only Orochimaru ever understood him....and cut to Orochimaru saying that Kimmimaro does'nt matter. Bonus points in the fact that he actually calls his attacks "dances", so it makes this trope a little more accurate in that part.
Zabuza gets this too. Following the death of his Morality Pet Haku, utter defeat at the hands of Kakashi, the smashing of his dream to eventually become Mizukage and betrayal by his employer Gatou, he is given a lecture by Naruto on the Power of Friendship that forces him to admit that yes, he did care for Haku, despite acting like he didn't give a damn, and takes off his mask, lampshading that he is human after all. He proceeds to mow through Gatou's thugs and kill Gatou with a kunai in his mouth, suffering numerous fatal wounds in the process, but lives long enough to ask Kakashi to place him next to Haku.
And just to be completely clear, he lost use of his arms BEFORE taking on 20-ish hired thugs to get to Gatou to kill him. That kunai in his mouth? That's his only weapon. Granted, the thugs were pretty puny and if he'd still had his arms he probably could've killed all of them and Gatou without hardly interrupting his fight with Kakashi.
Itachi's life can be interpreted as an epic, 7 year long Last Dance, waiting for the day that Sasuke will kill him.
Cowboy Bebop: Spike's final assault on the Red Dragon at the end is a definite example of this trope.
It wasn't just giving him the win. Darkness acknowledged his complete and utter loss. Only his immortality saved him.
Burst Angel, Jo goes even more unfettered than usual, having no regard for equipment or ammo in her assault on RAPT HQ. The extent of her farewell to Meg is leaving her jacket behind (after punching Meg out to make sure she wouldn't follow).
One Piece: Whitebeard Basically taking on all the admirals at once? After getting stabbed straight through the chest? And then crushing Marineford singlehanded? And then sneering at the guy most likely to be the series Big Bad and utterly curbstomping him without using any devil fruit abilities? Good. Game. Even in death he is badass. Keep in mind we're talking about an old man who needed to be hooked up to life support and regularly monitored by nurses.
Also Dr. Hiriluk. First, he had the Incurable Cough of Death. Then, after misinterpreting a medical text, Chopper went on a dangerous quest to retrieve a mushroom that happened to be poison. Instead of telling Chopper all the work he went through was for nothing, he drank it anyway, knowing he would die soon even without the poison. Then, hearing that the kingdom's doctors were sick, he walked into an obvious trap at the castle, knowing that if the disease or poison didn't get him, the trap would. And finally, instead of letting them shoot him, he gave a last toast to his friend Chopper, and drank nitroglycerin, exploding violently after proclaiming he's led a good life, with no regrets.
The most literal example would be the Rumbar pirates. After a lost battle, they realize they have all been wounded with poisoned weapons and none of them is going to survive the night. So they use the last of their strength to do a musical number.
Just a bit subverted, the last remaining members knew that Brook's Devil Fruit should allow him to come back for another round with life, so they played the last song as their final legacy to be carried on by him. They weren't 100% sure how or if it would work though, and had no idea he would come back as a skeleton. Still very much a Tear Jerker.
Last but certainly not least, Pirate King Roger. He was terminally ill before he even started his voyage through the Grand Line! He turned himself in knowing his time was near anyway, just so he can go out with a bang instead of a whimper.
Zero no Tsukaima: Saito decides to be the rear guard when during the Tristian retreat one of the Queen's advisors asks Louise to do it. Saito uses a sleeping potion on Louise and goes himself Delflinger even says "All men have to die sometime, might as well go in style"
In Fullmetal Alchemist, knowing full and well that he was on his final leg, Wrath, aka Fuhrer King Bradley, still charges into battle with Scar. Despite being on death's door, Bradley was still on the verge of actually winning the fight, and only lost due to intervention from Lan Fan. Perhaps most telling about the character was his simple comment that he had never felt as alive as he did in that battle.
The End Of Evangelion, with the song "Komm, Susser Tod": "So with sadness in my heart, I feel the best thing I could do, is end it all and leave forever..."
In the anime adaptation of Hakuōki, Okita finds himself with the double whammy of his incurable tuberculosis and the fact that his fury powers are Cast from Lifespan and will eventually burn out. When he overhears a number of Imperial loyalists planning to ambush and murder Hijikata in the small town where the latter is recovering from his injuries, Okita makes the decision to pull a You Shall Not Pass and burns himself out fighting off the entire mob. Although the moment of his death isn't shown, it's heavily implied that he used up the remainder of his lifespan and crumbled to ash, leaving behind only his sword and a lot of dead bodies.
Although they're facing graduation rather than their deaths, many of the third-year mahjong players in Saki who haven't had much luck in the tournaments have a similar mindset, particularly Hisa, who was the sole real member of the mahjong club in her first year, only had Mako with her in her second, and did not enter any individual tournaments due to wanting to go to the tournament with her friends.
In the Alan Moore Superman story Whatever Happened to The Man of Tomorrow?}}, a lot of villains from Superman's past are all showing up in rapid succession. Superman eventually figures out they're going to actually manage to kill him this time when some of his old buddies from the Legion of Super-heroes (who, being from the 30th century, know exactly when Superman died) show up "just to say hi" and give him a little statue.
In a twist, Supergirl happened to be visiting the 30th century at the time the Legionnaires decided to come pay their last respects, and she comes back with them to what is (for her) the future (confused yet?). She accepts the reason for the trip at face value, and is mildly curious what she herself grew up to be like. This puts Superman in a difficult spot, since by that point in the then-current DC continuity, she had been killed in the battle against the Anti-Monitor. Superman therefore has to avoid letting her find out that not only is he about to die, but she's already dead. The fact that the Legion's time bubble popped in right around the corner from a memorial statue to Supergirl doesn't help.
This is the premise of Marvel MAX's Destroyer: after discovering that his heart will give out soon, the titular elderly superhero sets out to kill as many villains as he can.
In Spider-Man, the Vulture stops holding back when he finds out he has cancer.
A Senate Guard in Star Wars named Venco Autem was fired for blatant corruption. After years of wandering the galaxy, immersed in shady dealings, he learned that he had a terminal illness. Autem undergoes a change of heart and wants to die having done some good in his life. He believes that, as the Galactic Republic is hopelessly corrupt and evil, that the best he could do is help bring it down.
The Joker is told he has cancer. Granted, the doctor was lying but what does he do? Start a Crisis Crossover fittingly called The Last Laugh. Batman has even said Joker is much more dangerous when backed into a corner.
Then there's Batman: Arkham City, whose prequel comic indicates that the Joker is diagnosed with the Titan disease that he had inflicted upon himself six months ago and is told that he has an estimated six months to live. He and Harley Quinn go on a rampage by trying to keep his illness a secret, even setting up Clayface as his healthy Body Double to do this for the art and Dr. Hugo Strange to complete a project called "Protocol 10" that can lead to the slaughter of more innocents and make the Joker's last moments more comfortable. The Clown Prince of Crime even ambushes Batman and transfers his infected blood to him and other innocents at Gotham City so that the Dark Knight can find a cure for them all in a Poison and Cure Gambit. By the end of the game, Batman saves the day, finds the cure, and survives; but the Joker does not thanks to his Idiot Ball and impatience for the cure by stabbing the Dark Knight in the arm and forcing him to drop it, resulting in the Clown Prince of Crime dying with a smile on his face.
In Walt Simonson's run on The Mighty Thor, Skurge the Executioner does this, defending the bridge at Gjallerbru so Thor, Balder and their allies can make their escape.
"And when a new arrival asks about the one to whom even Hela bows her head, the answer is always the same. He stood alone at Gjallerbru. And that answer is enough."
Doctor Strange's old foe, Baron Mordo, was the center of a desperately sad arc when he contracted terminal cancer and began a period of confession and meditation to atone for his evil life. His daughter Astrid transferred all the cancer to Strange instead, forcing Mordo to take it all back and deal with Astrid. Then, as he lay dying, he wondered if it had been enough...
Watchmen has Moloch, who is dying of cancer. That's not what winds up killing him, though.
Rorschach: Cancer? What kind cancer?
Moloch: Heh. Well, now, y'know that kind of cancer that you eventually get better from?
Moloch: Well, that ain't the kind of cancer I got.
This trope was used to retcon Professor X's very first death in X-Men. A former villain known as the Changeling who could shapeshift discovered he was terminally ill and sought to make amends in what little time he had left. Discovering that an alien invasion was being planned, Xavier had Changeling switches places with him so he could prepare for it while the Changeling led the X-Men in his stead. He eventually died still in the guise of Xavier by sacrificing his life to save the world from a creature called Grotesk.
In the New 52's Earth 2 comic, the first issue details the end of the Apokolips war. Many superheros and gods are dead, but Batman has a plan to upload a virus that will kill all of the parademons that have already destroyed or enslaved most of the world. It's DC's Holy Trinity having a no holds barred battle to kill as many of the invaders as possible until Batman can upload the virus. Wonder Woman and Superman both die holding off hordes of parademons, and Batman uploads the virus, fully knowing that the control tower would self-destruct once he did...and he didn't mention it to his closest friends, or his daughter, until the bitter end. Notable in that all three of them knew they were probably going to die, and that the city they were fighting in (Metropolis) was already dead, along with most of their friends and family. This wasn't just a "save the world" mission, it was them taking out their rage on the invaders.
In the Dark World timeline of the Pony POV Series, Pinkie Pie realizes that her Element of Chaos was damaged in the process of redeeming her, and that she'll soon age to death. However, she chooses to spend what little time she has left patching things up with the others and helping them save the world for as long as she can.
Shinzon: I'm glad we're together now —our destiny is complete.
Roy, the replicant from Blade Runner, engages in a final, bleak hunt of Deckard through an old abandoned building. Ultimately, he chooses to save Deckard, uttering some of the most poignant last words in recent film history:
"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those ... moments will be lost in time, like tears...in rain.
Actually, that speech isn't indicative of The Last Dance for Roy. It's the cat and mouse game preceding his death.
Roy: You better get it up, or I'm gonna have to kill ya. Unless you're alive, you can't play, and if you don't play...
Roy:(after Deckard clubs him with a spiked board)That's the spirit!
Ripley in Alien³. "You've been in my life so long, I can't remember anything else."
The convicts qualify as well, as profoundly stated by Dillon.
Dillon: You're all gonna die. The only question is how you check out. Do you want it on your feet? Or on your fuckin' knees... begging? I ain't much for begging! Nobody ever gave me nothing! So I say fuck that thing! Let's fight it!
Joe Versus The Volcano. The reason Joe agrees to jump into a live volcano - he'll die as a man rather than from dying from a brain disease.
Inspector Chan (played by Simon Yam) of the Hong Kong action movie Sha Po Lang (known in the US as "Killzone") has an inoperable brain tumor that could kill him "at any time." Chan, with his time running out, decides to use the remainder of his life to bring down Triad crimelord Wong Po and take care of the little girl that Wong orphaned.
Crank combines this with a gimmick that if his adrenalin ever goes below a certain level he'll die, so to prolong the inevitable while searching for the people who did this he: picks a fight with an entire bar for no reason; screws his girlfriend in public and later gets oral sex from her during a car chase; and shocks himself with a defibrillator, amongst other things.
That had very little to do with one last hurrah, and everything to do with keeping himself alive long enough to get revenge.
He isn't going to live. He has one last try to fix things, to set things right, to settle scores. The fact that he needs more time is secondary to the fact that he's finishing things. However, he gets a sequel, so... yeah.
Near the end of V for Vendetta, with the titular character's final showdown with Norsefire right around the corner, he is pretty much resigned to the fact that he will probably die and takes the opportunity to rather literally invoke this trope.
V: Would you dance with me?
Evey: Now? On the eve of your revolution?
V: A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having.
Almost certainly intentionally, given that - at least in the comic, where the line also occurs - V is quite clearly an anarchist and it could well be argued that at least part of his campaign is "propaganda of the deed" of the kind Goldman, herself a lifelong anarchist, briefly espoused.
Catch That Kid, where the sick party is the main character's father, using the illness to justify breaking into a bank.
In the Saw franchise, Jigsaw was dying of a brain tumor and, after failing an attempt at suicide, begins his "games", testing people to see the limits of their desire to live. Whether or not he considers his dying state a justification or not is up in the air, but in the second movie, people decide to jump off the slippery slope due to the whole nerve gas problem.
In Little Miss Sunshine, the grandfather is very old and is probably dying anyways. Wanting to have some fun before his time, he snorts heroin. That ends up being what kills him.
Rufus Shinra in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is dying of geostigma. He's hidden Jenova's head in a box which he has with him the entire time he's being questioned by the Big Bad and then proceeds to taunt him and throw it (and himself) off the side of the building they're on. The Turks catch him, however.
The German road movie/tragicomedy Knockin' on Heaven's Door uses this as its premise. The two protagonists are fatally ill (bone cancer and a brain tumor, respectively), and decide to take a trip to see the ocean, starting with stealing a car, which belonged to a crime boss and contained a gun and a lot of money. Complications ensue.
Same with the Japanese film Hana Bi. Beat Takeshi plays (quite against type) an ordinary, by-the-book career policeman... who snaps after his partner and best friend are killed and crippled, respectively, right in front of him by a panicky thief. He spends the rest of the movie stone-facedly mowing through Yakuza (ahh, that's more like it), crushing their operations and robbing them blind, splitting the money between his now retired friend, his partner's widow, and making his terminally ill wife as comfortable as possible. When the police finally come to arrest him, he asks for and receives a few minutes to say goodbye to his wife. Two shots are heard. Roll credits.
The whole point of the movie D.O.A., both the (good) original and the (weak) remake. The hero finds he's dying form an incurable poison and spends his last hours tracking down the culprit.
The main characters in The Wild Bunch are facing the end of their lifestyle. The old Wild West is ending and most of their gang were killed at the beginning of the movie. They are reduced to doing mercenary work for a corrupt and decadent Mexican general and a group of vicious bounty hunters is after them. Instead of running and hiding they decide to go back and rescue their friend who the general is about to execute for arming the local peasant. They know that by doing that, they will be facing the entire Mexican garrison and as such decide to go out fighting...
In Fanboys, Linus is convinced by his friends to go on a road trip to the Skywalker Ranch and steal Episode One before he dies of cancer. They get caught during the heist, but George Lucas relents and allows Linus to watch the film alone. Their mission accomplished, Linus is at peace, quietly declaring that he's "good right here."
The Grey begins with Liam Neeson's character reciting a short poem about this trope. Bookended when he stumbles into the wolf's den at the end and faces the alpha wolf one-on-one.
Rosalini: She's beginning her Death Dance... Well, many Native American tribes, before a big battle, would perform a ritual. They'd paint their faces, put on ceremonial robes, and dance all night. Sometimes till dawn. That one night, they would live life to the fullest.
Tony: Maybe they figured their last night on Earth ought to be their best.
The Jaeger program has been officially scrapped by all the world's leaders (morons), anyone still in the program is there for only as long as the funding lasts — eight months — and willing to fight till the last Jaeger stops functioning.
Pentecost is dying of radiation-induced cancer, so him piloting Striker Eureka is his last hurrah. Also because if he's exposed to more radiation, he will die.
Elysium: With only a few days left to live, Max isn't going down without a fight to get his way to Elysium, after being stricken with severe radiation poisoning.
In David Gemmell's Legend, one of the characters, Druss is wounded with a poisoned blade. However when the gate is breached he climbs from his sickbed, takes his axe and charges into the enemy, taking over twenty with him before he finally falls.
An early example of this was in the Agatha Christie novel Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, which was released in 1975 but written in the late 1930s. In it, Poirot, dying of natural causes and dealing with a murderer he could not bring to justice through proof, kills the man himself and then accelerates his own death through medications.
It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew - and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents - that there was all the difference in the world.
The Warhammer fantasy novel Fell Cargo has this with the captain of the Lightning Tree. He's originally heading for peaceful retirement, but joins in the fray one more time to help defeat the Butcher.
Also in the Discworld, wizards and witches have it as a perk that they know beforehand when they're going to die (as well as having Death show up for them personally). It's mentioned that many a wizard has died drinking the last of his good wine while incidentally owing large sums of money to loan sharks. (Witches tend to be a bit more conscientious and set their affairs in order so their successor can get on with it.) Also, in Reaper Man, the rest of the wizards throw a going away party for a wizard slated to die, which goes awry when the guest of honor doesn't show up.
Cazaril of The Curse of Chalion knows he's dying (of a haunted abdominal tumor, no less) by about halfway through the book, but continues to take on missions for his liege lady regardless up to and including negotiating a royal marriage and smuggling the groom past a hostile border.
And it's pointed out that a dying man makes the perfect representative: he can't be bribed, as he won't live long enough to enjoy anything he could be given, and since he knows he'll be meeting the gods soon he'll do his best to serve with honor.
This is played with (and arguably trumped) in the sequel Paladin of Souls when Arhys dy Lutez rides against an army led by sorcerers a couple of months after he died (although for most of that time he didn't know he was dead, as his young bride had reanimated him by stealing life energy from his brother)..
Illvin: Arhys, no, this is too fey!
Arhys: Fey? Fey is a man who looks forward to death. I look back on mine. [...] If this dy Lutez manages to die well tonight, let it complete the set so long left undone, and be you healed of the long wound another dy Lutez dealt you.
Goes back as far as The Bible, in which King Hezekiah once got prideful and showed ambassadors from Babylon all the treasures of Judah. Nice Job Breaking It, Hero, said God through the prophet Isaiah; you didn't tell them it was my favour that got you all that stuff. Now they'll come back to take it all, and your children too. Incredibly, Hezekiah was fine with this, thinking "After all, it won't happen in my lifetime." (And he was one of the good kings of Judah. See why God discouraged setting up a monarchy?) Note that this is the 2 Kings 20 account; the version in Chronicles is a bit different.
Note that there's an Alternate Character Interpretation here- he's not fine with it, but he's grateful that at least, his good acts earlier in his reign were enough for God not to have it happen now, and instead give Judah more time.
In The Dark Tower, Jake and Father Callahan prepare for this before charging into a building filled to the brim with the Crimson King's minions. Callahan gives Jake his last rites, then they walk in like a couple of badasses. The song/poem thing stuck at the end of the chapter says it all:
In the classic scifi novel Seetee Shock, the protagonist receives a lethal dose of radiation in the first chapter. The rest of the book takes place during the "walking ghost" phase of radiation poisoning, as he tries to track down the saboteur who attacked their antimatter mine.
The title story of "Cobra Trap", Peter O'Donnell's final collection of Modesty Blaise stories, has Modesty herself, diagnosed with a lethal and incurable brain tumour, taking on what she knows isn't a Do Or Die mission, but a Do AND Die mission.
Rand Al'Thor only truly becomes the Dragon Reborn when he fully accepts that he's got to lead the world to the Last Battle, where it's prophesied that his blood will be on the rocks. In a deconstruction, it also leads to his depression, descent into madness, and Heroic BSOD over time.
Another example is the Seanchan Bloodknives, elite suicide assassins used only against the most dangerous foes. Each Bloodknife is issued a magic ring, which when activated starts burning up the Bloodknife's Life Force. Once triggered, a Bloodknife will die in about a month (assuming no one kills him first) but for that month gets Super Speed, invisibilty, and other inhuman powers. Their sole purpose is to kill off as many enemy leaders and mages as they can before they are killed or run out of life.
In the Sword of Truth, there's a group of warriors whose sole job is to place their prophesied savior into a last dance, whereupon his need and his magic will give him access to magical power through a certain magical sword. The name of the skill is called The Dance with Death and is one of the three potential meanings of Richard's title in prophecy.
In the novel Jericho Falls the Vietnam veteran helicopter pilot realizes he is going to die and recalls a Vietnamese captive who almost killed him because the captive had no fear of death. So now he takes his own knowledge of his impending death and uses it against his enemies.
Live Action TV
After George Mason inhales lethal amounts of powdered plutonium in the second season of 24, he returns to work despite the danger of a nuclear weapon in Los Angeles, and eventually pilots a plane on a kamikaze course to keep the bomb from going off in populated areas.
In season 7, after Jack is infected with a biological weapon he resolves to focus his last hours finding a way to expose the corrupt government officials that were behind rogue company Starkwood getting access to the weapon, which also lead to terrorist attacks on Washington DC from warlords hailing from the Fictional Country of Sangala. Of course, this is Jack we're talking about, so after resolving everything and making peace with himself he manages to get saved at the very last second so he can get saved, go through even more suffering in the following season and make the whole "making peace with his inner demons" development relatively pointless.
In the first season of Buffy the Vampire SlayerBuffy's death at the hands of the Master is foretold in prophecy; this results in her deciding that she won't fight, but after seeing more people die she changes her mind. Of course it was much more complicated but a complete rundown of the episode would go way off topic.
Also, Buffy's childhood friend Ford, who was setting up a group of vampire mystics as an all-you-can-suck buffet for Spike's gang. Turns out he had a brain tumor. Buffy was not impressed.
The TV series Breaking Bad is entirely based on this trope: A struggling high school chemistry teacher with a teenage son who has cerebral palsy and a pregnant wife. When he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he breaks down and turns to a life of crime, and starts producing and selling methamphetamine. He rather quickly gets in too deep to get back out gracefully, even when he later finds out that his cancer has gone into remission.
This eventually leads into his actions in the Grand Finale. One of the most wanted men in America and knowing he's finally going to die soon from the cancer, he returns to Albuquerque to ensure money for his family, see Skyler one last time, and wipe out the Nazis to avenge Hank, as well as Lydia to keep his family safe. And at the end, even resolves to save Jesse. It works beautifully and Walter dies on his own terms in the meth lab, where he feels most at home.
Slight variation in LOST: Desmond's visions foretell Charlie's death. Charlie spends the latter half of season 3 trying to avoid various accidents, until a vision reveals a chance to save Claire and Aaron, at which point Charlie accepts his fate and dies a heroic death.
Ben Linus. Spine tumor. Leave the island to find a doctor? No; Ask the doctor nicely? No; Kidnap one? Yes! Not that he's a very moral person in the first place, so it might not count.
Subverted in Babylon 5: Humans bring out every combat-capable ship they've got to the Battle of the Line, but at the hour of their triumph, the genocidal Minbari simply stop and surrender. Figuring out why is one of the major Story Arcs of the first season.
The Earth president's speech just prior to the battle acknowledges that virtually everyone involved will die but that doing so will give humanity some tiny chance to continue. Her stoicism cracks during the speech, and her tearful, halting delivery combines with the wordless images of the pilots suiting up to create an epic Tear Jerker.
The CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode "Living Legend" had a legendary mob boss thought dead for decades exacting revenge on the people that had tried to murder him. He didn't have long to live thanks to the bullet in his chest still moving and thus planned on going out in a blaze of glory. However, Catherine informs him that the bullet was removed while he was unconscious meaning he now has around 20 years left to live, all of which will be spent in a prison filled with criminals who don't remember him.
In Heroes, Hiro decides to go back on his self-imposed "never change the past" rule when he discovers he's dying.
Of course, he's better now.
An episode of Angel features a normal vampire mook deliberately going into this after Angel kills his girlfriend (another vampire, obviously). He has a demon, who is basically a 'collector' of demonic organs, remove his heart. The procedure will kill him after a couple of hours, but in the meantime, he's invulnerable to all the traditional vampire weaknesses - from sunlight to staking - giving an otherwise-unremarkable mook a real shot at taking down Angel...
In The End Of Time, after receiving a fatal dose of radiation, the Doctor spends his last hours visiting the people he'd cared about during his tenth life and... well, not so much saying goodbye as helping them out from a distance and then staring sadly at them before wandering off. Except for Rose, whom he meets before she met him to have one last conversation with her. The Sarah Jane Adventures says he visited every companion from all his incarnations.
Eleven did it in "Let's Kill Hitler", after being poisoned by River Song and told he was cut off from regenerations and would be dead in just over thirty minutes. The Doctor's response? He takes the time to put on a nice tux, fabricate a Sonic Cane, and move the TARDIS to confront the Time Agents out to punish River for his murder.
On Torchwood, Tosh and Captain Jack get thrown back to World War II, where they encounter the real Captain Jack Harkness. Both Captain Jacks fall for each other, but Torchwood Jack is aware that his namesake is killed the next day and while he doesn't directly tell him this, the real Jack seems to figure it out. This trope kicks in quite literally, and the two men share a dance and a kiss before Jack heads back to the 21st century. Presumably the real Jack would not have had the courage to dance with and kiss another man in front of quite a few other people in homophobic 1941 had he not known that he'd be dead the next day.
In Kamen Rider Double, in the climatic battle with the Utopia Dopant, Philip knows this is his final battle and afterwards, he'll disappear. It is because of this that he puts all his will power and strength into the fight. The Utopia Dopant is an Emotion Eater who feeds off of will power as his most powerful ability, thus Philip's last thoughts overloads him and allows Double to defeat him.
In Smallville's tenth season premiere, Lx-3, an aged, degenerating clone of Lex Luthor knows he only has a few days at most to live after he breaks out of Cadmus Labs. His reaction is to murder pretty much everyone he sets eyes on, culminating in a Sadistic ChoiceRevenge plot against Clark that leaves everyone hurt. One could argue that Alexander, the much younger clone who appeared in the same episode, is going through a similar process, albeit in slow motion. He's fully aware of his own impending death; having failed in his own attempt at vengeance on Clark, no one is quite sure where he's headed.
Jenny Shepard in NCIS. She was slowly dying of a degenerative disease, and an old skeleton out her and Gibbs' closet had come back out, so she went down fighting in an abandoned diner in the southwest, taking four bad guys down with her.
A terminally ill Mike Franks confronts the Port-to-Port Killer, announcing "I figure I got one fight left in me." NCIS loves this trope.
On NCIS: Los Angeles a CIA agent has to abandon an undercover mission in Africa when he suspects that his cover is compromised. Sadly, while stopping a terrorist plot he receives radiation poisoning. With only a few months to live he decides to resume his undercover mission In Africa since it no longer matters if he is killed and with the time he has left he might be able to find the terrorist leaders responsible for the attack.
On Sons of Anarchy police chief Unser finds out that he has terminal cancer in the pilot episode and wants to retire and live out his remaining days in peace. However, he is forced into The Last Dance by Clay who needs Unser to keep covering for the Sons' illegal activities. By season 4 Unser no longer fears Clay and decides to dedicate his remaining time to do everything he can to protect Gemma and Tara from Clay.
Bones has an episode in the first season with a teenage boy who's into LARPing who discovers that his childhood leukemia is returning. He chooses not to seek treatment, instead donning his superhero outfit and picking a fight with a man he knows to be a domestic abuser. The boy dies in the fight, but the ensuing investigation exposes the abuse and rescues the wife.
Supernatural has this for the whole of season 3: Having made a deal with a demon to save Sam at the end of the last season and has one year to live. The trope is deconstructed as while at first Dean tries to live it up as they get closer to the deadline he becomes genuinely afraid and hopes that Sam can find a way to save him before going on a suicide mission to kill Lilith with his final hours.
Gets lampshaded as they try to put to rest one of the most haunted houses in America (where the haunting only happens on leap years) with Dean getting irritated mocking Sam for saying that it's "[their] version of the Grand Canyon".
A woman learns she has a terrible illness, and breaks the news to her friends over lunch, with her daughter at her side. She emotionally tells them how she is dying from AIDS. On the way home, her daughter says "Mom, it's your show - but you have incurable cancer. Why did you say AIDS?" The mother replied "I don't want any of those bitches thinking they have a shot at your Dad."
"Last Dance", by Donna Summer. It's about the waning music in a disco, and the end to the good times for the night. The song underwent Defictionalization as discos used it as the last song of the night.
"No Fear The Setting Sun" by Amon Amarth, about an epic final battle.
The Last Waltz, The Band's last concert, came with the song The Last Waltz. It's about how the last waltz is finished, but that doesn't mean the dance is over. Probably better if you forget what happened next.
Warhammer 40,000 has this, said by a leader of the Imperial Guard, shortly before the entire unit is completely annihilated:
Our end is come. But what an end! We have been given the most precious gift: a chance to roar our defiance into the foes that overwhelms us with their numbers. Let the Emperor himself hear our final battle cry! Forward warriors of the Guard, and die like the heroes that you are!
40K in general is a walking, talking love affair with this trope. Imperial Guard are indoctrinated from recruitment/conscription that you will die in service to the Emperor, so make it worth something; the Space Marines are effectively immortal unless killed by violence, but when hopeless you end up with stories like 10 of them holding onto the last bastion of an entire overrun world for weeks on end; the Eldar basically have Last Dance as their racial trait, alongside being a Magnificent Bastard to the last man, given the fact that as a species they're wearing thin; when the Tau get cornered, they tend to calmly but ruthlessly lay down fire until either they or their attackers are completely wiped out; the servants of Chaos tend to flop between this and Death Seekers, since a "good" death would probably just grant them FAVOR with their god of choice. Really the only ones that don't fall into this are the Orks (who live to fight and die anyway), the Necrons (semi-mindless cyber-zombies) and the Tyranids (hive mind insects, who literally use some of their lesser spawns as living ammunition.)
And this descended (ha!) from a prestige class in the Book of Exalted Deeds - the Risen Martyr, who has no choice but to take levels in Risen Martyr whenever he levels up. When he has all ten levels of Risen Martyr, if he levels up once more, he must complete a task, after which he dies instantly and ascends into the heavens as a newborn celestial. Also note that one of the prerequisites to become a Risen Martyr is being dead.
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon Explorers of Sky had one of these with the main character. It's explicitly mentioned as a chapter titled "The Last Adventure." Then a god literally pulls a Deus Ex Machina to bring him/her back.
Halo: Reach. In very much keeping with this trope there is a playable epilogue, which can only end with the players death. Noble Six remains on Reach to fight against an endless horde of Covenant. Done twice really. First you do it, and once you take enough damage it changes to cutscene showing Noble Six's final battle.
Objective: Survive. Description: Spartans never die. Title Card: There'll be Another Time
Arguably the end of the prior game as well for The Boss. "In 10 minutes, Migs are going to come, and bomb the hell out of this place. Lets make them the best 10 minutes of our lives."
The final mission of Metroid Prime 3: Corruption has heavy hints of this. The Phazon corruption doled out to each of the hunters at the beginning of the game has so far proven to be uniformly fatal. Samus herself is so far gone at this point that her gunship's computer can't identify her anymore, she's forced to vent Phazon every minute just to stay alive, and the final boss fight takes place on a radioactive, sentient planet only reachable by wormhole, at the bottom of a pit deep enough that even if she survives, she has no chance of wall-jumping, screw-attacking or speed-boosting her way back up. At the end of the fight, she just lies on the ground utterly exhausted. The whole thing feels much less like a Final Showdown and more of a Taking You with Me / Heroic Sacrifice on her part, which isn't helped by the exchange between Fleet Admiral Dane and his bridge staff in the ending cutscenes:
Crewman: Damage reports coming in. We've lost 37% of the fleet. Surviving ships are reporting heavy casualties.
FADM Dane: What about Samus?
Crewman: Negative, Sir. No contact...
Being that Prime was a prequel series, of course she manages to survive anyway, but a novice to the series might be forgiven for thinking this was really her swan song.
The Opera mod for Half-Life 2 had this as a gameplay feature called "Heroic Act", which a player could activate only once per round. It would stop all bleeding if he was already bleeding to death and make shots to the head and heart only hurt as much as regular wounds, as well as granting some extra speed and dealing extra damage for a short duration of time, after which the player would die. Rather fitting as the mod was inspired by films like The Killer and Hard Boiled.
Forms the basis for a mission in Phantasy Star Online. With a mere 30 minutes left to live, a warrior wants to reach his goal of killing 10 000 monsters (he's at 9900 when you meet him). Of note: for being on the brink of death, he is actually remarkably fit. He is one of the strongest NPCs in the game and, if you're on the highest difficulty setting, could probably still beat the everloving crap out of your character without really trying. Which raises the question of why he needs your help in the first place...
Sir Aliste from the PSP remake of Final Fantasy Tactics masquerades as a villain and kidnaps the lover of his ally, Beowulf, so that they may duel with their lives on the line. The former was afflicted with some malady, was destined to die with the middle age's lack of medical care (apparently for some reason the commonplace magicall healing wouldn't work either), and refused to do so confined and wasting away in a sick bed. Aliste is defeated, and - with his dying breath - urges Beowulf to save his lover Reis.
In Mass Effect 2, Thane Krios is dying of a terminal disease and is attempting to spend his last days as The Atoner for his life as a contract killer by trying to make the world a better place and potentially make things up with his son. It's one of the reasons he joins Shepard's team.
Explicitly invoked by Captain Price at the climax of Modern Warfare 2, in about the best monologue in the series:
The healthy human mind doesn't wake up in the morning thinking this is its last day on Earth. But I think that's a luxury, not a curse. To know you're close to the end is a kind of freedom. Good time to take... inventory. Outgunned. Outnumbered. Out of our minds. On a suicide mission — but the sand and rocks here, stained with thousands of years of warfare... They will remember us, for this. Because out of all our vast array of nightmares, this is the one we choose for ourselves: we go forward like a breath exhaled from the Earth, with vigor in our hearts and one goal in sight: We. Will. Kill. Him.
Invoked by name in the ending of Vagrant Story, when Tieger holds off Grissom as the city collapses around them:
Tieger: Now the slowest dance begins... 'Tis a fine tomb we shall share, brother.
In the conclusion of World of Warcraft's Fall of the Lich King, Tirion Fordring is prepared to become the next Lich King to prevent the Scourge from overrunning the world. At the last moment Bolvar Fordragon intervenes. Knowing he is already dying after his torture by dragon fire, Bolvar volunteers to become the Lich King instead. In doing so, he willingly condemns himself to an eternity of undeath as the "Jailor of the Damned".
This is the typical way an aging Grey Warden prefers to die in Dragon Age. After about thirty years, a Grey Warden's body starts to succumb to the tainted blood of the Darkspawn that they willingly imbued at their initiation. Instead of descending into madness or possibly becoming a darkspawn themselves, they join the Dwarves in the Deep Roads, where the Darkspawn nest, and throw themselves on the Darkspawn horde killing as many as possible before being felled themselves.
Wynne is in fact dead, and Living on Borrowed Time thanks to a benevolent Fade spirit. She intends to see the Blight defeated before she succumbs.
The most dangerous dwarven fighters are the Legion of the Dead, all of whom have nothing to lose when they join up, and part of their initiation ceremony involves having a funeral, so that they can fight without any limitations whatsoever.
Also happens in Dragon Age II, during the final moments, when Hawke can proclaim that "I can fight harder scared than they can angry!"
In Fallout: New Vegas it's possible to recruit The Remnants of the Enclave (all of whom are at least in their 60's) and get them to fight in the Battle for Hoover Dam for old time's sake (the mission's even called "For Auld Lang Syne").
A recurring theme in Mass Effect 3 is that Commander Shepard will either destroy the Reapers or take them down with them.
It's quite possible to recruit every space-faring race in the galaxy including two previously extinct ones to join Shepard and the Alliance an a final, glorious battle against the Reapers.
Invoked in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City: at the end of the game, the NPC who has been at the player's side the whole time has turned against the player, siding with the player's former Mafia overlords from Liberty City (the player is in Vice City and is taking over.) The player tracks this treacherous NPC down on the roof of his mansion, and shouts "Looks like it's the last dance for Lance Vance!" Lance is not amused; he's also cornered, and proves to be what is most likely the single toughest fight with one person in the game, fiendishly accurate, using a lethally powerful gun, and able to soak up so much damage you'd think he was entering the "full health" cheat code during the fight.
Invoked in the final mission of Homeworld. Your fleet is outgunned and outnumbered, and with Karan S'jet knocked out you don't get the warnings on anything's happening (be it enemy attacks, losses of your ships or new construction)... And the mission objective is to "Eradicate Enemy Forces".
Gen of the Street Fighter series is constantly trying to invoke this trope. He is suffering from leukemia, but he absolutely refuses to die unless it is in battle.
In El Goonish Shive, everything Ellen does as Elliot's "Evil Twin" and her fearless fighting of the Omega Goo was due to her thinking she would die in less than a month.
Survival of the Fittest features this prominently due to the nature of characters death being announced, letting the player choose exactly how they want their character's last dance to be played.
In TaleSpin, an erroneous diagnosis tells Baloo he's going to die soon. He decides to go out with a bang by braving the Bermuda Trapezoid.
In Gargoyles, Halcyon Renard, otherwise a man who had been defined by his insistence on personal accountability, justifies questionable actions in the episode "Golem" with his failing health. Goliath was not pleased.
Andrew Cunanan was suspected by some to have gone on his killing spree, murdering five people including Gianni Versace, thanks to believing himself to have been infected with HIV, but his autopsy proved him to be HIV negative.
Flavius Vegetius especially warns from cutting the escape route from a cornered enemy, implying that if the enemy knows it has no hope and will die anyway, it will fight with especially furious zeal.
Sun Tzu actually advises commanders who are in truly bad straits to convince their soldiers that they are all going to die. He argues that what soldiers will do as a last dance will go far beyond what they would be capable of if they had just the slightest glimmer of hope.
He advises placing troops where they have no line of retreat for this exact reason. For that matter, he advises never putting the enemy in such a position.
Machiavelli similarly points out the advantages of hopeless (or nearly so) situations for on the battlefield in Discourses on Livy.
This is actually the outlook of many people who aren't diagnosed with anything terminal, nor have any reason to think they'll die early. It's just that in Real Life, mortality is universal; and whether you die in two minutes or a hundred years, you'll inevitably die. Some people deal with that fact by handling life in a no-holds-barred, seize-the-day fashion.
This was tested in a real-life experiment in Feudal Japan. A sensei (head teacher, in this case) of a school of fencing had a servant who'd been with him for years — and one day he was notified that the servant was wanted by the Shogunate authorities for a crime punishable by death. The sensei bowed and asked for a few days before turning the man over, then went to his servant, told him the news, and challenged him to a live-steel sword duel. The sensei had had a theory for a long time that a man who knew he had nothing to lose would fight harder, and wanted to test it. It turned out to be correct; the servant fought like a man possessed, and after a while, the sensei was backed to the wall and staring defeat, disgrace and death in the face. Summoning up all his skill, he finally did manage to cut his servant down, and his theory was doubly vindicated.
This trope is also the big reason why the military isn't enthusiastic about neutron bombs (beside all the mess that using any nuclear weapon would cause) — the nature of the explosion means it could leave hundreds of enemy soldiers fatally irradiated but still able to fight for a day or two.
The following quote is attributed to the writer James Baldwin: "The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose."