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There Can Be Only One
"In the end, there can be only one."
The Arc Words of Highlander

The long-term plot of the program revolves around a group of characters whose numbers are being slowly whittled away by one means or another, usually by killing each other. In the case of some reality shows, this is a process of elimination intended to result in a single winner. In other shows, this is a dramatic device, designed to generate tension and conflict with which to drive the overall plot of an episode or Story Arc (if any); in these cases it is sometimes combined with Anyone Can Die to especially heighten the resulting excitement, even when the apparent main character may be protected by Contractual Immortality. Compare Gotta Kill Them All.

Does not apply to pure game shows, as they have no overall storylines for the elimination to serve. Compare Dwindling Party, where it's less a competitive elimination and more a bloody murder spree.

Named for one of the catchphrases that came out of the Highlander franchise.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • The anime Mai Hi ME starting around its sixteenth episode (this arc was nicknamed "HiMElander" by fans, as a reference to Highlander).
  • Rozen Maiden has as a central plot element an informal tournament-of-sorts cheerfully called 'the Alice Game' wherein the magical doll characters have to compete for the Pinocchean prize of becoming the perfect girl — by slaying all their sisters.
  • The central plot of Gash Bell is that there are 100 demon children sent to the earth, with the remaining one being able to reign as king for 1000 years.
  • Sekirei combines this trope with the Harem Genre, with human masters known as Ashikabi forming bonds with Human Aliens. There are 108 of them, and powerful Ashikabi are capable of forming bonds with multiple Sekirei, building a formidable Battle Harem that improves their chances of victory. This, however, is a cruel twist since it turns out the rule remains strictly one surviving Sekirei regardless of how many an Ashikabi has. Miya even calls out Matsu on encouraging harem-building, pointing out the cruelty of encouraging people to bond and fall in love, when all but one will have to die in the end.
  • Bokurano. And it's twisted as hell too. Basically, we need to thin the alternate universes down to just one. So, let's have kids fight in gruesome giant mechs! Win, YOU DIE. Lose? EVERYONE IN YOUR UNIVERSE DIES. Look up "no win situation" in the book, you'll see this. Needless to say, this utterly screws with the child pilots' minds.
  • While not explicitly stated in Baccano, this is originally Szilard's (well..in the anime anyway. In the Novel his goal is only to allow people who worship him unconditionally as a god to be immortal and create an eternal kingdom that fawns over his every desire (he was actually regretful that he devoured Barnes since Barnes was the exact sort of fanatic that he WANTED to exist, and had let his anger over losing the formula yet again get the better of him)) and Czes's goal regarding their fellow immortals, and the rest have gone into hiding and become extremely paranoid of other immortals because of it. In the novels, Maiza actually refuses to tell anyone else the formula for immortality due to an epiphany he had while imbuing his brother with the knowledge that the demon's rules almost guaranteed a There can be only one situation would occur due to the paranoia of being devoured by their fellow immortals. And excluding the 1930's generation, he was mostly correct. Without exception, all 3 known times that Ronnie has granted others immortality, one has always gone crazy and attempted to devour the rest (only the 2nd (the 1300's immortals) and 3rd times (the 1700's immortals) have been detailed, the first was only mentioned in passing in the novels when he lamented at how quickly they always turned.
  • X1999 does this with two groups of seven fighters, the Dragons of Heaven and the Dragons of Earth. The Dragons of Heaven fight to preserve the world, but if the Dragons of Heaven are all defeated by the Dragons of Earth, then the world will end.
    • That is "end" in terms of "as we know it." The world will continue, but mankind will be wiped out. Or that is what some of the Dragons of Earth seem to think will happen. This is a rare series in that none of the villains are out For the Evulz or, mostly, For the Lulz. Some are closer to that the former, though. At the end of the day, there's no character incapable of being seen as an Ensemble Dark Horse.
  • Basic premise of Mirai Nikki: God rounds up twelve not entirely well-adjusted individuals, gives them all limited precognition, and commands them all to fight to the death so that the last one standing can become the new God.
  • The Law of Ueki is based on this trope. Middle School Students are picked by God Canidates to fight against each other, and the last one standing gets a special talent of their choice.
  • Pluto revolves around the title villain systematically hunting down and murdering the seven most advanced robots of the time. Gesicht's challenge is to apprehend Pluto before the same thing happens to him.
    • This was also the plot of the original Astro Boy story that Pluto was based on, called "The Greatest Robot on Earth".
  • Invoked by Metal Sonic in the Sonic the Hedgehog OVA's—"There is only one Sonic the Hedgehog." Metal follows this to the bitter end: After Sonic defeats him, he falls into a pit of lava. Sonic tries to pull him out, but Metal brushes his hand aside.
  • Princess Resurrection: Every new generation of Royals must kill each other off until only one is left to Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence.
  • Death Note Somewhat exercises that trope, with the ongoing battle between Light and L. Both of them are won't stop pursuing each other until one of them is dead. This is extended to the fact that Light is willing to kill Misa and his other followers to achieve his goal as god of the new world.
  • G Gundam takes this trope to a very strange place: every four years, the nations of the world participate in Combat by Champion, sending their strongest fighter in a Gundam to Earth to participate in a giant tournament. The last Gundam standing wins leadership of the council of nations for the next four years.
  • Mentioned in the Code Geass OVA Nunnally in Wonderland when Anya (as The White Rabbit) tells Kallen (as The March Hare) that having two rabbits in the story is redundant and a brief fight ensues to determine who gets to stay as a rabbit.
  • Muteki Kanban Musume: Central theme of episode 5 A, "Be my stepping stone" The protagonist and The Rival (both of them ManChilds ArrogantKungFuGuys) are trapped in a dead end between buildings and invoke this trope: To go out, they need to defeat the other and use her as a stepping stone. Even when the rest of the cast show up to help, they involve them in the game. Deconstructed when everyone is knocked out and the last one is too tired to escape.
  • Anime/Noir had "there can only be two", as Noir was a codename meant for a two woman team and there were three candidates. The two who make it are Mireille and Kirika, who aren't interested in the 'prize' of being the top enforcers of a cult with a world domination bent.

    Comicbooks 
  • In Rising Stars, there are 113 specials, and in the first issue it is revealed that there will only be one left 60 years after they are born. This becomes especially important when we learn that whenever a special dies, his energy is transferred to all of the surviving specials, making them stronger.
    • Even more important as in this universe all superheroes are slowly using up the energy that gives them their powers. So if a character wants to remain super on the long run, his only choice is to...Well, you can guess the rest.
  • Larfleeze is the only true Orange Lantern Corps member. Overcome by greed, they all fought until he was the last one standing. Then Lex Luthor gained a second orange ring, and the fight has begun again.
  • At one point the main man Lobo died. Luckily, he can regenerate from a single drop of blood. Unluckily, there were several thousand drops of blood splattered across a battlefield. So, several thousand Lobos found themselves in one place — and what followed was a awesome and horrifying deathmatch, until only one Lobo remained.
    • The funny thing about this was that Lobo always had this power — Vril Dox, Brainiac 2, suppressed it. It wasn't until Lobo was forcibly regressed to a teen that it came back.

    Film 
  • Highlander, the trope namer itself, has immortal beings which can die only by decapitation, killing each other until the last one standing obtains all knowledge of the world and the right to spend the rest of his/her life as a mortal.
  • The One had a man jumping from dimension to dimension to kill off Alternate Universe versions of himself, in order to gain power.
    Yulaw: After this, there will be only one.
    Gabe Law: I will not be the one, but neither will you.
  • How I Won The War has a variation on this. When people are killed, they became a coloured (meaning they turn into red, blue, green etc. version of themselves, not that they turn black) version of themselves, but still can help. Only the main character survives at the end.
  • In the (not nearly as awesome as it sounds) film The Clones of Bruce Lee, a Mad Scientist gets some DNA from the recently deceased Bruce Lee and makes some clones. Eventually he plans to Take Over the World. But for some reason his method of doing so involves only creating three Bruces, and then having them fight to the death because he only wants the best one.
  • The Killing Room (2009). Four subjects are locked in a room for a psychological experiment. They're then told only one can get out alive.

    Literature 
  • Battle Royale is a particularly brutal example due to the adolescence of the characters.
  • ...as is The Hunger Games, where this is a Zig-Zagging Trope: With only a few competitors left, the Capitol makes an announcement that if the last two survivors are from the same district, they will be co-winners. Katniss and Peeta become the last two survivors, but the Capitol revokes the earlier announcement, and there will only be one winner after all. They decide to commit double suicide rather than attempt to kill each other, and the Capitol backs down, deciding that having two winners is better than not having any.
  • This is Gilbert Norrell's attitude toward magic. In fact his chief concern as officially sanctioned magician is to make sure there are no other magicians in Britain.
  • Stephen King's The Long Walk (written as Richard Bachman). The last one to be alive is declared the winner.
  • During Galaxy of Fear, Tash's clone pretty much spells it out.
    "There isn't room in this life for both of us. And since I'm stronger - you'll just have to go."

    Live-Action TV 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • Mostly averted with the Slayers. In theory, there is only supposed to be one slayer in each generation. (At least, as indicated by the page quote.) However, due to Buffy's first death, a girl named Kendra became a Slayer. After Buffy was resurrected, they both acted as Slayers. Then, a year later, Kendra was killed by Drusilla and Faith became a Slayer, resulting in a similar situation.
    • Of course, it's averted at the end of Season 7, when Willow casts a spell to make all of the Potential Slayers into full fledged Slayers.
    • Oddly absent in Seasons 5 and 6, when Buffy dies a far more permanent (supposedly, anyway) death, but no new slayer appears, or is even mentioned.
    • Because as far as the rules were concerned, Buffy died already. Instead of calling a third Slayer, Buffy's death in season 5 caused a disruption in the Slayer line that led to the events of season 7. (To elaborate on that, the Slayer line runs through the most recently called Slayer. In other words, Faith was the rightful Slayer at the time. In order for a third Slayer to be called, she, not Buffy, would have to die. Buffy's continued existence after her second death represents a weak point in the line, because Buffy herself doesn't belong.)
  • The various installments in the Survivor franchise, as well as most other competitive reality shows.
  • The plot-central Scions of Revelations both play this straight and (slightly) subvert it: the Final Battle will occur when there are exactly two of them, leading some people to try killing them off to speed things up, while others seek to save them in a Race Against the Clock... but not all the Scions are known, and some of the claimants are bluffing, deluded, or already dead (no, really!). There is always a feeling that their numbers are running out, but it isn't clear until very late exactly how close things are.
  • The duel of the 13 Riders in Kamen Rider Ryuki.
    • This occurs in the Kamen Rider Decade movie where Decade, having embraced his role as the Destroyer of Worlds, sets out to defeat every Kamen Rider.
    • This also occurs in Kamen Rider Black on a smaller scale. A duel between two riders in a contest of who is to be God.
  • In the universe of Wizards of Waverly Place, only one child per wizard family, ie: the winner of the wizard contest, is allowed to keep his/her powers and become a full wizard. Though the Russo family becomes an exception, 2 of the 3 kids get to keep their powers.
  • Implied in season 6 of LOST, with the revelation that several main characters are candidates to replace Jacob as protector of the island, but only one will be able to actually fill this role.
  • This trope is most of Sylar's plotline in Heroes, in Season 1 especially, and in Season 3:Volume 4 when he teams up with Danko to eliminate them all, there is also the lines
    Danko: If we do this - if we succeed - you'd be the only one left.
    Sylar: Funny how that works.
  • In the Season 10 premiere of Smallville, the old Lex clone states that "there can only be one Lex Luthor" before using an improvised flamethrower on the other clones.
  • On the Angel Season 5 episode "Destiny" Lindsey and Eve deceive Angel and Spike into believing that the existance of two champion vampires with a soul is causing universal chaos.
  • In Community episode Modern Warfare only the last man standing will receive the prize.

    Music 

    Tabletop Games 
  • When the Druid and Monk classes were first introduced to Dungeons & Dragons (in the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, respectively), the rules restricted the numbers of higher-level characters in the classes. If you wanted to advance to the upper echelons, you had to defeat one of the characters who already held that rank. At the highest levels, each class allowed only a single individual. This carried into the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
    • The first edition of AD&D had much the same thing going on with Assassins. The highest two levels, 14 and 15 are reached by taking over an assassin's guild by killing the Guildmaster (a 14th-level assassin) and by finding and killing one of the existing Grandmasters in order to reach Grandmaster level (15th) yourself.
    • A lesser example is the Green Star Adept Prestige Class. You become one by using the fragments of a certain green comet to make a potion, and then you have to keep taking it until in the end, you transform into a living sentient golem. The problem is, there is only so much comet matter falling from the skies, so the relationship between individual Adepts are, to put it mildly, somewhat strained.
  • The Wizards of High Sorcery in Dragon Lance function the same way, although at least in the case of the White and Red robes murder isn't the best way to get to the top rank.

    Videogames 
  • The Baldur's Gate series basically revolves around the mortal children of the God of Murder, who he created before his death to inherit his power and become his successor. In the first game, one of his sons plans to start a brutal and bloody war to use all the fallen as a sacrifice in a ritual that will turn him to the new God of Murder. In the Grand Finale in the addon to the second game, all the remaining children start to hunt down and kill each other to absorb all the fragments of their fathers divine power and become a god. The god in question actually planned for them to all die so their energy could be used to bring him back to life. Of course, this doesn't go quite as planned either... and the player character can take his powers at the end of it all. Without killing absolutely all the others, since Imoen can give up her share of the power voluntarily.
  • Shin Megami Tensei:
    • Digital Devil Saga had a concept similar to this, with indiviuduals replaced by entire tribes fighting each other for dominance. When a tribe's leader is defeated, the remainder of the tribe must swear loyalty to the victor, and this continues until only one tribe remains. The winning tribe then gets to ascend to Nirvana.
    • In Persona 3: FES, the ex-SEES members discover that they can break out of the Time Skip by assembling the eight fragments of the Key of Time, of which each of them possesses one. Naturally, a disagreement breaks out over how to use this power (more specifically, whether to go back to the past or continue in the present); they solve it by arranging a four-way fight, with the members all pairing off against one another.
    • In Devil Survivor, the King of Bel has the power to command all of demon-kind. To become King of Bel, a being with a fragment of Bel's original power must defeat all of his fellows and absorb their fragments as well. The player character is one of them, the only human Bel. This gets him hunted by several powerful Bel demons... until he starts hunting them down instead.
    • In Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, the Conception is supposed to work like this: formulate a Reason (an idea for a new world to replace the dead one), gather enough Magatsuhi to summon a deity interested in backing your idea, destroy your opponents (anyone else who has developed a Reason and/or summoned their own patron) and finally confront Kagutsuchi with the blessing of your god to have your idea implemented, with the laws of reality itself changing to accomodate your wish. There are a number of ways to break the game, though.
  • Blanca's Wolf Bout Sidequest in Shadow Hearts: Covenant is based around fighting the other wolves in the world to prove his strength. The last battle is against Ernest, the man who told you about the tournament to begin with. He reveals that he was a hunter who wanted to isolate the strongest wolf in the world to test himself again. And he fights you in a fursuit. Victory earns you Blanca's special moves and ultimately his Infinity+1 Sword.
  • The modus operandi of Big Bad Nemesis in Black & White: he spends the game killing off all the other deities so he can Take Over the World.
  • No More Heroes revolves around Travis Touchdown, 11th best assassin in the United Assassins Association, working his way up the rankings by killing off the top ten one by one.
    • Though one of the series's themes, which started near the end of the first game and is rampant through the second one, is that there will always be more assassins coming up from behind, so there will never really be "just one".
  • This is the driving point behind Unreal Tournament's Last Man Standing mode.
  • Two of Big Boss's three clones claim "The world needs only one Big Boss!" The third clone, Solid Snake doesn't buy it.
    • When Big Boss reappears in Metal Gear Solid 4, he says "The world needs only one... No, the world would be best without Snakes."
  • There can be only one Prince of Darkness!
  • Team Fortress 2: If one melee-equipped Demoman defeats another such "Demoknight," he will sometimes scream "THERE CAN BE OOOOOONLYYYY OOOONEE!... Eye."
    • This is essentially the typical outcome of any match played in Arena mode. There is no respawn and to win each team has to kill everyone opposing them. More often than not, the winning team has only one or two people still standing.
    • Then there's the Highlander 9vs9 mode, named as such because there can be only one of each class on each team at any time.
  • The whole point of Twisted Metal is Calypso staging an annual Vehicular Combat tournament where drivers ranging from ordinary dudes to complete psychopaths kill each other until only one emerges victorious and claims the grand price of one wish of whatever the heart desires. However, as tempting as wishing for anything is, there are always consequences...
  • There are two Apostle candidates in Duel Savior Destiny, both of which can potentially become the Messiah who will remake the universe. One of them has to kill the other for them to become the complete Messiah. Though there are loopholes: Claiming the Messiah Armor or sitting in God's Throne will also work.
  • The Mahjarrat of RuneScape sacrifice one of their number in a Ritual of Rejuvenation approximately once every 500 years. As there are a finite number of Mahjarrat, eventually only one will remain.
  • The Dragonborn DLC for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim begins with the First Dragonborn, Miraak sending his cult members to eliminate the protagonist for being a "False Dragonborn" and an obvious threat to his power. The Dragonborn survives the attempt and journeys to Solstheim, hellbent on hunting him down.

    Visual Novels 
  • Fate/stay night involves seven mages who summon spirits of heroes to fight each other. The last spirit standing gets the Holy Grail, which grants a wish. (Killing a mage is a good way to get at the spirit they summoned.)
    • And it's really only one because humans can't touch the Grail, so the Servant does it. And then they get sucked in and turned into fuel like the others for the wish of the Master. By this point, nobody really remembers the mechanics of how it works anymore because no one's ever won. Well, technically Kiritsugu won the last one, but that didn't count.

    Webcomics 
  • Parodied on Ansem Retort. Season Six started with the casts of various reality shows being brutally murdered. Upon finding out they're the only cast left, Axel declares, "WE'RE THE FUCKING HIGHLANDER OF REALITY TV!"
  • Also spoofed in the Harry Potter parody comic House Sparklypoo. The members of the titular house discover to their horror that they're losing their specialness. Their teacher suggests that it's because each of them is supposed to be the best, but obviously only one person can be the best at anything. Cue massive throwdown as the Sparklypoos try to kill one another in order to regain their special powers, culminating in the destruction of Sparklypoo Tower by an errant Dragon Slave.
  • R2-D2's player from Darths & Droids claims that if he were to clone himself, "We'd fight to the death, and the winner would be the new me."
  • In El Goonish Shive, this is possibly subverted; while Lord Tedd is supposedly out to kill the "weak Tedds," Nioi insisted that he was misunderstood, and it is clear from various hints that he has a Freudian Excuse lurking in the shadows. Unfortunately, due to the Kudzu Plot, he's been Put on a Bus, so it'll be some time before we find out why.
  • In Impure Blood, this was the rule of the Gladiator Games. Roan lasted for years — and finally escaped.
  • In one arc of Vexxarr where Minionbot's OS was accidentally copied into a repair drone the two of them tried to destroy each other to the point where all that was left of either was their heads, then they were subjected to a Split Personality Merge and the drone head crushed. Later Carl forced his backup copies to fight one another to the death to determine which AI was the most paranoid and ruthless on board, and for his own amusement.
  • Nodwick had a Highlander parody issue, in which this trope was naturally a major plot point.

    Web Originals 
  • Survival of the Fittest. It's based off Battle Royale, therefore this should also be fairly self-explanatory. For those of you not in the know, the idea is that an island full of students are to kill each other until there is only one survivor.
  • The Kazahana Family Mass Battle web collaboration by Lifepoint One Entertainment focuses on a family whose first head has decreed that the legacy of his fortune be sealed, and passed onto a direct descendant of his own blood, 600 years after his death. One of the Kazahanas, unsupervised by the others, sowed his seeds far and wide, and 600 years later, there are now hundreds of Kazahana descendants, and with only one of them destined to claim the fortune, the stage is set for a bloody and violent battle.
  • Being based on Fate/stay night, Fate Nuovo Guerra follows this convention, though exactly how long until one is left is vaguer, as the 'seven mages' limit has been removed.

    Western Animation 
  • How Leonard of Ugly Americans regenerated after Mark accidentally killed him. Though it wasn't supposed to be that way, the regeneration urn holding his pieces together broke.
  • THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!!!...nice.
  • Kim Possible's Mission Control Wade says this to Rufus after it becomes apparent that, thanks to some brain-enhancing machinery, the naked mole rat might be smarter than him. Wade must take his role as the Smart Guy very seriously.
  • In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode Princess Twilight Sparkle Part 1, Princess Luna declares herself the only princess in Equestria before becoming Nightmare Moon.
  • This is why Foop fights Poof in Fairly OddParents, believing there can be only one fairy baby in the universe. However, Fridge Logic dictates that without Poof, Foop can't exist either. This comes up in the special "Timmy's Secret Wish".

    Real Life 
  • United States Presidential Campaigns. This show lasts for over a year, with plenty of suspense and commentary. The losers get to make tearful speeches, either endorsing the winner at the convention, or conceding defeat in the general election. A nonlethal example, the Consolation Prize usually being either a Cabinet postion or the lecture circuit depending on whether or not one's party wins.
  • The Roman Emperor Diocletian chose to divide it into two parts (east and west), each ruled by an Augustus (Diocletian in the east, Maximian in the west) assisted by a Caesar, who would, on the death of the Augustus, take his place and appoint a new lieutenant-emperor. This system meant there would always be at least four people with imperial rank. It worked well initially under Diocletian, but, within a generation of his death, the whole thing was back under the control of a single emperor (Constantine the Great) via forcible removal of the others.
  • For unexplainable reasons, the human race is constantly trying to find "the best X of all time", all the time.
  • Tournaments. Any kind. Sports, Chess, Video Games... The whole point is to keep pairing people/teams up until only one remains and is declared the winner.


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alternative title(s): There Can Only Be One
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