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Unexpected Successor
Lee "Apollo" Adama: How far down?
Laura Roslin: 43rd in line of succession. I know all 42 ahead of me from the President down. Most of us served with him in the first administration. Some of them came with him from the Mayor's office. I was there with him on his first campaign. I never really liked politics; I kept telling myself I was getting out, but... he had this way about him. (the pilot appears with a piece of paper) Just couldn't say no to him. (he hands her the paper) Thank you. (she sits up, puts her jacket back on) We'll need a priest.
Battlestar Galactica (Reimagined), Miniseries pt I.

A character is way down in the line of succession for some political office, to the point where it's reasonable to assume that they're never going to actually take it. Then everyone ahead of them dies or is otherwise disqualified.

Usually this is either because a) some giant disaster occurs, or b) the character in question is evil and killing everyone ahead of them. It can also result from a Succession Crisis.

In a monarchy, this often means that some distant or estranged relative of the previous monarch is ascending the throne, frequently leading to a great deal of Fish out of Water humor, as the Unexpected Successor has not received the extensive preparation for power usually given to an heir apparent. Also note that, due to the generally predictable nature of royal succession, it's possible for someone to start their life rather far down the line of succession and still be expected to become monarch someday. For example, Queen Victoria was born fifth in line to the English throne, but everyone ahead of her was at least a generation older than she was and unlikely to have more children. So she grew up expecting to be queen and being groomed for the role, and thus would not be a Real Life example of this trope.

Also contrast Offered the Crown, where the monarch is selected, and Succession Crisis, where ambiguity about who the rightful successor is causes problems.

This can happen in democracies as well, if the elected leader suddenly resigns or is incapacitated and someone has to take their place until new elections can be held. While most countries have established lines of succession to make this as orderly as possible, the person who rises to the top of the list can be surprising...such as an Agriculture Secretary who must go from teaching farmers how to grow peanuts to running a country as Hilarity Ensues. In the United States, rules for succession beyond Vice President -> President are set by Congress, not the Constitution. The Speaker of the House and President pro tempore of the Senate are next, then Cabinet secretaries in order by age of office. In fiction, the Speaker of the House of Representatives is almost always a member of a different political party than her predecessor. Usually the Speaker resigns her seat in Congress as a courtesy, but for added turmoil, she won't.

See also Twenty Fifth Amendment. Supertrope of Spare To The Throne and Hidden Backup Prince.


Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime 
  • In Code Geass R2, Lelouch, who was originally 17th in line for the throne, becomes emperor of Britannia after killing his father and using his Geass to force people to accept him as emperor.
    • And at the very end of the series, his sister Nunnally becomes Empress of Britannia, and she was 87th in line! And there are two confirmed survivors of the royal family who were far ahead of Nunnally: her half-sister Cornelia was 4th in line and Schneizel was 3rd...though the Geass command to "serve Zero" would make it easy to take Schneizel out of the running, Cornelia must have simply decided she didn't want the throne.
      • Although considering that Lelouch was the last emperor would change things around a bit. Nunnally would likely have become first in line simply because she was Lelouch's closest living relative. Both Schneizel and Cornelia would have had a lower standing as they were only half-siblings.
  • Katekyo Hitman Reborn!. After retiring to Japan, the first Vongola boss had a family there. In the present day, the current generation of Vongola heirs all die separate bloody deaths. The only descendant of a Vongola boss left is Tsunayoshi Sawada from the Japanese family, getting an ordinary Japanese kid into a Mafia family he didn't know he was related to.
  • Shi Ryuuki in Saiunkoku Monogatari unexpectedly became the imperial Crown Prince at age eleven, during a civil war in which four of his five older brothers killed each other in competition for the throne and Ryuuki moved from the bottom of his family's pecking order to being his father's heir. The only other potential heir, Prince Seien, was in exile because his mother's kin had made a power play too early. Ryuuki, who isn't interested in being The Emperor, knows himself not to be entirely up to the task, and wants nothing more than for his brother Seien to come back, stubbornly resists ruling and plays dumb in the hopes that it will make courtiers support bringing Seien back to take his place. As his advisers eventually point out to him, trying to AVOID taking power (and thus making things worse) proves him smarter and more grounded than anybody else in his family and thus the Closest Thing We Got to a decent heir.
  • Among the background events in Highschool of the Dead, Presidents of the United States keep getting infected. Each time someone new ascends to the office, he asks himself, "Should we nuke China before our government totally collapses?" One of them decides he should.
  • Friedrich IV, The Emperor in Legend of Galactic Heroes, was fourth in line to the Imperial Throne, with the three front of him both much better politicians and much more ambitious. Friedrich, believing that he'd never get anywhere near the throne, spent his youth being a wastrel and a careless hedonist until events in the Deadly Decadent Court made all prior claimants unsuitable. Even as Emperor, his lack of preparation or even desire for the throne colours much of ruling decisions.
  • Natsue Hatamoto from Detective Conan. Sure, her Disappeared Dad was the eldest son of the Hatamoto family, but it was expected that the second son/Natsue's uncle Jouji or her uncle Kitarou (as the eldest daughter/Natsue's aunt Mariko's husband) would get the family riches, or even her older sister Akie...
    • Also, in the Yabuchi family case, everyone was shocked to know that Carlos, supposed to be a mere Scary Black Man working as a bodyguard, was taking the place of his dead father Yoshifusa among the inheritors. The dead patriarch Yoshichika did know, but he didn't tell anyone — except for signaling it in the tape that was his last will. (Oh, and the old man whom everyone thought he was Yoshifusa? He was Yoshifusa's best friend Dickson Tanaka, who pulled a Dead Person Impersonation to protect Carlos.)
  • In the Ace Attorney Investigations manga, Charles Toynbee is the second son of the president of Toy-be, but drops down to third after his half-brother Brodie appears and inherits the presidency after the death of their father. After Brodie's death, Tucker, who's between Brodie and Charles, and next in line for the presidency, relinquishes the position, fearing a "curse". It turns out that Charles killed Brodie and was almost certainly counting on Tucker to get scared and run away.
  • Tokugawa Yoshimune in Ooku: The Inner Chambers was not only from a minor branch of the Tokugawa dynasty, but was the third daughter of said branch, so it was considered unlikely that she'd even become the head of her family, much less shogun. Her older sisters were poisoned to remove them from the succession, and the sickly nature of the direct line meant that the last two members both had short reigns, so she took advantage of the Succession Crisis and proclaimed herself shogun.
    • Which was in fact lampshaded by Ten'ei-in, the consort of a previous shogun:
    "Now here we sit in the sun, enjoying tea together, with one whom nobody e'er thought would become the supreme leader of this land, at the time of her birth."
    • The only time they met, the elderly Shogun Tsunayoshi noted to Yoshimune that she was herself an Unexpected Successor, being the third daughter of Iemitsu the Younger, and had only inherited the throne after her oldest half-sister Ietsuna died without issue. By primogeniture, her middle half-sister Tsunashige should have been the successor, but her mother Iemitsu preferred Tsunayoshi's father over Tsunashige's and seems to have favored his daughter in the order of succession.
  • Bleach: Although Yhwach doesn't have a named successor, the Stern Ritter are convinced that Haschwalth is his successor in all but name. Until Yhwach randomly announces his successor's identity. To say the army's upset it's not Haschwalth is an understatement. Yhwach reveals Uryuu Ishida's existence and names him successor at the same time. It's done to sow dissent and confusion among his men, to isolate Uryuu from plotting betrayal, and to nurture Uryuu's secret (and potentially superior) power for mysterious ends.
  • Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Vivid reveals that the last Sankt Kaiser, Olivie Sägebrecht, was this. When she was born, her constitution was deemed too weak to succeed as the next King, so she was instead used as a political hostage for the kingdom of Shutra. However, her combat and magical prowess grew under the tutelage of Wilfried Jeremiah, until she gained a reputation as a warrior deemed second to none. Thus, when the time came, she was called back to her home country to become the next, and ultimately last, King of the Cradle.

    Comic Books 
  • The graphic novel Give Me Liberty by Frank Miller. After the death or incapacitation of everyone higher up in the line of succession, the Secretary of Agriculture, Howard Nissen, assumes the presidency.
  • Margaret Valentine in Y: The Last Man was the US Secretary of Agriculture. When all the men suddenly died, she was suddenly promoted all the way to President because everyone ahead of her in the succession was either male or died in the ensuing chaos.
  • In "The Ultimates" new series Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates, in retaliation for a full-scale nuclear attack by the United States on his City (which he created overnight by expanding it over most of Europe, killing most of its inhabitants. Yeah it's complicated), Reed Richards launches an anti-matter attack on Washington D.C., killing almost the entire U.S. government. The Secretary of Energy survives because he was away reviewing windmills, so he becomes the new President. Justified in this case because U.S. Government policy is to always have one of the officials in line of succession out of the city in case of a massive attack that destroys the government.
  • In V for Vendetta, following massive social upheaval, the monarch of Great Britain is "Queen Zara." Zara Phillips is currently thirteenth in line for the Crown (although when the comic was written, she was only sixth).
  • In American Flagg, Flagg's friend Bill Windsor-Jones is the rightful King of England (most of the royal family having been killed by a German nuclear strike on London at some unspecified point in the past, and Britain subsequently becoming a communist puppet state of the Pan-African League.)

    Fan Fiction 
  • Marissa Picard and her best friend Clara Stutters discovered that they are princesses of the planet Essex.

    Film 
  • The main character in Kind Hearts and Coronets becomes a duke after the deaths of the eight people ahead of him, all of whom are played by Alec Guinness. (He murders most of them, though a couple save him the trouble by dying on their own initiative.)
  • This is the entire plot of King Ralph. In that case, it involves the British Royal Family, and the person selected had no idea he was in line in the first place.
  • Shanghai Knights had a noble who was way, way far down the line of succession hatch a conspiracy to kill everybody ahead of him so he could ascend to the throne.
    Roy O'Bannon: Aren't you, like, the twentieth to the throne?
    Lord Rathbone: (annoyed) Tenth.
  • By Dawn's Early Light, an adaptation of Trinity's Child below.
  • Eagle Eye. ARIIA, The Pentagon's supercomputer, attempts to assassinate the president, vice president, and the entire line of succession (except for the Secretary of Defense, who ARIIA plans to pass the presidency onto).
  • Mars Attacks!!. After the death of all top U.S. officials, at the end of the movie the President's daughter is apparently in charge of the government. Yes, it's a comedy.
    • But then, the only thing she's actually seen doing is presenting Richie with his medal, probably because Richie isn't really the type for a more formal ceremony. One assumes that someone else would be in charge.
      • That would be the mariachi band leader.
  • XXX 2: State of the Union. The Secretary of Defense attempts a coup that will wipe out key members of the government during the President's State of the Union address, leaving him in charge.
  • In Johnny English, villain Pascal Sauvage gets the Queen to abdicate so that he, a descendant of William the Conqueror, is named her successor.
    • Also, Johnny English himself only gets promoted to field agent because every single other field agent gets killed. Because of him.
  • In Stardust, after the king dies, his sons kill each other so the remaining one can take the throne. They all end up dead, but Tristan's mother reveals that she is the king's only daughter, meaning that Tristan is the only surviving male heir and thus, the new king.
  • This is the fuel that drives the plot of Mr. Deeds (and by that virtue Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). Upon the untimely freezing-at-the-top-of-Everest of Preston Blake, the entirety of Blake Media and its vast fortune now belongs to the only known relative of Blake, Longfellow Deeds (played by Adam Sandler, or by Gary Cooper in the original film), a greeting card writer and pizza shop owner from a small town in New Hampshire. This is played twice, being that in the climax of the film, when Deeds gives up and leaves town, he leaves the company up to his crapsack lawyer, who tries to fire EVERYONE (here meaning 50 thousand employees). Just before he takes control, Deed's girlfriend pops back up with Blake's diary and a worker's manifest, which points to... Blake's longtime butler, John Turturro, who may very well be his son!
  • Michael Corleone was Unexpected Successor to the Corleone clan in The Godfather.
  • Used as a one-off joke/Take That at the end of My Fellow Americans. Because they were corrupt and caught, The President and Vice President both resign. Former Presidents Kramer and Douglas (the protagonists) realize that that means the Speaker of the House is next in line, and Douglas remarks "Oh no, not him!". At the time of filming, the speaker was Newt Gingrich.
  • Kull The Conqueror starts with the eponymous barbarian (played by Kevin Sorbo) being denied in joining the king's army, as all of them are noble-born. Then the king goes berserk and murders most of his successors before being mortally wounded by Kull. While the captain of the guard and a nobleman bicker over who should claim the crown, the king decides that all three should be punished and gives the crown to Kull before dying. The priesthood approves, and, suddenly, the captain of the guard must bow down before a barbarian he has just rejected from the army.
  • In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale has the Kingdom of Ehb ruled by the wise King Conreid, whose wife and only son were killed in a raid many years before during the kingdom's period of strife. The only heir is the King's nephew Duke Fallow, for whom royalty is just a way to enjoy himself. Fallow may be good with a sword and a bow but is terrible at ruling a nation or waging a war. He is even willing to ally himself with the Big Bad in order to hasten Conreid's death. The Bid Bad poisons the King, and although the King's magus manages to remove the poison, Conreid's life is coming to an end. Meanwhile, Farmer is... well, a farmer, who was raised to value hard work and self-reliance. The King's magus brings the two together and reveals that Farmer is Conreid's lost son, saved from the raid by a stableboy and raised as his own. Just as Conreid dies (thanks to the poison and Fallow's arrow), Fallow laughs that he is now in charge and, even knowing about the treachery, the King's loyal general can't raise a hand against his lord. The magus then announces the existence of Conreid's son, and Fallow is arrested (or executed, in an alternate scene). Luckily for Ehb, Farmer, having grown up among the people instead of being pampered in the castle, shares his father's values.
  • In The Wolverine, Shingen Yashida thought he would inherit his father Ichiro's corporation after the latter's impending death. Then Ichiro snubbed Shingen by naming Shingen's daughter Mariko as his sole heir in a new will. Mariko isn't happy about this either, since she never wanted that much power and authority in the first place. Ichiro was plotting to cheat death all along by stealing Wolverine's Healing Factor. The reason he named Mariko his successor instead of Shingen was because Shingen would never be content to be a puppet with authority in name only.

    Literature 
  • ErmintrudeDaphne from Nation by Terry Pratchett spends her childhood being told by her grandmother that she needs to learn how to behave like a lady; if 138 people die, her father will become King of Great Britain and Ireland. One outbreak of Russian Influenza later...
    • When the Gentlemen of Last Resort come with the news that her father is now king, she asks nervously if her grandmother had done anything...silly.
  • In the novel Alas, Babylon the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare inherits the presidency after nuclear war.
  • Also briefly mentioned in Gaiman's story, "We Can Get Them For You Wholesale".
  • Deep Six by Clive Cussler. The Secretary of State becomes the Acting President.
  • Empire by Orson Scott Card. Terrorists assassinated the President, Vice President, and the entire Cabinet, so the Speaker of the House was president until the next elections.
  • Trinity's Child by William Prochnau. As the result of a nuclear attack on the U.S., the Secretary of the Interior assumes the Presidency. Later, the President is found to still be alive, and a power struggle ensues.
  • Warday by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka. After a limited nuclear war, the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury (the highest ranking remaining official) becomes the self-described caretaker President.
  • Worldwar: Striking the Balance by Harry Turtledove. In an alternate history, Secretary of State Cordell Hull assumes the Presidency after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death.
    • This is several years after Washington, D.C., is nuked by the Race near the start of the invasion, eliminating much of the succession line, including the VP.
  • Merlin, the protagonist of Roger Zelazny's second series in The Chronicles of Amber, ends the series by becoming the ruler of Chaos after everyone ahead of him kills each other off. Merlin's uncle Random, youngest of King Oberon's children, unexpectedly inherits the throne of Amber via Deus ex Machina (the Unicorn) in the final book of the first series.
  • In George R. R. Martin's prequels to A Song of Ice and Fire, Tales Of Dunk And Egg, a little boy named Egg is a major character. In the main novels, we learn he became Aegon Targaryen, the Fifth of His Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, styled Aegon the Unlikely for assuming a throne no one expected he'd get as he was the youngest son of a king's youngest brother. He proved an excellent ruler though, and given his older brothers, the Seven Kingdoms came out lucky that time. It's generally accepted that he was the last decent one.
    • Aemon Tarygaryen, one of his older brothers, survives to the main stories as an old, old man who took the Maester's Chains and went to the Wall as a young man. He dies at 102 asking in his delirium for Egg. He tells a story to a young Jon Snow about how, many years ago, before Egg was crowned King, the nobles and the Maesters asked him to renounce his vows and take the throne. Egg was only crowned because Aemon took his vows seriously.
    • King Robert Baratheon hails from a cadet branch of the Targaryen line, so his succession was just as unlikely. By all accounts he graciously accepted the position of King after he smashed the Targaryen dynasty, but before he could even be crowned there were a few tense moments where anyone from Ned Stark, Tywin Lannister, and even Jaime Lannister could have proclaimed themselves king, but didn't. Then there's also the unfortunate fact the legitimate successor that he killed (Rhaegar Targaryen) would have been a perfectly decent king compared to his father Aerys and even moreso, that Prince Rhaegar's children would have made good heirs had Tywin Lannister not ordered them killed.
    • Later, in the North, Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North at the start of the books, has five legitimate children (three boys, two girls), an illegitimate son and a younger brother. Both brother and bastard son have taken the vows as members of the Night's Watch and are therefore removed from succession (Jon Snow, the illegitimate son couldn't have inherited anyway). After Lord Eddard is executed, Robb, his oldest son becomes King in the North (the old title his family held before the Targaryen conquest). His younger brother Bran is his heir until he has children of his own. Then both younger brothers, Bran and Rickon, are presumed dead, and succession passes to the oldest sister, Sansa, who's married (not at all willingly) to a member of the Stark's arch rivals, the Lannisters. The younger sister Arya is also considered dead by this point. Somewhat desperate that the Lannisters don't gain control of the North if he should die, the young king decides to legitimize his bastard brother Jon (the uncle is also missing by now) and name him heir. He then dies. So, Jon Snow is the King in the North and doesn't know it... Talk about unlikely. And now one of the Northen lords has discovered that Rickon, Ned's youngest son is still alive, and is plotting to make him Lord of Winterfell/King.
      • And if Jon Snow is really the trueborn son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark...he's the King of the Seven Kingdoms ...and neither he nor any big shot of the kingdom has the slightest clue about this.
      • In any case, even if Jon survives the events in the end of A Dance with Dragons, he's still a Watchman and his default answer is the same as Aemon's: "Sorry, guys, but no".
    • Daenerys Targaryen has taken to calling herself "The Queen Across the Water", and has assumed the mantle of the Targaryen heir apparent in exile after her older brothers and nephew are each killed before they could assume the throne from their father/grandfather, King Aerys Targaryen II. As Dany hasn't reclaimed the realm of Westeros yet (the possibility of it even happening is still very much in doubt) she's more of an Unexpected Successor-in waiting.
      • In A Dance with Dragons, we learn that her nephew, Aegon VI Targaryen, son of Rhaegar, actually survived and has been living in hiding, which makes him first in line for the Targaryen succession... as the eldest male descent of the last Targaryen king...maybe. This all only makes Dany even more unexpected.
  • In I, Claudius, Caligula is dead, and some of the conspirators who killed him are killing every member of Caligula's family they can find. The last thing they expect is the Praetorian Guard to declare Caligula's harmless uncle Claudius emperor.
  • Prince Roger of the Prince Roger series is behind two siblings and his brother's kids in line for the throne. Then while he's marooned on a backwards planet all of them except his mother are assassinated and she's raped both physically and mentally until she can't carry out the business of government. By the end of the series, he takes the throne.
  • The Balitang family in Tamora Pierce's Daughter of the Lioness books- the line of succession in the Copper Isles goes as follows (based on the beginning of Trickster's Choice): Oron, Hazarin, Dunevon, Mequen Balitang. When Oron dies from old age and Hazarin becomes king, the fact that Mequen's in line to the throne becomes a lot more important. When Hazarin dies and Mequen is murdered, his (toddler) son Elsren becomes second in line to the throne, which is held by another toddler. Things go downhill from there.
  • Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy's Ryanverse novels. He's only Vice President, meaning he is directly next in line, but a) he was explicitly told, and had it as a condition of accepting the post, that he would not have to do much of anything, b) he was not expected by anyone, readers included, to ever run the country, c) he was only going to be VP for a few months, an unlikely time frame for an assassination, and d) he was only VP for an hour, tops, before becoming President.
  • In the The Riftwar Cycle series, Arutha starts the series as the lowest member of the royal family and was expected to become a minor duke, but in the first book alone so many nobles get killed off he becomes the second most powerful man in the Kingdom. He never becomes king himself, but that's because he renounced his claim to the throne in favor of his sons when his brother the king dies of old age on the grounds that he's too old for the job. In fact this trope is ever present in the series as nobles die and need to be replaced at a very fast rate.
  • In Garth Nix's Sabriel, the Old Kingdom has been without the royal bloodline to protect it for a hundred years, since Kerrigor murdered his mother and sisters and used their blood to break the great Charter-stones. Politically and religiously beheaded, the only thing the Kingdom has on its side is that all other countries leave it alone on principle. Then Sabriel rescues a young guardsman who'd been transformed into the prow of a ship, and they go questing together. It turns out he was the illegitimate son of the Queen, an utterly improbable inheritor, but now the only member of the royal bloodline still living. He becomes King.
  • In The Belgariad and related works:
    • Garion himself is a rather Unexpected Successor, as most of the world thought the Rivan line had perished. Polgara and Belgarath didn't even bother filling Garion himself in (but the audience knows).
    • In the prequel Polgara the Sorceress, the whole hidden Rivan line of succession Polgara spends half her life protecting flows from a youngest grandson, the sole survivor of a slaughtered royal family. Subverted in that he doesn't actually get to rule; they need to hide him and his descendants.
    • One could make a good case for Urgit being an Unexpected Successor to Taur Urgas. He's physically weak, in a country where killing those ahead of you in the line of succession is an accepted part of the succession code. Urgit just realized that there was no requirement that the wannabe heir kill his rivals personally, stole a key to the royal treasury, and hired killers.
  • Inferno by Roger MacBride Allen. Political wags had joked that nobody would assassinate the governor of the planet, Chanto Grieg, because the designated successor to the office was widely expected to be the equivalent of the Speaker of the House in the USA: President of the Legislative Council Shelabas Quellam, a man widely known to be good-natured but completely ill-suited to the office of Governor were he to ascend to the office. But Governor Chanto Grieg of the planet Inferno is indeed assassinated. Imagine the look of surprise on everybody's face when Chanto Grieg's will is officially read by his lawyer. The next Governor of Inferno is actually Sheriff Alvar Kresh. Suffice it to say that Grieg knew what he was doing.
  • In Dirge for Prester John It's debated whether or not John should be allowed to take part in the Abir when he knows so little of Pentexore's ways, because what if he becomes someone important? And then he's the king.
  • In Michael Flynn's January Dancer, Hugh is the rightful head of government because he was out of town doing education stuff when the coup hit. He really preferred being in charge of education.
  • In the backstory of The Lord of the Rings, the second king of Gondor was Meneldil, the fourth son of the first king, Anarion. Anarion and his three elder sons all died in the wars of the Last Alliance.
  • In the Age of Fire series, the Copper/RuGaard is adopted into the Lavadome's Imperial Line as Tyr FeHazathant's grandson, a position solidified later by being mated with the Tyr's granddaughter Halaflora. However, he's still so far down the line (and disfavored for his various crippling injuries and personality quirks) that no one, least of all him, expects him to ever become Tyr... but by the end of his focus book, everyone higher than him in the line is either dead or in exile, allowing him to become Tyr.

    Live Action TV 
  • Laura Roslin from Battlestar Galactica, who as the Secretary of Education was 43rd in line of succession. She became President after the Cylons' nuclear attack killed everyone higher-ranking than her.
    • She was actually asked to resign her position by the President a few days earlier, after going against his wishes when dealing with a teacher's strike. Her resignation would have been made official when she got back to Caprica from the Galactica.
  • Part of the aliens' plan in the Doctor Who episode "Aliens in London" was to kill off enough of the British government to make the MP who they'd replaced with an alien into Prime Minister. Enough of the government is killed that Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North, becomes Prime Minister.
    • Why didn't they just impersonate the Prime Minister? He was too skinny to fit inside.
    • Particularly daft because Britain has no 'line of succession' from the Prime Minister. Usually a PM will designate another senior cabinet minister to exercise the PM's powers when the actual PM is away from the country or otherwise incapable of doing so, but this minister does not become 'Acting Prime Minister' or anything similar. When a Prime Minister resigns or dies, there is no Prime Minister until another can be formally appointed.
  • Jericho. Nuclear attacks leave the Secretary of Health and Human Services as the highest surviving official. Some people do not agree...
  • A sketch in one of Spike Milligan's shows had a Britain devastated after a nuclear war where the national anthem was "God Bless Mrs Ethel Stokes".
  • During a kidnapping crisis in The West Wing The President temporally steps down, and since there is no Vice-President at that moment, he appoints the Speaker of The House as the new commander-in-chief. Bear in mind, in this scenario a Democrat is passing the power to a Republican. And the Republican who gets the job? King Ralph, himself.
    • In another episode, the president meets with the Designated Survivor before a State of the Union and he advises him on what to do should the unthinkable happen (notably, in real life, the designated survivor is never briefed or advised on emergency procedures, presumably to prevent this second-rank secretary getting in the way of people who actually know what they are doing).
    President Bartlet: First thing always is national security. Get your commanders together. Appoint joint chiefs. Appoint chairman. Take them to Defcon 4. Have the governors send emergency delegates to Washington. The assistant attorney general is gonna be the acting A. G. If he tells you he wants to bring out the National Guard, do what he tells you. You have a best friend?
    Roger Tribby, Secretary of Agriculture: Yes, sir.
    Bartlet: Is he smarter than you?
    Tribby: Yes, sir.
    Bartlet: Would you trust him with your life?
    Tribby: Yes, sir.
    Bartlet: That's your chief of staff...Oh, in the [White House] residence, in the second floor, the bathroom at the end of the hall. You have to jiggle the handle a little.
  • Brazilian mini-series O Brado Retumbante tells the story of an honest congressman who is elected Speaker of the House with the aid of a corrupt senator looking forward to use him as a puppet, when suddenly becomes the leader of the nation when both the President and the Vice President suddenly die in a helicopter crash.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • An arc in Doonesbury had the characters (during the Reagan administration) playing a computerized war game. Overreaction to a "Soviet provocation" results in nuclear war. In one of the last strips, the line of succession has resulted in Secretary of the Interior James Watt being President — with nothing much left to preside over. Watt's perceived anti-environmentalism is referenced with the remark, "Guess he got rid of all those trees."

    Video Games 
  • King Airyglyph in Star Ocean Till The End Of Time, who was known as Airyglyph the Unlikely.
  • Ashnard in Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance killed his father and everyone who was ahead of him in order to get the throne of Daein, starting from fairly far down the line of succession. The sequel claims he killed everyone else of by making his father sign a blood contract, then invoking it, everyone but his father died randomly in what people thought was a plague. This is unpopular among the fanbase as it seems to have been thrown in there to demonstrate the power of the blood contract (which was never mentioned in the first game), and takes away from Ashnard's personality of loving to kill people firsthand.
  • In Betrayal at Krondor, this is part of Gorath's backstory. He becomes chieftain at the age of twelve when his tribe very nearly gets massacred, including the former chieftain, his father. Oh, and a dark elf like him would otherwise be expected to spend at least a century or two getting prepped for the position and would need to have lots of accomplishments to his name before being considered even marginally eligible.
  • GDI Director Redmond Boyle in Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars was originally the the GDI Treasurer, and was the only ranking member of GDI government not on the Philadelphia when it was destroyed. However, it is revealed in the Expansion Pack that Kane purposely manipulated events so that Boyle would become Director.
  • This can happen to the player in Shogun: Total War, and possibly its sequels. Because of the way that births of heirs, aging, and succession are modelled, if you fail to manage your family properly, odd stuff can happen. Only the player's current character can die of old age or sire children, and the chance is random on any turn with penalties for age. For instance, the 90-year-old uncle of the current Daimyo, immune to age since he's not the head of the family, could be the only one left if the Daimyo's sons all die in battle or assassinations. He succeeds the throne when his 60-some year old nephew dies, and then himself dies the next turn on a random old-age roll buoyed up by 30 years of penalties, ending the game.
    • In later games in the Total War series, the game doesn't end, your country "merely" goes into civil war as any general with a drop of royal blood tries to claim the throne. The player is allowed to pick one of the claimants to make the de facto legitimate heir, and everyone else gets treated as a Rebel faction by the game. Players at risk of this have been known to marry a princess to their best general, which gives him a claim to the throne too. After all, if you're gonna have to fight your own guys, might as well do it with your best commander and biggest army. In in-game terms, this can result in a minor lord, knight, or even commoner being vaulted onto the throne.
      • Which, considering how one of the three Great Unifiers of Japan was a peasant-born samurai, makes it a rather delicious bit of irony for a player.
  • Peony in Tales of the Abyss. He's the illegitimate son of the emperor, when his half brothers all die he ends up being shipped back to the capitol for Cram School a la governing, instead of going down a cadet line, or some other noble house. In this case, "unexpected" only describes an outside perspective, though: because The Score (the prophecy that controls the world's fate) is a completely accurate prediction of the future, Peony's father had been told that he would eventually ascend to the throne. That was why Peony was sent away from the court intrigues to live incognito, where he ran off from his guards to play with commoner children.
  • Tactics Ogre is in love with this trope. The previous monarch, King Dorgalua, was a commoner who managed to become the first king of Valeria by defeating his biggest rival, King Roderick, in the middle of a bloody ethnic civil war. Dorgalia has a legimate son with a Bacrum noblewoman, but he dies at a young age and so does the Queen. This leaves Valeria in yet another civil war, which each one of the ethnic groups being led by a different pretender, all trying to become King. Ultimately it turns out that Catiua, the protagonist Denim's adopted sister, is the unknown bastard daughter of King Dorgalia, and thus the rightful Queen. Depending upon the ending, either she can be the Unexpected Successor, or it can be Denim himself if she gets killed. Denim's military might is really the only thing that holds together either crowning. Literally every other rival is dead by then. God only knows who will become King in the bad ending, where Denim gets assassinated on his coronation day. But Catiua becoming Queen seems to be the canon ending.
  • A Succession Crisis in Final Fantasy Tactics leaves nearly everyone with a semi-legitimate claim to the throne either dead or otherwise disposed of, paving the way for Delita, a once-poor stable boy who worked his way up through the military via masterful Xanatos Speed Chess, to take the throne of Ivalice by marrying Ovelia, the only surviving claimant just before her coronation. Ovelia's ascension was just as unlikely and just as masterfully orchestrated, only by powers beyond her own control. She too was a commoner who was switched at birth with the real Princess Ovelia, who had already died, and raised as the ailing king's younger sister. She was then used as a political pawn by Duke Goltana, who intended to place her on the throne, assume power as her regent, and then have her executed. Ultimately, Goltana is betrayed and murdered (by Delita), even though his faction wins the War of the Lions, so Ovelia ascends to the throne as a proper queen ... or would have, had Delita not married her and become king by default. He then goes on to kill her, but that's just because she went crazy and tried to kill him first.
  • Final Fantasy XII sees command of the Imperial army fall into the lap of Judge Zargabaath, the rarely seen low man on the Judge Magistrate totem pole simply because all the other Judges are either dead or have jumped ship.
  • In the Neverwinter Nights module The Bastard Of Kosigan, your character is the illegitimate son of the present Count's younger brother; the present Count has two legitimate and one illegitimate son, and the elder legitimate son has a wife and son. Over the course of the game, all five people in line ahead of you (your father is already dead) get killed off by you/Alex/each other/French assassins, leaving your character with the best claim. The French plot initially involved killing you off as well, which would have left a French general with the title by virtue of being of a branch of the family that diverged several centuries ago.
  • In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, after The Emperor Uriel Septim was assassinated, along with all four of his sons, it turns out that he has an unknown illegitimate son - Martin Septim - who becomes Emperor after you deliver the Requisite Royal Regalia... and then deliver Martin. Though he has to make a Heroic Sacrifice before he is formally declared Emperor by lighting the Dragonfires, leaving the throne empty.
  • The player character in the MechWarrior reboot is fourth in line of succession for his family, the planetary rulers, and ends up becoming a lazy, party-loving Jerk Ass as a result. Then the rest of his family is assassinated and he suddenly finds himself in the front lines...
  • Happens twice in the same country in Dragon Quest VIII. King Clavius of Argonia only became the king because his elder brother deserted the country. Then his useless son Prince Charmles is expected to be his heir, until the Rite of Passage ceremony, where he needs to get a jewel called an Argon Heart from an Argon Lizard. The heroes are sent to assist him, and get a decently-sized Heart after obtaining a bunch of small ones. Then he goes back to town and buys a larger one, which his father witnesses. In the Good Ending, the Hero is revealed to be Clavius's long-lost brother's son, making him a potential heir. And care to guess which potential heir produced a legitimately-obtained Argon Heart?
  • Happens at times in Crusader Kings and its sequel. There's a couple of major reasons. Firstly, because this is the Middle Ages, essentially anyone in the line of succession may abruptly die of pneumonia/assassinations/hunting accidents at any time. Secondly, some of the succession laws can be kind of hard to predict, specifically Elective, since in the first game it's largely based on number of provinces and so can swap at any time, while in the second game it depends on how the vassals feel at the precise moment the previous ruler dies. Lastly and most importantly, sometimes the minor distant relation with no real expectation of getting the throne is in the player's dynasty, and the player will stop at nothing to make this trope happen.
  • The Reaper invasion in Mass Effect 3 leads to several of these happening:
    • General Adrien Victus finds himself promoted to Primarch of the turian race (essentially Commander-in-Chief of the entire military-structured Turian Hierarchy) in the opening days of the Reaper War. This comes as an extreme surprise to him: while he's a very competent military commander, the fact that he has a habit of ignoring standard military doctrine in favor of unorthodox tactics means that he's always been passed up for further promotion. The fact that he of all people has been promoted so high up is a sign of just how badly the war is going for the turians.
    • Later, it's possible for Shepard to tease Garrus about the possibility of becoming Primarch Vakarian, given his evident yet nebulous high position in the turian military (he has no official rank, but an impressive amount of resources were laid at his disposal a few months before the Reapers finally attacked). Garrus is unwilling to even discuss the possibility.
    • The Codex mentions in passing that Admiral Hackett, recently the commander of the Systems Alliance Fifth Fleet, is now the de facto leader of humanity as a whole, due to his rallying of surviving human forces after the initial Reaper assault, and his leveraging the surviving colonies to get support for the Crucible, while trying to delay the Reaper advance. By the end of the game, he is arguably the single most powerful organic being in the galaxy by right of his position leading the combined military forces of the entire Milky Way galaxy in the climactic battle.
    • If you completed the "Bring Down the Sky" DLC in Mass Effect 1, a sidequest reveals that Balak, the Big Bad of that mission, is currently the highest-ranking military officer in the batarian forces. This is a sign of just how badly the batarians were decimated during the initial invasion—Balak is a captain.

    Visual Novels 
  • Eva Ushiromiya in Umineko no Naku Koro ni. More exactly, in the third arc. Although she's not actually that far down the chain, there was no reason to expect her brother Krauss to pass away, and after he does, the hope would be that Jessica's husband could succeed after him. In addition, Eva has the Heir Club for Men baggage to deal with.
    • Kinzo Ushiromiya himself is one of these too.

    Web Comics 
  • Sil'lice Val'Sharen of Drowtales as a middle child of the queen Diva'ratrika, never really received much attention from her mother, who out right thought Sil'lice did not display traits worthy of being her heir. Then the Nidraa'chal war started and three of Sil'lice's sisters betrayed their clan, killed off their mother and successfully broke the will of the last daughter of Divaratrika, taking full control of their clan at the same time. Sil'lice was the only one who remained true to their mother and is the last true Val'Sharen and now hides among the Val'Sarghress, taking every effort to destroy her sisters and keep the Val'Sharen clan true. Diva, a former slave whose body has now contains the soul of Diva'ratrika, is working alongside Sil'lice, well keeping the fact she is Diva'ratrika secret.
  • It's Walky!: Walky's mother becomes Big Boss after the previous one is killed and everyone ahead of her on the SEMME hierarchy is too old, crazy, or dead to take over.
  • As his Start of Darkness reveals, Redcloak from The Order of the Stick was the newest acolyte in the hierarchy of the Dark One's priesthood, and became the High Priest because the Sapphire Guard killed everyone else in the order except him.

    Web Original 
  • In one story, every other member of the Global Guardians is disabled or rendered ineffective by a villain, leaving the team's teenage junior member, Bungie, as the team's defacto leader, even as she's also the team's sole member still left standing. However, the regulations and laws under which the super team operates (its a government-sponsored hero team) put her firmly in command, and that allows her to temporarily deputize other heroes into the Guardians, and with her temporary team assembled, she goes on to save the day.

    Western Animation 
  • Used as a gag in the Animaniacs episode set in Anvilania. Yakko arrives to take over the throne, and sings a very complicated song explaining where he fits in the line of succession (extremely low), which ends with him noting sadly that everyone named in the song is dead, leaving him King.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender :
    • Fire Lord Zuko, although he was technically Crown Prince for at least five years before gaining the throne. He'd been banished and then declared a traitor (twice), so he wasn't even in the running anymore. But when you and your friends oust the only two legitimate rulers with the support of a possible third, no one is going to say anything.
    • Zuko's father, Fire Lord Ozai, fits even better. He was either second or third in line after elder brother Iroh, and possibly his nephew Lu Ten. Then Lu Ten died in battle and Iroh fell into a deep depression just as the then-current Fire Lord, Azulon, died. Just before this, to punish Ozai for talking to Azulon about removing Iroh from the line of succession, Azulon ordered him to kill Zuko. Ursa found out and made a deal with Ozai: she would kill Azulon and leave the palace if Ozai doesn't kill Zuko. Ozai agreed. Ozai announced a very convenient deathbed wish by Azulon for Ozai to inherit, and Iroh, half a world away and still in mourning for his son, did not oppose him (and likely was unwilling to plunge the Fire Nation into civil war to wrest power away from his younger brother when he returned to the capitol).

    Real Life 
  • King George VI — then Prince Albert, Duke of York — was not expecting to become King, instead planning a military career and a quiet life with his duchess and their two daughters. Then his older brother pitched a royal fit and abdicated. Cue a constitutional crisis, a world war, and a very uncomfortable King taking the throne of an empire he never expected to rule. Which he did magnificently—George VI is one of the best beloved monarchs of British history—but at a terrible cost to his personal health.
  • While it has rarely been invoked beyond Vice Presidents taking over for their late running mates, the US government has a defined line of Presidential succession that lays out who would become President in the event that multiple members of the administration were rendered unable to serve. Because this line of succession also puts a hard limit on how far down the governmental food chain the Presidency can fall, the Secret Service makes certain that one person in the line is not in attenance at any "all hands" event like the State of the Union Address, but instead in a safe house far enough away that no single plausible catastrophe could wipe out the entire succession.
    • Pundits brought this up in the aftermath of the 1981 assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan, where Secretary of State Al Haig told the press, "Pending the arrival of the Vice-President, I'm in charge here at the White House." While he only meant that he was in charge of the administrative staff until VP George H.W. Bush could return from his vacation in Maine, the pundits all ignored the context and treated it as if Haig was trying to stage a coup. Until Bush could be contacted, the acting President was Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, though his only real responsibility was command over the US nuclear arsenal.
    • The "Designated Survivor" rule has been unofficially extended by Congress to include at least one Senator and one Representative, so that in the event of a decapitation strike there would also be successors to the roles of Senate President Pro Tempore and Speaker of the House.
    • The aforementioned line of succession is not immediately obvious based on contemporary priorities—in case of a decapitation terrorist strike, the Secretary of Homeland Security is last in line. Currently, if something happens to Obama, the office passes first to Vice-President Biden, then Speaker Boehner. note  If something happens to all three, next is line is Senate President pro tempore Patrick Leahy, who holds his position solely by virtue of being the longest-serving member of the majority party.note  The fourth in line is the Secretary of State, and then the other Cabinet Secretaries in order by age of office. Homeland Security is the newest department, and thus the last in line.
    • Also, this only applies during a President's term, and not during an election. If the President-elect dies after the electoral college votes, then the Vice President-elect would become President on Inauguration Day. If, however, the presumed winner dies before the electoral college actually votes, no one's quite sure what would happen as the electors could ignore the popular vote results or refuse to vote for a dead man, and throw the election to someone who wasn't even on the ballot or force the state caucuses in the House to vote instead.
    • It was disputed whether the Vice President would be "Acting President" or "President"...until William Henry Harrison died and John Tyler refused to even acknowledge anyone who called his position "Acting". Anyone below the VP, however, would be "Acting President" until the next presidential election, under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 [3 USC § 19].
    • This plus appointment being used for mid-term VP replacements lead to Michigan Representative Gerald Ford becoming the only truly unelected President of the United States. All arguments about contested elections aside (and there are plenty), Ford was appointed to the Vice Presidency after Spiro Agnew resigned, became president after Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal, then lost to Carter in his first national election. This was just after Speaker of the House Carl Albert had passed up the opportunity to make himself Nixon's Unexpected Successor. As Speaker, Albert had the power to prevent Ford's nomination from coming to a vote, thus guaranteeing a VP vacancy after Nixon's by-then-inevitable impeachment or resignation. Albert declined to do so on the grounds that the American people had chosen to have a Republican as President and it would be something verging on a coup if he, a Democrat, arranged his own succession.
  • The Wars of the Roses and the English royal dynasties that followed were plagued by this trope, due to Chronic Backstabbing Disorder and low fertility.
    • At the time of his birth, Henry Tudor was second in line for the throne as the half-nephew of King Henry VI, although his claim was through his mother and came via a lineage that had been both legitimised by law and barred from future ascension by Richard IInote . He became a much more unlikely successor when Edward Duke of York killed the King and the crown prince, and installed his two sons and two brothers in the order of succession. No one thought Henry Tudor could beat those odds, but he emerged from the civil war as Henry VII and made sure of the throne by marrying the most plausible other successor, Elizabeth of York.
    • When Henry VIII died in 1547, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was 4th in line for the English throne, after Henry's three healthy legitimate children. It was considered very unlikely the Stuarts would ever rule England, but Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I all assumed the throne and then died childless. 56 years after Henry's death, Mary's son James VI of Scotland became James I of England.
    • The successors to the Stuarts, the minor German princes of The House of Hanover, were more or less handed the British throne out of nowhere. Under the Act of Settlement 1701, all Catholics were excluded from the succession, and Queen Anne's heir was the junior Stuart line of Electress Sophia of Hanover. This is why George I and George II (Sophia's son and grandson) spoke little to no English: they were 41 and 18, respectively, when the Act of Settlement made them second and third in line, and 54 and 31 when the throne passed to their house. This accelerated the trend of direct governance by ministers instead of the monarch, and by the end of George I's reign, the general system used in Britain today had been developed under the guidance of the (unofficial) prime minister Sir Robert Walpole. So, indirectly, we have this trope to thank for the modern system of parliamentary democracy—used in some form by the vast majority of democratic states in existence today.
  • Possibly the greatest subversion of the trope was Ramiro II of Aragon. The fourth son of King Sancho, he wasn't expected to inherit or hold a political position at all and became a priest. However, all three of his elder brothers died without issue, two of them after having seized the crown. He was then literally taken from his abbey, given a Papal permission to abandon his vows so he could guarantee the survival of the dynasty, and crowned. He complied, married, had a daughter, abdicated to her, and had her married when she was 1 year old. With his duty accomplished in record time, he took the vows again and went back to his abbey.
    • Henry of Portugal started off in similar straits but wasn't able to follow through as magnificently—no one expected him to succeed to the throne when his eldest surviving brother became King John III, but during John's reign, their three other brothers died without legitimate issue and both of the king's sons predeceased him. He was succeeded by his infant grandson Sebastian, who died unmarried at the age of 25, leaving his great uncle Henry, by then a 66-year old Catholic cardinal, heir to the throne. Henry was unable to get the papal dispensation to abandon his vow of chastity and father an heir, so when he died two years later, there was a Succession Crisis from which the Spanish king Philip II (Henry's nephew by his older sister) emerged triumphant.
  • Invoked in the later two-thirds of the Qing dynasty of Imperial China. The Yongzheng Emperor had his legitimacy consistently questioned due to the Succession Crisis in 1710-1720s (in which his father deposed the crown prince, then died without naming a replacement), and decided that while the monarch had the power to nominate any successor, no one should feel overly confident of their place in the order of succession. His new succession scheme was thus: every moment the emperor was alive, he was required to have secured somewhere in the palace a sealed will and testament which would only be opened in event of his death. As a result, no heir would be publicly named, and while the emperor's personal preference might be apparent, it would never create a binding order of succession.
  • The French monarchy's application of Salic Law, which not only absolutely forbade female succession but also excluded any claim through female lines, has resulted in several Unexpected Successors when the direct male line has to backtrack quite far into cadet branches:
    • The primacy of Salic Law was established with the succession of King Philip VI. When Philip IV ("the Fair") died, he left three surviving sons (Louis X, Philip V, and Charles IV) and a daughter (Isabella), so his brother's son Philip of Valois was not expected to ever ascend the throne. However, Louis X and Philip V's wives had recently been condemned for adultery, casting doubt on the legitimacy of their surviving children, all daughters. Then Louis X and Philip V both died in their early 20s, Louis X's posthumous son by his second wife died a few days after birth, and Charles IV died at age 34. This left three candidates for the succession: Philip of Valois, Charles of Navarre (son of Jeanne, one of Louis X's repudiated daughters) and Edward III of England (son of Isabella). Ironically, the French nobility decided to settle the crisis based on direct male-line descent NOT primarily because of legal precedent from ancient Frankish custom (which was only RetConned into the story two generations later) but because there were strong political arguments against the two candidates with claims through female descent (the suspect legitimacy of Charles' mother and Edward's connections to hostile England).
    • King Henry IV. When Henry II of France was killed in a jousting accident in 1559, his dynasty seemed secure as he was survived by no less than four sons. But Francois II died childless in 1560, Charles IX's died in 1574 with his only legitimate child a daughter, and childless Henry III was assassinated in 1589, by which time the youngest brother, Francois Duke of Anjou, had also died unmarried and childless. This left Henry of Navarre as Salic heir, as he could claim direct male-line descent from a brother of the 13th century King Louis IX.
    • King Charles VII was unexpected for reasons unrelated to Salic Law. When he was born in 1403, two of his four elder brothers were still alive. Then they both died, leaving Charles the new Dauphin, but the invading English King Henry V forced Charles VI to name Henry successor to the French throne and exclude the Dauphin on the grounds of alleged illegitimate birth. Then against all expectations the apparently invincible Henry died before Charles VI, with surviving English claimant the infant Henry VI, and Joan of Arc showed up to help Charles rout the formidable Anglo-Burgundian forces and make good his claim to the throne.
  • The papal succession is elective, not dynastic, but there have been some unexpected successors to St. Peter, especially when the conclave deadlocked over the most obvious candidates and compromised by plucking someone from obscurity. The most notable such case probably occurred after the death of pope Nicolaus IV in 1292, when the conclave was deadlocked for two years. The 85-year-old Benedictine monk and hermit Pietro di Morrone sent them a letter telling them to get along with electing a new pope, and shortly after found himself elected to the post. He at first tried to refuse his new office. Eventually he gave in, took the name Celestine V, but the strain proved too much and so a few months later he became the first pope (and the only one before Benedict XVI) to voluntarily resign from office.
  • Goodluck Jonathan, President of Nigeria 2010-present, was elected to the largely meaningless post of Vice President under a fellow named Umaru Yar'Adua. When Yar'Adua died early in his term, Jonathan took over, and to everyone's surprise ran for election in his own right in 2011—the Nigerian parties had agreed that Muslims and Christians were to take turns as president, but Jonathan, a Christian, had been filling the term of a Muslim (Yar'Adua). The fact that Jonathan not only won, but won without serious objection from the predominantly Muslim north, was taken at the time as evidence that Nigeria's long sectarian struggle had, if not ended, then certainly died down.
  • While there wasn't much left to take charge of by the time he came to power, in 1939 Captain Karl Dönitz would have been a million-to-one-against bet for "leader of Germany when the current hostilities end".

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