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Tiger by the Tail

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OK, now just hang on... forever.

"Everyone became aware of a rattling noise. Nobby was spinning the morningstar round and round on the end of its chain, except that because the spiky ball was a very heavy spiky ball, and because the difference between Nobby and a dwarf was species rather than height, it was more a case of both of them orbiting around each other. If he let go, it was an even chance that the target would be hit by a spiky ball or an unexploded Corporal Nobbs. Neither prospect pleased."

A character (possibly with the best of intentions) has started or gotten involved in something which has become dangerous or taken an evil turn, but which they cannot just stop doing or walk away from without facing terrible consequences. This can be a case of either Gone Horribly Wrong or Gone Horribly Right depending on the circumstances. The idiom comes from the idea that if you catch a tiger by the tail, you can never let go unless you want to be eaten. Also known as "riding a tiger" from the Chinese idiom "riding a tiger and unable to get off."

Perhaps the character started a protest movement that has become violently fanatical, and would execute them as a traitor if they tried to mitigate its behavior. Maybe they stumbled into a MacGuffin and the government is now after them until they Clear Their Name, or they jumped into the pilot seat of a Humongous Mecha to repel the alien invasion, only to find It Won't Turn Off, and it becomes such a Murderous Malfunctioning Machine in battle that it would love to try to kill them if they ever try to disembark.

Unlike with I've Come Too Far and Sunk Cost Fallacy, it's not a matter of the character not wanting their efforts or expenses to go to waste. It's that they will die or otherwise suffer terribly if they don't carry on. If a good guy gets into this situation (and the work isn't cynical), there will usually turn out to be a third option, or outside intervention to help him.

See also Godzilla Threshold, which can involve knowingly getting into this; and "Fawlty Towers" Plot and Crime After Crime, which can be this depending on the circumstances (although the former is usually more lighthearted in the stakes). This can sometimes be a Morton's Fork if disaster from stopping or carrying on seems equally inevitable.


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    Comic Books 
  • Volume 1 of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ends when the Big Bad, Moriarty, impulsively grabs the cavorite after its container has been shattered. The anti-gravity metal shoots into the sky, and Moriarty realizes an instant too late that he's too high up to let go. Moriarty's frozen corpse, still holding the cavorite, shows up in a later volume.

    Comic Strips 

    Fan Works 
  • Ask Impure Vessel reveals that the Pale King firmly believed that if he didn't follow through with his plans, everyone in Hallownest would die. Though he sees himself as Beyond Redemption, he remains convinced that he did what he had to do.
  • Danganronpa: Paradise Lost: Shion discusses the concept to Daisuke in her second Free-Time Event, bringing up her past of leading the violent cause of the Warriors of Hope that would've killed her had she attempted to cease their activities.
    Shion: I wanted to just end it, stop what we were doing, but I couldn't! Because they would've killed me!
  • Shen Qingqiu notes that this is the case for Sha Hualing's attack on Cang Qiong in The Grand Unified Theory of Shen Qingqiu, as any failure will be taken as a sign of her weakness and unfitness to leave, as will any admission of weakness. He then proceeds to take shameless advantage of this by challenging her personally for the first bout, backing her into a corner where she is forced to claim to be the strongest demon present in order to maintain control of her followers, and thus the appropriate opponent for a Peak Lord. This allows Cang Qiong to win all three challenges, forcing Sha Hualing to more extreme methods in order to maintain her dominance.
  • This is the situation Taylor finds herself in halfway through the second arc of I Am Skitter. She is horrified by what Skitter has done and realizes that this is far beyond what she wanted to happen when she first created Skitter. She further notes that she technically could still stop this, push Skitter back into whatever part of the subconscious she pulled her from in the first place and retake control of her mind. But if she did so, she would lose Skitter's cunning and poise, and without those she doesn't have a hope of staying ahead of the PRT. So she decides that she has no choice but to let Skitter have her head and simply watch the rampage from behind her eyes.
  • The One to Make It Stay has a Downplayed example after Alya uses Manipulative Editing to make it appear that Ladybug accepted one of Chat Noir's Love Confessions. While Ladybug is understandably furious with her, Alya dismisses her concerns, only briefly hesitating when Ladybug points out that Hawkmoth might follow her blog looking for anything he can use against the heroes. Later, Alya admits that she's afraid it's too late to recant: the damage has already been done, and posting a retraction/admitting what she did would completely destroy her reputation. All the more so since she's already been deleting comments from those calling the video's authenticity into question.
  • Jaune finds himself in this situation in A Rabbit Among Wolves. He accidentally kills Adam Taurus, gains control of the White Fang, and becomes a wanted fugitive. Hoping to prove to Remnant he isn't evil, he tries to reform the White Fang enough so he can quit and go back to a normal life. Unfortunately, he succeeds well enough that he goes from being a rising star to an icon. Adam's ghost spells out to him that him quitting would devastate the White Fang, and even send them back on the path toward violence, much to his frustration.
  • In Republic City Blues, Korra and Asami eventually realize that they have become so embroiled in organized crime, along with being blackmailed by Captain Beifong, that the only escape avenues left open to them are being imprisoned or killed.
  • The Self Made Man: Jaune officially crosses into this territory when he murders the restrained Meg Scarletina in order to get rid of the threat they pose. This is the first time he does anything of that nature outside of immediate self-defense, and he realizes that even without Cinder's influence, he's officially stuck in the criminal underworld for good.
  • Stress Relief (RWBY) has Cinder Becoming the Mask, genuinely falling for Jaune after their one-night stand develops into something more. However, she realizes that she's done far too much damage for Ozpin and his followers to accept her High-Heel–Face Turn, and that Salem will kill her if she attempts to defect. Ultimately, she decides to let go of the tiger's tail and commit Suicide by Cop.
  • A Thing of Vikings:
    • Sigurd/Snotlout eventually realizes how seriously he screwed up by helping the Byzantine Empire take dragons. However, he can't leave without violating his oath, or risking the dragons involved being mistreated - or worse. Then he gets exiled for it, meaning he can't go home again.
    • Dagur is fully aware of how dangerous the Berserkers are, but knows that if he starts acting like Oswald the Agreeable rather than Oswald the Antagonistic, they'd all turn on him. Toireasa compares it to running ahead of a stampeding horde of cattle: he's 'leading' them, but if he stops or tries changing direction, he'd just be mowed down.

    Films — Animation 
  • A version involving a literal tiger occurs in The Jungle Book (1967). Baloo arrives just in time to grab Shere Khan by the tail when he charges at Mowgli. After the vultures have air-lifted Mowgli away, one of them tells Baloo he can release Shere Khan's tail now. Problem is...:
    Baloo: Are you kiddin'?! There's teeth on the other end!
  • Oscar's getting famous off Frankie's death in Shark Tale spirals into the populace wanting him to fight more sharks despite his lack of actual fighting ability, which then leads to Oscar having to help Lenny fake his death so the latter doesn't tip him off to Don Lino, which subsequently snowballs all the way to Lino kidnapping Angie in revenge for both his sons' deaths. Angie tries to get him to reveal the truth prior to her aforementioned kidnapping, but Oscar laughs her off since doing so would result in him losing all of his fame, likely being sued for fraud, and getting eaten by sharks who wouldn't be afraid of him anymore.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Crimson Peak: Impoverished Patrician Thomas Sharpe has been marrying wealthy women for their money to rescue his decaying family mansion, after which his sister Lucille murders them to preserve their own incestuous relationship. Thomas genuinely falls in love with his newest wife and wants to stop, but she has also discovered the previous three corpses in the cellar and realized that Lucille is poisoning her. Lucille insists that they must kill her; otherwise, she points out, she'll get away and expose everything, which will result in the siblings being hanged and institutionalized, respectively.
  • In The Guilty, Rashid doesn't particularly want to keep lying about his partner Asger's killing of a suspect to protect him, but fears what might happen if he were to change his story.

  • Namechecked in After the Revolution by Dr. Brandt, when he explains to Sasha how bad a position the Heavenly Kingdom is in because they took The City of Wheels' envoys prisoner. While holding the three hostage means the powerful cyborgs that live in the City of Wheels won't attack right now, in the long term this move put the Kingdom in direct conflict with a heavily-armed polity who already hated them on principle.
  • Discworld:
    • Guards! Guards!: Lupine Wonse summons a dragon in a plot to usurp control of Ankh-Morpork. When the dragon escapes his control, rather than eating him, it makes him its servant, and he ends up living in constant terror of it, but also in terror of what will happen to him if he tries to escape.
    • Men at Arms: An shown in the above quote, when Nobby starts swinging around his Epic Flail, he finds he can't safely stop. Fortunately, Carrot is big enough to safely intervene.
    • The gang employed by Teatime in Hogfather refer to "that saying about riding a tiger" as they realise that attempting to leave before the job is finished will slightly increase the likelihood of them all being killed.
    • In Going Postal, the Grand Trunk's board of directors eventually realize the true nature of Reacher Gilt. They also realize that Gilt has dirt on all of them thanks to Crispin Horsefry's blabbing; they're not only riding a tiger, but the tiger knows where they live.
  • Hive Mind (2016): Once he realized that Amber is a full telepath, Elden should have backed off and gone back to Hive Genex, as a transfer by a full telepath was going to lead to a very thorough investigation at a minimum. But he had no way home (he was expecting to be picked up by the aircraft that was retrieving Amber), his imprint was large enough that he wasn't mentally stable, and it seems very likely that he wouldn't have survived a failure.
  • Honor Harrington: In The Short Victorious War, Rob Pierre is under no illusions about what he's proposing when he decides to organize and lead a revolution in the Republic of Haven. But even he is shocked by the sheer scale of Haven's rot and corruption. As the war with Manticore drags on, Pierre slowly comes to realize that he has to end the war or all his efforts will come to naught, and all the people he's killed will be for nothing... but the mob now demands that the war must be won, or Rob's own government will fall and all his efforts will be for naught.
  • Humanx Commonwealth: In the Flinx & Pip novel Orphan Star, Flinx escapes from the bad guys on the planet Ulru-Ujurr, and goes to ground in the mountains with the aid of Ulru-Ujurr's natives, huge, telepathic, intelligent ursinoids. He undertakes to teach the ursinoids about "civilization" — and rapidly realizes that he is in way over his head. The Ujurrians are so intelligent, and yet so completely innocent, that the Church interdicted their planet from all outside contact because it was afraid of what they might become if they were contacted and given advanced technology. His companion, Sylzenzuzex the thranx, lampshades the trope using the thranx equivalent of a tiger:
    Sylzenzuzex: You are he who rides the grizel. You have awakened it. Now you must ride it.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, Cersei cynically reinstates the Faith Militant in the hopes that they will find some reason to destroy the Tyrells, whose daughter Margaery is about to marry Cersei's son Tommen and become Queen. The Faith Militant lock up Margaery, but during the course of their investigation, they decide that Cersei is also guilty of various sins, and she is locked up as well, only being released after effectively agreeing to be their puppet.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5: This becomes Londo's dilemma as things proceed. He's aware that the path to warfare with Narn and others is wrong and dangerous but feels he can't stop now. He gets a My God, What Have I Done? revelation as things go on.
  • Breaking Bad:
    • The first two seasons play this straight, with Walt getting involved with increasingly volatile and dangerous people as he delves deeper into the drug trade. This makes up much of the conflict of Season 4; Walt is stuck cooking meth for Gus, simply because Gus has no one else to cook for him, but Gus will kill Walt the moment he can find someone to replace him, leaving Walt in a very precarious situation with no easy out. By Season 3, however, it gets flipped around - Jesse had first joined Walt believing he was just a timid chemistry teacher, seriously underestimating what he was capable of.
    • Saul takes Walt as his client to help him because he saw big dollar signs in Walt's meth. This results in him helping Walt with increasingly morally bankrupt actions, culminating with Walt poisoning an innocent child as part of a scheme. This is the straw that breaks the camel's back for Saul, who tells Walt their association is over. At this point, Walt's ego has been boosted tenfold thanks to recent successes and he, very menacingly, tells Saul he's not allowed to quit until Walt says he can. Saul never tries to quit again, but he clearly does not enjoy working for Walt anymore, and his association with the legendary drug lord Heisenberg ultimately destroys Saul's life once Walt's criminal double life becomes public.
  • The People v. O. J. Simpson: Robert Kardashian finally realizes that O.J. is most likely guilty several months into the trial. He can't leave the defense without destroying his career and guaranteeing a guilty verdict (which would violate due process.)
  • In season five of The Walking Dead, the Atlanta Police Department and the surviving doctors of the main hospital have created a system where they "rescue" people but force them into servitude to pay their weight. The leader of the cops, Dawn, seems to realize it's gone too far but can't stop it without risking a mutiny.

  • The Trope Namer is Buck Owens' song, "I've Got a Tiger By the Tail."
    Well, I thought the day I met you, you were meek as a lamb
    Just the kind to fit my dreams and plans
    But now, the pace we're living takes the wind out of my sails
    And it looks like I've got a tiger by the tail

    I've got a tiger by the tail, it's plain to see
    I won't be much when you get through with me
    Well, I'm losing weight and turning mighty pale
    Looks like I've got a tiger by the tail

    Tabletop Games 
  • Ravenloft: Wyan of Viktal started the Inquisition to combat The Fair Folk and those who conspire with them, but the group has become fanatical over time, and often not really interested in giving the accused due process. Wyan is a good man and not happy about this, but knows he would likely end up burned at the stake if he tries to speak out or leave.

    Video Games 
  • BioShock Infinite: While Booker is infiltrating Monument Island to rescue Elizabeth, he learns that the rulers of Columbia have expended a great deal of money and effort to imprison her. She has tremendous power they want to control, but are also scared of. He finds a voxophone left by a janitor who works there. Its message explains the dilemma the Columbian leaders are in.
    Ty Bradley: But I can tell they scared out of their wits by that thing they got locked upstairs. Yes, sir. They got a tiger by the tail, and they don't know whether to hang on...or run.
  • In Brink!, one of Captain Mokoena's diaries talks about "Chen riding a tiger", referencing his belief that his rival Brother Chen has allied with dangerous fanatics for selfish political gain.
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition: Mistress Poulin, the ruler of the town of Sahrnia in Emprise du Lion, let the Templars mine her quarry and hire the locals to help, since town was dying due to the Orlesian Civil War and they desperately needed the money. However, it turns out that they were Red Templars in service to Corypheus and the people they were "hiring" from the town were being used as slave labor to mine the red lyrium and being killed in the process. If Poulin refused to send anyone else to work the quarry, the Red Templars would just attack the town and take everyone at once, so she began selling the weak, elderly, sick, and anyone else whom was likely to die soon anyway to the Red Templars and used the coin to help the survivors, stalling for time in the and hopes that someone would come along to drive Corypheus' forces away. Luckily, the Inquisition shows up to do just that—and judging from letters found in the quarry, not a moment too soon, as the Red Templars were becoming wise to her scheme and were making plans to coerce her into selling more able-bodied citizens the next time they came around. Upon being confronted by this revelation, Mistress Poulin maintains that it was necessary to ensure the town's survival, because the alternative was that the Red Templar would have emptied the entire town anyways if she had stopped cooperating with them.
  • The Elder Scrolls series has an in-universe short story, Sacred Witness, in which the author sets out to learn more about the Night Mother, infamous leader of the Dark Brotherhood assassin's guild. He is eventually granted an audience with her, but in order to prevent him from sharing her secrets, she conscripts him into the Brotherhood and makes him assist them in committing unspeakable crimes. The book ends with the author admitting that the Night Mother will see the book's publication as him breaking his promise to her and that he fears for his life, followed by an editor's note stating the author was found dead with his corpse bearing the Night Mother's Calling Card.
  • Lost Judgment: In 'Catch a Tiger', Yagami mentions this concept by name while explaining to Ehara how he and Kuwana have invoked the ire of RK with Mikoshiba's murder.

     Real Life 
  • This is why geoengineering as an attempt to mitigate the effects of manmade climate change are so controversial: blocking out the Sun using aerosols and other forms of deliberately engineering Earth's climate would result in other ecological consequences, and ending geoengineering after it starts will only make global warming worse in the long run.
  • This also applies to planetary engineering that would attempt to delay the Earth's ultimate fate by being sterilized by an aging Sun such using asteroids and comets to move Earth's orbit away from the Sun: not only will this result in Earth's climate being destabilized or even the Moon being lost due to these encounters, one slight miscalculation would result in said asteroid or comet hitting Earth instead and sterilizing to at least down the level of bacteria much sooner.