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Volatile Second Tier Position

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"The King eats and the Hand takes the shit."
Popular saying, A Song of Ice and Fire

It's tough at the top: everyone knows about Prestige Peril and The Perils of Being the Best. But what happens if the most dangerous and demanding position isn't at the very top of the totem pole, but just second from the top?

In this trope, the role of second-best (or thereabouts) in a hierarchy seems to be a perfectly desirable position with plenty of benefits and maybe even a spectacular chance to ascend to the top job if you play your cards right... on paper, anyway. In reality, it turns out that this coveted just-shy-of-the-top position is actually an excruciating nightmare where the benefits are outweighed by the pain, leaving any "successful" applicants trapped in a role that will probably end up getting them fired at best and killed at the worst.

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Maybe it's because the highest rank is actually a lot more secure than it looks, and the second-highest (or thereabouts) is where the competition to reach the top is the fiercest. Maybe it's because the job has a whole host of hidden caveats attached that are guaranteed to make any applicants miserable. Maybe there's some kind of brutal Training from Hell required to reach the final level. Maybe it results in the applicant becoming a Beleaguered Assistant to everyone from the boss downwards. Maybe the boss is vicious, deranged, or even monstrous. Maybe the position is really good at weeding out those who can't keep up with the workload. Maybe it's because the very steps the applicant took to get this far have brought a lot of complications to their lives. Or maybe it's just bad luck.

Whatever the case, it's tough at the top, but it's murderous just below it.

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A possible feature of The Empire, the Decadent Court, The Syndicate, the Academy of Evil, an especially ruthless Mega-Corp, or the Deadly Game. Getting in (and out) may involve a Klingon Promotion, a High Turnover Rate, or even being Promoted to Scapegoat.

Also, be aware that the position doesn't necessarily require the character to be a Number Two or The Dragon, just the second-highest ranking in a given system; if circumstances in the setting are bleak enough, it can mean the trope applies to an entire group within the hierarchy.

Compare and contrast Second Place Is for Losers, Reassigned to Antarctica, Kicked Upstairs, and Lonely at the Top. See also Vice-President Who? for a completely different kind of joyless second-tier position.


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Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Afro Samurai, one of the driving plot points is that owner of the Number Two Headband is the only one who can challenge the owner of the Number One Headband, since having the Number One Headband theoretically makes you the biggest badass in the world. However, anyone can challenge the owner of the Number Two Band, and in fact must do so to get the Number One. As such, the Number Two headband makes Afro a magnet for trouble as soon as he gets it.

    Comic Books 
  • Derek Almond of V for Vendetta. As the director of the Finger, Almond possesses immense authority among the Norsefire Party's officials, being directly responsible for enforcing Adam Susan's orders. Unfortunately for him, that leaves him squarely in the firing line if something goes wrong... and thanks to V's activities, it does. Of all the government heads under Susan's command, Almond is the most likely to be executed for failure, and is warned as such by the man himself very early in the story. For good measure, none of the other directors seem to like him very much, and Roger Dascombe openly laughs at him. Consequently, the top Fingerman is a bitter, foul-tempered drunk who takes out his frustrations on his wife and ends up getting killed by V because of it.

    Fan Works 
  • In The Land of What Might-Have-Been, the mage-surgeon Dr Kiln serves as personal physician to the Great Mentor, and enjoys a great deal of trust and authority as a result. However, because the Mentor is so determined to continue working despite her age and poor health, this leaves Kiln worn ragged with the effort of keeping her patched up. More frustratingly, because she trusts him more than anyone else, she often tasks the good doctor with the job of looking after vital war assets like Elphaba, requiring him to follow her to the front lines, fight at her side, and regularly dose her with magic-enhancing stimulants, resulting in a very angry interrogation when Elphaba finds out. As a result, Kiln is constantly exasperated at the fact that his main patient has a death wish and doesn't seem to want him around, while looking after his secondary patient regularly leaves him on the receiving end of Elphaba's temper. Plus, serving as a spy definitely wasn't in the job description.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Death of Stalin firmly illustrates that everyone in Stalin's inner circle had to work very hard to keep their master appeased, and even the most powerful and influential of them had to do their part in satisfying his whims — including making him laugh. Truth in Television, as history records several cases in which Stalin's lieutenants ended up being killed or even removed from the records for displeasing him.
  • In Layer Cake, Daniel Craig's nameless character seems content with his position as one of Jimmy Price's best cocaine distributors, and has no desire for "a shot at the title." Instead, he's planning for retirement with the money he's saved. Unfortunately, his success has made him a target: Jimmy secretly resents him as a "flash runt," and is actually planning on selling him to the police - unless it's more expedient to use him as a meatshield in risky deals that are likely to get him killed by the Serbian gang or Eddie Temple.
  • Being an Imperial second-in-command is a dangerous proposition in Star Wars, especially if you're working for Darth Vader. In both canon and Legends sources, the mortality rate for officers serving under Vader is nothing short of incredible, to the point that one captain deliberately arranged for himself to be demoted to lieutenant just so he'd be left beneath Vader's notice.

    Literature 
  • In Animorphs, at least one Yeerk officer has hoped for promotion to the level of Visser Three's assistant, presumably as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Unfortunately, this means ending up in the service of one of the most foul-tempered commanders in the Yeerk Empire; for good measure, Visser Three is also famously incompetent, and his underlings are guaranteed death over the course of his idiot schemes even if he doesn't end up murdering them for failure.
  • Explicitly addressed in the Discworld novel Sourcery: because wizards ascend the ranks by means of Klingon Promotion (the number of wizards at each level is fixed by tradition, so no matter how good you are, it's only possible to move up if a vacancy opens up in a higher level. After a while, people got tired of waiting and started creating openings themselves), the struggle to reach the post of Archchancellor grows proportionately with each level. However, though wizards of the 6th grade have it tough, wizards of the 5th grade have it even worse, being targeted by both those above and below them; even fellow 5th-graders can't be trusted. As such, at this point in history, 5th-grade wizards are among the most ruthless, driven and dangerous of all the inhabitants of Unseen University.
  • Harkonnen lieutenants do not do well in Dune. The Baron abides by a strict policy of offing any of his minions who've served their purposes, and those intelligent enough to notice take great care to make themselves too useful to eliminate — as is the case with the Mentat Piter De Vries. Being a driven sadist, however, the Baron regularly indulges in threats and headgames with De Vries just to keep him on his toes. In the end, De Vries ends up getting killed by Dr Yueh's dying gambit long before he can outlive his usefulness, forcing the Baron to appropriate Thufir Hawat as his Mentat... but not before giving him a dose of residual poison to make sure he can't escape or defect.
  • In The Magicians, the most challenging period at Brakebills isn't the fifth and final year, but the fourth. Up until now, the curriculum has been unusual but the method of teaching has been largely akin to what you'd expect to find in any real university: lots of study, lots of lectures, challenging exams and some very difficult techniques to master, but plenty of relaxation time between work hours. In year four, though, students are sent — via goose transformation — to a secondary campus in Antarctica and given a full-blown Training from Hell: they are rendered mute, separated, and set to work on a series of mind-pummeling magical exercises under the watchful eye of a teacher who isn't above hitting the students or humiliating them in shapeshifting exercises. Thanks to the setting, the workload, the limited relaxation and the lack of human interaction, it's not unknown for students to start cracking up. And the final exam? Walking to the South Pole... naked... with only their magic to protect them. After all that, fifth year and the slow progression towards graduating is actually pretty cushy.
  • The post of Hand of the King in A Song of Ice and Fire. Essentially the King's second-in-command, the Hand is ostensibly the second-most powerful man in the hierarchy, several having gained a reputation for running Westeros better than the kings they served, most prominently Tywin Lannister. In practice, however, the post frequently leaves the Hand saddled with all the annoying little jobs that the king himself doesn't want to deal with, and even on the rare occasions when Westeros is being ruled by a responsible, competent monarch, this can encompass a huge range of duties. As a result, the position demands a great deal from those selected, and even the successful Hands find it equal parts challenging, thankless and exhausting, not to mention extremely dangerous; many Hands have ended up being assassinated, executed, exiled, maimed, framed, or just alienated — particularly under the disastrous reign of Aerys II, who changed Hands so often that the Kingsguard didn't bother keeping track of their names. Over the course of the series so far, there have been seven Hands: Jon Arryn was poisoned; Ned Stark was framed and executed; Tyrion Lannister was maimed, framed and turned fugitive; Tywin Lannister was murdered in his second term by Tyrion; Harys Swyft and Orton Merryweather were both forced off the job; and Mace Tyrell's suitability remains questionable at best. For all these reasons and many more, it's often said "the King eats and the Hand takes the shit."
  • Bib Fortuna in Tales from Jabba's Palace. As majordomo to a crime lord with at least two vicious flesh-eating monsters on standby, he has to work very hard to keep Jabba happy at all times, and even then he ends up being forced to grovel on the trapdoor to the Rancor pit more than once. Everyone in the palace runs the risk of falling foul of the Bloated One's temper sooner or later, but as the closest to him, Fortuna is under the most consistent threat... especially since he's secretly planning to overthrow Jabba. Fortunately for him, the majordomo is an expert survivor with a gift for talking his way out of trouble, and thanks to some good timing on his part, even manages to outlive his boss. Unfortunately, he fails to account for the B'omarr Monks and ends up being forcibly recruited into their ranks at the very moment he's about to take over the palace.
  • In Worldwar, Molotov notes that this is Stalin's Modus Operandi in dealing with his underlings:
    Molotov: He played his subordinates' emotions as if they were violin strings, and set one man against another like an orchestra conductor developing and exploiting opposing themes.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Observed by Manny Horvitz in Boardwalk Empire, "To the Lost". Here, in his discussion of Odessa, he mentions that the "middlemen" have it the toughest of all the crooks in the city, because at that rank it's easier to lose everything than rise to the next rank: in order to survive, the middlemen must always worry and must constantly prey upon lower-ranking criminals to shore up their position. By contrast, "the big crook" doesn't have to do anything, and can happily enjoy all the luxury his station affords him.
  • Breaking Bad:
    • Walter White seems to have hit paydirt in season 3: as one of the most important members of Gus Fing's drug distribution network, he has been given a state-of-the-art lab, permission to choose his own working hours, and a contract for three million dollars for three months of work - quite an upgrade from working out of a winnebago for chump change. However, thanks to the risks Walter's taken to get this far, it's got a ton of caveats attached: the Salamanca twins are after him for his exploits in season 2, Jesse's been alienated from him thanks to Walt's ego, and over the course of the next two seasons, Fring's trust in his favored employee runs dry thanks to the chemist's increasingly problematic behavior - leaving Walter under surveillance and even the threat of replacement. By contrast, when Walter finally becomes the boss in season 5, the biggest problem is (at first) the nuisance of finding new suppliers and lab space, and the collapse of his relationship with Skyler.
    • In season 4, Jesse Pinkman has unexpectedly found himself promoted. As the only employee of Los Poyos Hermanos who can come close to replicating Walter's formula, Walter's assistant is suddenly made a vital component in Gus's negotiations with The Cartel - likely second only to Gus himself. He's given the vital task of teaching the Cartel cooks how to make Blue Sky Meth, with a lab and an entire team at his disposal, plus an unprecedented level of respect granted to him. However, the pressure is on: the Cartel won't be happy if he makes any mistakes - and as he points out, he can't speak Spanish. And then, even when the cook goes perfectly, Jesse finds himself being forced to stay in Mexico and work for the Cartel - leaving him stranded in unknown territory, unable to speak the language and firmly under the thumb of the merciless Don Eladio. Fortunately, Gus is actually using these negotiations as an opportunity to wipe out Eladio and his capos, ultimately getting Jesse off the hook.
  • Farscape:
    • Peacekeeper lieutenants don't generally enjoy happy lives, especially if they work for Captain Crais. As the backstory reveals, Crais was always a Control Freak with a Hair-Trigger Temper, but his obsession with catching John Crichton in season 1 makes him even more unreasonable than usual: over the course of the pursuit, his lieutenants are insulted, threatened, have reports thrown in their faces, worked to the brink of collapse, and in the case of his immediate second-in-command, murdered to prevent anyone from finding out that Crais has been disobeying orders from High Command. Eventually, Crais is replaced by Scorpius, who quickly makes a name for himself as a much more understanding boss.
    • In season 3, the Project Leader assigned to Peacekeeper wormhole research soon becomes this after Project Leader Drillic screws up. Little more than a glorified second-in-command to Scorpius, the second Project Leader is Co-Kura Strappa, and having witnessed the unfortunate fate of his predecessor, he already has a pretty good idea of what will happen if the project fails; consequently, Strappa spends most of his time suffering attacks of the jitters, being overruled by Scorpius, or just getting menaced by anyone with more muscle than him.
    • After spending three seasons as a second-in-command to Crais or Scorpius, Lieutenant Braca is finally promoted... to Commandant Grayza's second-in-command. Already a bit of a Butt-Monkey, the position sends poor old Braca plummeting to new lows: not only does the "captain" lack any real authority aboard his own ship, but Grayza spends most of season four undermining and humiliating him in various ways, at one point using him as a receiver for a telepathic signal and then using the resulting amnesia to make him think they'd been having sex. His biggest responsibility is serving as Grayza's bodyguard - a job that gets him beaten up even more than he did under Scorpius. The final straw is the order for him to throw away the lives of everyone aboard his ship on a pointless suicide attack, prompting him to mutiny and remove Grayza from power.
  • The Thick of It:
    • The Minister for the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship. Performing all the miscellaneous tasks that no other department wants to deal with, DoSaC's nebulous status means that it gets the least funding and its minister wields zero influence - or as one put it, "as much real power as those twats who sit either side of Alan Sugar." Add to that a reputation for screwing up absolutely everything it touches, and by series 3, nobody wants to assume leadership of DoSaC in case it ends up doing the same to their careers, to the point that only the most cowardly, naive or obscure ministers can be pressured into it. Worse still, career damage is as inevitable as feared: of all the heads of the department encountered on the show, only one ever managed ascended to higher office - and that was only due to a technicality. Finally, DoSaC's gaffe-prone nature has resulted in a comparatively High Turnover Rate among its ministers: Cliff Lawton's eighteen-month tenure was considered "a good innings" by department standards!
    • Malcolm Tucker's role as Communications Director to the Prime Minister is anything but peaceful. Despite the immense power he wields, the job requires him to spend every waking hour on duties so demanding that Malcolm literally has no time for anything else in his life, as his final rant reveals, and the process of accommodating the job has forced him into a massive case of Becoming the Mask. Along with the threat of dismissal, he finds himself facing criminal charges for the shady schemes he's enacted, and the series ends with him going to jail. Finally, it's implied that the work is having an impact on Malcolm's health: ministers often remark that he seems about two steps removed from a stroke, he's seen chugging energy drinks to cope with all-nighters, and when he's briefly forced off the job, observers comment with astonishment as to how much younger he looks after a few weeks away from work... and when the time comes for him to be replaced by Ollie, Malcolm bluntly informs the new Spin Doctor that he'll probably end up an alcoholic burn-out with no bladder control long before his tenure's up.
    • Stewart Pearson, Malcolm's opposite number, finds himself hit with a case of this in season 4. Up until now, the second-tier position was perfectly stable because Stewart's party was in opposition and he could make as many blue-sky proposals as he liked, so long as they made the government look bad. However, his party is in power now - meaning that Stewart's ideas actually have to take budget into account. As a result, it all falls apart for him: his proposals get scrapped, his strategies damage the government's reputation, his subordinates undermine him more aggressively than ever before, the PM begins siphoning power away from him, and his failure to respond in time to a major scandal eventually becomes the foundation of a hugely damning inquiry. And after that, he's booted off the job for his failures and sent to a Think Tank.
    • Generally speaking, being The Dragon to a minister is a very tricky proposition. Sure, there's the chance of using your boss as a springboard into "the political fuckoffosphere," but that level of closeness comes with a worrying array of hazards. Among other things, if you've hitched your horse too closely to a specific minister, your career might end up permanently stalled if they're forced off the job - as is the case with Glenn Clullen; they might end up taking you down with them into disrepute or failure - as was the case with Ollie during "Spinners And Losers"; you can even be used as a scapegoat in order to take the heat off the minister.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Vampire: The Masquerade:
    • Ventrue ghouls suffer from this. Because they can interact with mortal society on a level that vampires cannot, ghouls can often be very highly valued, particularly for financial abilities or problem-solving skills; those who perform well enough may even be Embraced. But no matter how valued ghouls may be, though, they're still glorified slaves addicted to vampire blood, and the Ventrue ones are often deliberately whipped into a frenzy of asslicking and backstabbing in their efforts to please their domitors. Those who fail to perform don't live long enough to enjoy the benefits of ghoul immortality. Granted, they're still doing better than their equivalents among the other clans...
    • Vampires themselves aren't exempt from this: one of the Lasombra character templates, "Broker For The Damned," was Embraced for her skills as a Wall Street broker and given a relatively lofty position in her pack for the money she can bring to the Sabbat. However, because she can't conduct her business during daylight hours, she's constantly playing catch-up with mortal brokers, the financial returns on the pack's investment are dwindling, and the Broker herself is on the verge of a meltdown because she knows that it's only a matter of time before the pack finds out and eliminates her.
    • The Malkavian character template "Methuselah's Pawn" suffers from the trope: Embraced by an ancient vampire of considerable power and low generation, the Pawn now serves as a Mouth of Sauron and esteemed right hand to the Methuselah - a position that few vampires ever achieve or even imagine. Unfortunately, this means that the Pawn is trapped in a job where the master's orders take priority over everything else, and the moment he feels the compulsion to act on the Methuselah's behalf, he must obey. For good measure, being beholden to a boss who can appear out of nowhere and command him at any time has left him on the verge of nervous collapse, and his derangement (self-annihilation impulse) doesn't help.
    • The "Oprichniki Man Friday," a Tzimisce character template, also serves as the right hand of a powerful elder. However, whereas the Pawn suffers from a lack of control, the Man Friday suffers from too much of it: his sire has no idea how to function in modern society and has cloistered himself away in his ancestral manse while the Man Friday runs just about everything. Among other things, he handles his finances, conducts negotiations, delivers messages, secures victims, and acquires properties by fair means or foul. Quite apart from being uniquely thankless, the job requires the Man Friday to put himself at considerable risk, especially when delivering news his sire might not like to hear. As such, he's constantly looking for a means of breaking the blood bond and becoming his own boss.
    • Unlife in the upper echelons of the Giovanni Clan is... tenuous. Because promotions can only be achieved by winning money and power for the family, Giovanni characters must be prepared to do literally anything in order to impress their elders - including stabbing each other in the back. Risks escalate for every level they climb, and as such, the most dangerous positions go to those who directly serve The Patriarch of the family, Augustus Giovanni. As it happens, "Uncle Augie" has a vicious temper, and his servants must be prepared to act on his whims without hesitation of any kind - including supplying him with victims that he can vent his frustrations on. One lieutenant who made the mistake of letting an important artifact slip through his fingers was beaten to death and then captured as ghost so that Augustus could torture him for all eternity.

    Video Games 
  • Emperor: Battle for Dune:
    • The game itself puts you in charge of an army, but not in charge of the House you've chosen: you're a selected general, not actually a part of the family, and definitely not irreplaceable. As such, with the imperial throne on the line and an entire planet of Spice up for grabs in the War of Assassins, you are under immense pressure to perform well, especially if you're working for House Ordos or House Harkonnen, both of whom begin your tenure by making sure you know exactly what happened to your predecessor. Screwing up for any one of the factions, even the comparatively benevolent House Atreides, means execution... though the Ordos just have your head ripped off and placed on life support for eternity. For good measure, the Harkonnen undergo an Enemy Civil War in the middle of the story, forcing you to side with one of the heirs to the throne, with the understanding that joining the losing side will mean another death sentence. And given that you're not seen or mentioned anywhere in the Harkonnen epilogue, chances are you get bumped off anyway.
    • Much like Piter in the original novel, the Harkonnen Mentat doesn't enjoy a very stable career. Unlike Piter, who at least was able to get on with his work without being physically assaulted, this Mentat often ends up advising masters who are very casual about scapegoating him for their misfortune: early on, he's warned that any failure on your part will mean his execution, and later, his attempt to deliver bad news to the Baron's replacement will result in him either being menaced with a knife or slowly strangled as he tries to explain a possible solution. On the upside, he gets to survive the epilogue... for the time being.
  • The rank of Sith student in Knights of the Old Republic. All levels of the Sith hierarchy are fraught with danger, but the students at the Sith Academy on Korriban arguably have it worse than most: sure, they're allowed more perks than Imperial officers and are well on their way to joining the Empire's elite, but only one student out of the entire class will be allowed to graduate. As such, the hostility and backstabbing present throughout the Sith Empire is amplified a thousandfold in the race to earn graduation. Students risk death every step of the way, most commonly from being betrayed by their fellow students or by hunting for rare artifacts in the Valley of the Sith Lords, and it's not unknown for students to be killed by their masters for disappointing them. Oh, and those who win the contest will have perform a final exam in which they have to venture into one of the tombs alone. But hey, at least you have the privilege of torturing hopeful recruits while you're in Dreshdae!
  • In The Secret World, members of The Illuminati are ruthless by necessity and abide by a policy of "fuck or be fucked." However, the uppermost echelons of the group are occupied by the likes of the Talking Heads and the Pyramidion, both of whom seem to have been declared indispensable. As such, the greatest pressure is on lieutenants like Kirsten Geary: knowing that failure will reflect badly on her, she works non-stop to ensure that she maintains control over her field agents and the data they send back - aided by a metric ton of coffee, booze, and magic mushrooms. Needless to say, she's the coldest and most acerbic of all the faction handlers, and warns you very early on that making her look bad will result in your head being nailed to the wall as an example to others.
  • In the later chapters of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, Prince Lacroix has apparently come to think very highly of you thanks to your exploits and suggests having you replace the Sheriff, especially if you've been deferential to him over the course of the game. Of course, none of it is true: for all the benefits he's granted you, he's still sending you on highly dangerous missions with the intent of getting you bumped off, and his final task involves you being used as a fall guy in a engineered assassination attempt on Nines Rodriguez. You can still side with Lacroix after dodging the ensuing blood hunt and become a true protege to him... but he's still sending you on insanely risky missions with no back-up. Plus, siding with him all the way to the end results in the two of you getting killed by a bomb concealed in the Ankaran Sarcophagus, the logical consequence of being too close to the boss.

    Real Life 
  • Josef Stalin occupied an unassailable position of authority over Soviet Russia, and his protege Vyacheslav Molotov was allowed to share in that for a good deal of his career. Below them, the upper echelons of government was a constant backstabbing dogfight where you could go from third spot in the morning to torture dungeons by evening. Consequently, those who served Stalin closest after Molotov learned to tread very carefully and humor the man at every given opportunity, as The Death of Stalin illustrates.

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