Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (2023).
By the time young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) has committed to fleeing the dystopian nation of Panem with Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) in the final act of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, the seeds have already been planted for the future dictator’s turn to evil. Not only has he knowingly ratted out his best friend, Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), for conspiring against the Capitol by sending a jabberjay recording of one of their conversations to the villainous Dr. Gaul (Widows star Viola Davis), but he’s also been given a one-way ticket to a better, Capitol-adjacent future by his Peacekeeper boss.
The only thing blocking Coriolanus’ ascent back to social prosperity is the illegal gun he used to kill one of Sejanus’ co-conspirators, Mayfair Lipp (Isobel Jesper Jones), which he lost track of shortly after her murder. If found, the gun would frame Coriolanus as a member of Sejanus’ failed plot and would likely lead to him being accused of treason and subsequently hanged. Knowing all of this, Coriolanus agrees to flee with Lucy Gray, whose longtime rivalry with Mayfair, the daughter of District 12’s mayor, has placed a huge target on her back in the wake of Mayfair’s death.
It’s clear that Coriolanus is only going with Lucy Gray because he wants to avoid punishment for his actions. What’s less clear is whether or not he truly cares about her as much as he says. When he and Lucy Gray decide to camp out in a remote cabin located near the outskirts of District 12, though, he unexpectedly discovers the very gun he used to kill Mayfair hidden beneath the cabin’s floorboards. Suddenly, Coriolanus is forced to choose between a peaceful existence spent in exile with Lucy Gray and a second chance at the glory he’s long desired. What’s worse is that, as Lucy Gray herself notes, she and the gun are the only things that could tie Coriolanus to Mayfair’s murder.
As he begins devising a new plan for his future, Lucy Gray steps away to gather supplies. Time passes and Coriolanus decides to go looking for her. Shortly after he does, he discovers his mother’s shawl, which he’d given to Lucy Gray as a gift, discarded in a nearby forest. When he attempts to retrieve it, he’s bitten by one of Lucy Gray’s snakes, which had been carefully placed beneath the garment. Angered and paranoid, Coriolanus begins searching for Lucy Gray — suddenly aware that she wasn’t quite as blind to his many lies as he’d believed. While he does briefly spot her and attempt to shoot her, though, Lucy Gray uses a flock of nearby mockingjays to confuse him with repeated echoes of her voice singing The Hanging Tree.
In doing so, Lucy Gray manages to elude Coriolanus and signals to him that she knows he’s the one responsible for Sejanus’ hanging. Coriolanus fires his gun in every direction, but it’s never revealed whether any of his bullets connect. Her ultimate fate is left unclear and she, in effect, becomes as much of a mystery as the mythic Lucy Gray she’d sung about in one of the film’s previous scenes. Coriolanus, meanwhile, gives up on his pursuit, hides his gun at the bottom of a lake, and returns to District 12, where he’s informed that he has been ordered to return to the Capitol. When he does, he meets again with Dr. Gaul, who asks him for the second time what he thinks is the true purpose of the Hunger Games.
Coriolanus tells her that the purpose of the Games is to remind the people of Panem who they are. When she asks him who he is, he responds, “The victor.” Thanks to Gaul’s recommendation, he’s subsequently given the money and position within the Capitol that he’s spent his entire life fighting for. However, it isn’t until he pays a visit to his longtime rival, Dean Highbottom (Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage), that he celebrates his victory. Standing over Highbottom, Snow gloats about the power he’s accrued with Sejanus’ influential family through his and Gaul’s lies, while his rival reveals a shocking truth. Despite what his reputation suggests, Highbottom’s not the one truly responsible for the Hunger Games.
Highbottom claims that he drunkenly came up one night with the Games as part of a school assignment. When he woke up the next morning, he immediately tried to destroy the idea, only to discover that Snow’s father, his former classmate and now long deceased, had already co-opted the idea and taken it to their Capitol teachers. As Highbottom mourns all the blood that is destined to be on his hands, he desperately drinks some of the military-grade morphine that Coriolanus stole from Sejanus’ Peacekeeper suitcase, unaware that Coriolanus had secretly poisoned it. Highbottom is, consequently, left to die noiselessly at his desk.
The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes then ends with a shot of a victorious Coriolanus looking up at various pieces of the Capitol’s propaganda — fiery ambition burning in his eyes. The film cuts to black and a line famously spoken by Donald Sutherland’s older Coriolanus in the earlier films is replayed: “It’s the things we love most that destroy us,” the character remarks.
The moment brilliantly and subtly bridges The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes to the original Hunger Games trilogy, and in more ways than one. Not only does it remind viewers what Blyth’s younger Snow ultimately becomes, but its use directly after the film’s final shot also makes it clear that it’s Coriolanus’ love of power that both lifts him up and tears him down.
He is, after all, eventually defeated by Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a character who takes on the moniker of “Mockingjay,” the same bird that Lucy Gray uses to evade his wrath and outsmart him in The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. Some victories, it turns out, last longer than others.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is now playing in theaters nationwide.
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