Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
At the tail end of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a familiar voice echoes as the screen fades to black. “It’s the things we love most,” says President Snow, “that destroy us.”
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is, among other things, the origin story of President Snow, the fascist dictator of the original Hunger Games series. In the prequel, he’s still just Coriolanus (Tom Blyth), the ambitious high school student with ambiguous morals.
But in Mockingjay – Part 1, the third movie in the franchise, he’s close to 80 (played by Donald Sutherland), though that hasn’t slowed his lust for power and control. As an extraction team from District 13, the rebel stronghold, tries to rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from the Capitol, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is on a video call with President Snow to distract him. “It’s the things we love most that destroy us,” he warns her. “I want you to remember that I said that.”
As the call cuts out, Snow reveals that he has known the extraction team was there the whole time. He’s letting them rescue Peeta. Because the Capitol has hijacked him: They’ve altered Peeta’s memory and conditioned him to fear—and try to kill—Katniss. Snow knows that the thing Katniss loves most, Peeta, can destroy her, mentally and emotionally if not literally, if he never gets better.
And he knows that from personal experience: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is also a love story of sorts, between Coriolanus and Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), the female tribute from District 12 in the 10th annual Hunger Games. He falls for her—at least as much as someone so self-important can—and he thinks the feeling is mutual. But then she betrays him—at least he thinks she does—and he ices over, taking the first steps from Coriolanus into the cold, calculating President Snow.
Snow, Lucy Gray, and Katniss Everdeen
Lucy Gray is assigned Coriolanus as her mentor, the person who is ostensibly supposed to prepare her for the arena. As he gives her tips on strategy and readies her for a televised interview, he slowly falls for her. She seems to return the affection. But there are ulterior motives at play: Coriolanus needs the Plinth Prize, a scholarship awarded to the best mentor. And Lucy Gray needs Coriolanus’ support to survive.
After Lucy Gray wins the games, Coriolanus follows her back to District 12 as a Peacekeeper, a soldier-police officer tasked with keeping the districts in line. There, they resume their apparent romance. They run away together, into the wilderness outside the districts, until Lucy Gray realizes that Coriolanus has lied to her, in more ways than one.
She slips away and seems to set a deadly trap for him—or maybe that was just a coincidence. Losing his grip on reality, full of snake venom and fear that “his girl” betrayed him, Coriolanus tries to kill her. Maybe he shoots her or maybe he misses. He’ll never know, because Lucy Gray disappears forever, a loose end that will drive him mad.
When Katniss appears decades later, also from District 12 and with a knack for singing, she already reminds Snow of his lost love. Enter Peeta, and the “star-crossed lovers” ruse that the two orchestrate to survive the Games, and the parallels grow more painful. It’s clear that Peeta’s feelings for Katniss are true, while Katniss, at least at first, is merely playing along to garner life-saving sponsors for the both of them.
Snow can’t stand to see a young woman betray a young man’s affection—his view of what happened 65 years ago. And so he takes out his old, festering wound on Katniss. He suspects that Katniss and Peeta’s relationship is fake, and knows that Katniss has someone else back home, so he forces the two of them to parade around the charade on a press tour around the districts. Convince him that their connection is real, he tells Katniss, or he’ll threaten their loved ones. And there is no end to the charade in sight.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes most noticeably explains Snow’s bitter vendetta against Katniss. But it sets the stage for a few other Hunger Games occurrences, too.
Tigris, the slightly older cousin of Coriolanus, who we meet in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, will go on to play a small but crucial role in The Hunger Games. In the prequel, she’s played with effervescent charm by Hunter Schafer. She does grunt work for a fashion designer in the Capitol, and with Coriolanus in school and their grandmother at the outer edges of lucidity, she’s the family’s primary breadwinner.
Years later, Katniss will recognize Tigris in Mockingjay – Part 2 (now played by Eugenie Bondurant) as a longtime stylist for the Games. Snow and Tigris have long since fallen out, it seems—we catch glimpses of her disappointment in his ruthless path to power in Songbirds and Snakes. In Mockingjay – Part 2, as the rebellion advances on the Capitol, Tigris offers Katniss and her tactical unit shelter in her clothing shop. Later, she outfits Katniss and Gale in disguises to infiltrate further into the Capitol.
In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Grandma’am (Fionnula Flanagan), the aristocratic, unbending grandmother of Coriolanus and Tigris, grows roses on the roof of their dilapidated penthouse apartment. She dotes on her flowers, but spares a precious few for Coriolanus throughout the course of the movie: the rose on his lapel on the day of the Reaping, and the one he offers Lucy Gray when she arrives at the Capitol. Coriolanus also remembers his mother, who died when he was young, as smelling of roses.
In the Hunger Games trilogy, roses become President Snow’s calling card, especially to intimidate Katniss. When he pays her a visit to threaten her at the beginning of Catching Fire, he gives her a rose as he leaves. After the Capitol firebombs and destroys District 12, Katniss finds a single fresh rose in her untouched house. And when the Capitol bombs District 13, the heart of the rebellion, they drop a layer of white roses over the rubble.
In Mockingjay – Part 1, we find out from former Hunger Games victor Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) that President Snow rose to power by poisoning his enemies. He would drink from the same cup to deflect suspicion, then take an antidote. But the repeated exposure left him with bloody sores in his mouth that never healed. So he would wear roses doused in perfume to mask the smell.
His first victim, as we find out at the end of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, was Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), the dean of the Capitol Academy high school. Highbottom had inexplicably stood in Coriolanus’ way at every turn, eventually banishing him to the districts as a Peacekeeper.
We later find out that Highbottom and Coriolanus’ father had been friends and college classmates. Drunk one night, Highbottom had designed the Hunger Games as a joke, and Coriolanus’ father submitted the idea as his own, making the games a reality. To cope with the guilt, Highbottom has become addicted to the painkiller morphling. When he returns to the Capitol, Coriolanus gives Highbottom a poisoned bottle of morphling, killing him.
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Taylor Swift Is TIME's 2023 Person of the Year
- Meet the Nation Builders
- Why Cell Phone Reception Is Getting Worse
- Column: It's Time to Scrap the Abraham Accords
- Israeli Family Celebrates Release of Hostage Grandmother
- In a New Movie, Beyoncé Finds Freedom
- The Top 100 Photos of 2023
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org