Three’s a crowd(pleaser) – five famous love triangles
This column was originally published on Killings.
At a bar recently, I happened upon three of my favourite songs in one evening: ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ by The Cars, Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ and the delightful double-cheese duet from Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney, ‘The Girl Is Mine’. Singling them out from the night’s varied aural magic, I began contemplating the common thread of these popular ditties.
Love triangles are standard in literature, history, song, verse, mythology, television and film. They are endlessly present, a useful trope in their various shades – pining, pleading or competing. The popular one plus one plus one equation is conducive to spicy rivalries that both please and divide audiences, appealing to our innate tendency to speculate whether the grass is indeed greener. Summoning major themes of love, trust, sex and betrayal, love triangles heighten relationship dramas.
This Gang of Five is a handful of will-they-won’t-they-of-course-they-will-oh-no-they-didn’t-what-is-happening-oh-that’s-typical love triangles across various cultural realms.
1. The teen soap opera: Brenda Walsh / Dylan McKay / Kelly Taylor
Starting with some classic teen television from the ‘90s, the Brenda/Dylan/Kelly love triangle on Beverly Hills 90210 was soap opera histrionics at its best. The melodramatic dynamic between the Bad Girl, the Bad Boy and the Good Girl was drawn out and intense with these three: Brenda (Shannen Doherty) was dark and territorial with a fiery streak, her best friend Kelly (Jennie Garth) was blonde and rich, and Dylan (Luke Perry), wore a leather jacket and rode a motorcycle (no need to mention the denim overalls). Over four seasons, this trio encountered summer flings, admissions of guilt, friendship break-ups, reconciliations, jealousy, manipulation and constant relationship swapping. And in a wonderful Bloomsbury group bent, there was also the side love triangle between Dylan, Kelly and Brandon Walsh – Brenda’s twin brother.
2. The literary classic: Countess Ellen Olenska / Newland Archer / May Welland
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is a classic novel of conventions and restrictions, love and loss, promises and betrayals in the late nineteenth-century upper-class New York set. Newland Archer is poised to marry May Welland, in a highly desirable match. Upon meeting her cousin, the scandalous, lively Countess Ellen Olenska, he realises he has made a mistake. Once their love is established, Archer and Ellen longingly exchange amorous communications from afar, and Archer – while trapped in his commitment to May – tries to follow his heart. In the end, the relentless pressures of reality and respectability overthrow any chances of a true-love pairing in this triangle. Early in the text, sensible May remarks ‘We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?’ In this comment, which highlights May’s attraction to ‘sameness’, indicates the bane of Archer’s existence and acts as antithesis to Ellen’s, May unwittingly summarises their fate.
3. The YA teen soap opera: Peeta Mellark / Katniss Everdeen / Gale Hawthorne
Reading The Hunger Games, I’m not sure I had a ‘team’. The best part about Katniss is her will, her force and her stoic ability to overcome hardships and constantly question the status quo. The combination of her hardened nature and empathetic awareness means that rather than let emotions rule, she still questions loyalties that others often take for granted, which sees her politics, rather than this love triangle, propel her.
Peeta Mellark was the blonde bakery boy who anonymously helped Katniss when she was in need, watching her from afar only to be thrown together with her and become her companion in showy survival. Gale Hawthorne was forever Katniss’ strong, reliable hero-next-door – also a survival companion, but without the required showmanship. Gale is the alpha, and Peeta the beta male; they play the hunter and gatherer respectively, while Katniss is a combination of both, making the intrigue in this love triangle. Without giving away the ending, I will say this: refreshingly, throughout the Hunger Games, I didn’t believe the odds were in either’s favour.
4. The cloudy classic: Menelaos / Helen of Troy / Paris of Troy
Helen, whose face launched a thousand ships, was involved in a number of troubling relationships – particularly the ‘love’ triangle between her, Menelaos of Sparta and Paris of Troy. This triumvirate was established when, upon visiting Sparta, Paris left with Menelaos’ wife Helen, taking her to Troy, where they lived as husband and wife. Homer’s Illiad indicates that Helen was complicit in this escape, having been seduced by Paris during his stay. Enraged, Menelaos, his brother King Agamemnon and their Greek fleet waged war on the Trojans, in an effort to force the return of Helen. As the legend has been appropriated over the years, the original tale is now cloudy – did Helen love Paris or Menelaos, both, one or either? Powerful enough to start a war that lasts over ten years, it certainly is the ultimate love triangle.
5. Animal attraction: Logan (Wolverine) / Jean Grey (Phoenix) / Scott (Cyclops)
The love between Scott and Jean Grey is a constant through the early X-Men comics and introduced as a long-term relationship in the movies. The introduction of Logan throws a bone claw into the works of their harmonious mutant monogamy as Jean can’t deny her intense attraction to the rough, handsome, brutish underdog. There is no love lost between Scott and Logan, who compete directly for her affections, but Jean is respectful in her actions and choices. The tension between these three characters makes for a fun and fierce love triangle.