[SPOILERS]

Just before the end of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes from a nightmare and abandons her bed to crawl into a cuddle with her long-time Games partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). As she rests her head on Peeta’s chest, he asks her, “You love me. Real or not real?” Katniss answers, “Real.” It’s taken her four films (or three novels), but she has finally resolved the story’s love triangle by realizing that Peeta, not Gale (the original romantic frontrunner, played by Liam Hemsworth), is her true love.

The first installments, The Hunger Games (2012) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), told us the opposite: Gale was Katniss’ "real" (private) love, and Peeta was her "fake" (public) romance acted for the cameras. Over the course of the story, this dynamic shifts, and the performance of her love with Peeta grows into a reality.

So what has changed? For one, Gale is revealed to be not the person she thought (nor, perhaps, the person he previously was). The war has made him ruthless and cold in his pursuit of his originally noble cause. Gale suggests an attack strategy that involves bombing civilians, leaving a brief pause so other civilians will think it safe to come tend the wounded, and then setting off a second bomb. When rebel president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) uses Gale's bombing strategy to murder Capitol children (in a strategic political move to blame Donald Sutherland's evil President Snow and turn his own soldiers against him), the bomb also kills Katniss’ sister, Prim. All along, Gale has taken on the role of protector of Katniss’ family – this was his reason for not volunteering for the first Games with Katniss. Now it is glaringly obvious that he has failed in his role as Prim's protector, as Prim has died. Gale, arguably, has killed her or had a role in her killing. After the bombing Gale, barely able to look Katniss in the eye, tells her he does not know whether it was his bomb that killed Prim  –  but he can’t deny the delayed bombing strategy was his idea. He knows that he and Katniss can have no future, as the idea will always be in Katniss' head that he may be responsible. The event gives Katniss certainty as she walks away from Gale, but her orbit was already moving away from his and toward Peeta’s.

Despite the dark period their relationship has entered in Mockingjay – Part 2, Katniss and Peeta continue to affirm their roles as each other’s protectors. They repeat their shared story: "We keep each other alive. That's what we do." At the start of the film, a deeply disturbed Peeta has been brainwashed against Katniss by Snow's torture, which mixed real memories with falsified ones. Peeta "can't tell what's real and what's made up," so Peeta and Katniss develop their game of "Real or Not Real" to verify Peeta's memories until he recovers. Making up this game together is a fitting illustration of how relationships are ultimately an act of shared storytelling.  

While Katniss has long maintained that she loves Gale, her actions over time reveal that she and Peeta are bound together – through circumstance, compatibility and most of all shared experience. In The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014), Finnick tells Katniss, "After your first games, I thought the whole romance was an act…we all expected you to continue that strategy. It wasn’t until Peeta’s heart stopped and he nearly died that I knew I misjudged you. You love him. I’m not saying in what way—maybe you don’t even know yourself. But anyone paying attention can see it.”

Discover magazine suggests that Katniss’ falling for Peeta stems from the link between anxiety and arousal – studies have shown that women are more likely to fall for a man when they undergo dangerous situations together, since their arousal activates a sexual response, and Katniss and Peeta are together for the scariest moments of their lives. Either way, Peeta becomes the one person who understands what Katniss has lived—as she is for him. Somewhere along the way, their performance of love stops being a strategy and becomes the living, breathing thing.

The love story in The Hunger Games is subtle and mature for a blockbuster romance. Significantly, the love story does not excessively dominate the story. This is the tale of a special young woman leading the disempowered to fight a war against their oppressors, which, secondarily, features a love story. Gale points out in a stolen conversation with Peeta in Mockingjay – Part 2 that the question of whom Katniss will choose is likely academic; the chance that all three in the love triangle will survive is slim. If somehow they do, Gale remarks, it’s “her problem.” This is not the overdramatic, even-death-won’t-part-us rhetoric we’d expect if The Hunger Games were a sibling of Twilight. Even the two men fighting to win Katniss’ heart put the romance second to the bigger goals of the freedom struggle —as they should.

Second, we genuinely don’t know for a good portion of the narrative which man Katniss is going to choose. The earlier installments convince us that Kale’s heart lies with Gale. At that point, the choice between the two men is more a question of love versus duty. As time goes on, her fixation Peeta is increasingly obvious, but the story still implies that her devotion to Peeta is almost sisterly, born of duty and gratitude, another self-sacrifice rather than the ultimate desire of true romance. Even for much of Mockingjay – Part 2, which suggests numerous times that Katniss may have to kill the brainwashed Peeta since he has both attacked Katniss and killed another troupe member, we are not sure of the exact nature of Katniss’ feelings.

So, does she love Peeta from the start and learn it over time? Or do Katniss and Peeta fuse together irrevocably due to the extreme circumstances they are forced into? Do all three members of the original love triangle change fundamentally and become altogether new selves in the crucible of the Games? These questions – here as in life – are unanswerable. It is impossible to separate ourselves from the experiences we have lived. The question of whether Katniss would have married Gale, if she had never gone to the Hunger Games, is nonsensical. Even if the story implies that pre-Games Katniss would have chosen Gale (through the parallel of Mrs. Everdeen’s choice to marry Katniss’s coal-miner father instead of Peeta’s father, who was also in love with her), the actual Katniss does go to the Games and become the mockingjay. She and her romantic interests are tested, changed, and revealed through lived events.

If our choice of who to love is the ultimate reflection of who we are, then we cannot "choose" any more than we choose ourselves. Katniss’ love for Peeta reveals the values she most holds dear: continuing kindness and goodness even after we witness the ugliest of what humankind can do. In the first novel, Katniss expresses the images she associates with Peeta: “ the bread that gave me hope, and the dandelion that reminded me that I was not doomed.” Peeta is the flower that renews after death and the loaf of bread he stole for Katniss' family, knowing the act would result in his beating. Later, in Mockingjay, she understands clearly why she needs Peeta and not Gale: “What I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again.”

In the final scene of Mockingjay - Part 2, Katniss tells her baby daughter about the game she plays to drive away her nightmares: remembering every good thing she’s seen people do. After the hell Katniss has lived through, she needs Peeta to remind her that there is a light side to life and to help her rebuild an existence based on good things. He is the ever self-sacrificing, renewing, pure-hearted person who gives her reason to go on after the living nightmares of the Games have ended.