This article contains major The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes spoilers.
What ever happened to Lucy Gray?
It is a question that haunted Coriolanus Snow at the end of The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, and which is likely to haunt him still when, as an old man with absolute power, he sees Katniss wear a dress that catches fire. We suspect some audiences will wonder too about the fate of Lucy Gray Baird, who is ambiguously played by Rachel Zegler. Of course that is the point.
As Peter Dinklage’s self-loathing Dean Casca Highbottom taunts young Corio (an also eerily haunting Tom Blyth), it is the mysteries we cannot solve which drive us mad. For Casca, that mystery is revealed to be finding a way to make the Hunger Games end. He invented the concept of the Games as a cruel drape—a drunken answer to a university assignment that tasked students with creating the most sadistic punishment for their enemies imaginable—but then his former friend, Corio’s father, turned the pitch in to the woman who would become Hunger Games’ first gamemaker, Dr. Gaul (Viola Davis).
Dean Highbottom’s ghosts are all the children killed by an idea that would outlive him for nearly a century. Snow, however, becomes far more unfazed about seeing his hands dipped in blood during the course of Songbirds & Snakes. Instead he is haunted by the cleaner, happier life he forsook for the power and privilege he covets. Soon, the only person who would even remember this monster was once a man is Lucy Gray. And she’s dead… right?
In the film, the last time we see her—or think we see her—is when a panicking Corio becomes convinced she left a venomous snake for him to find, so he begins firing his assault rifle wildly into the trees. He thinks he hits her, and so does the audience as it looks like a woman running is struck by a stray bullet. But when Coriolanus goes to the spot where she was struck, there is no body. And her voice lingers on as the mockingjays above carry her song, “The Hanging Tree.” They’re taunting him.
Did he shoot her? Did he kill the woman he claimed to love? And why does the film, like the book it’s based on, leave us in doubt?
Snow Falls and Differences from the Book
The beauty in not knowing for sure how the final events of the story—from whether Lucy Gray really left a snake for Corio to if he murdered her—play out is that author Suzanne Collins is refusing to give any clarity or simple explanation for the choices her characters make. The fall of Snow into fascist surrender is not a binary situation where if only he had not struck Mace Windu’s arm with a lightsaber, he might never have succumbed to the Dark Side. The Dark Side is always there in all of us, and it is the little choices we make. Those little choices can often lead, invariably, to the big ones that define us.
In the book, the same basic events play out at the end of Songbirds and Snakes, but the details are different. They’re also, frankly, a little more richly defined. In both the film and novel, Snow makes the selfish decision to rat on his best friend Serjanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera). He can partially justify this to himself as an act of self-preservation, as it was Serjanus’ politics that put Snow in a situation where he needed to murder the District 12 mayor’s daughter or let her send Lucy Gray (and possibly himself) to the hanging tree. Serjanus’ political radicalism is both shortsighted and a risk to his associates. Still, Corio sent a friend to the gallows and watched him hang for a crime he was tangentially guilty of too.
On the page, Lucy’s sleuthing out of the betrayal is left open to greater interpretation. The literary character does not betray her growing fear and cold skepticism toward Snow as clearly as Zegler’s interpretation does after they flee to a cabin in the woods. This makes Corio’s choices all the chillier in the prose.
He seemed to really love (or at least be infatuated by) Lucy Gray, choosing District 12 to be his preferred exile after being banished from the Capitol for helping her survive the Hunger Games. And it’s hardly a choice at all between being just another Peacekeeper, a fascist thug in all but name, and running away with her to the wilderness—especially because his fingerprints are on the gun that killed the mayor’s daughter.
But when they reach the cabin in the woods, Corio finds the guns that Serjanus smuggled to the District 12 rebels, including his own murder weapon. In the book, Lucy Gray seems as surprised as Snow that the guns are there, but in the film she guides her lover right to them. It’s a test. She clearly caught him in a lie when he admitted he killed three people that summer “and that’s enough for one lifetime.” Who was the third, Corio? He cannot confess it was Sejanus, who he sold out like a classic Judas, but his evasions are obvious.
The gun is his final test, and at least in the book he fails it immediately. When he goes out in the rain looking for Lucy Gray, he is surprised to see he’s carrying the gun. He realizes how it looks and tells himself to put it down. But he doesn’t. Due to reading his inner-monologue, we understand that as soon as he sees the evidence that’s caused him to flee from civilization, he is relieved. He decides on the spot that he’ll go to District 2 and officers school; he will leave Lucy Gray after a single day of roughing it in the woods; and he will not forsake the comforts of power to build a roof with a girl he’s smitten with. He even concedes he doesn’t know how to build a roof!
So he walks out with a gun, and slowly begins rationalizing to himself that he cannot trust Lucy Gray to keep the secret about the mayor’s daughter. It is the same mental baby steps he took to rationalize sending Sejanus to the hangman’s noose.
In the film, there is more ambiguity about Corio and less about Lucy Gray. He carries the gun out of the cabin solely to throw it into the lake, and thereby hide the evidence of one more murder. He doesn’t seem the least bit homicidal about Lucy Gray until he discovers her scarf—and the snake beneath it. Only after lifting the scarf and being bitten does he turn violent, ready to slaughter the woman he saved from the Hunger Games in their own intimate recreation of the gladiatorial event.
Either way, the point is Corio makes assumptions about Lucy Gray and himself. He doesn’t turn to evil because of external forces. No one else is to blame. While he did a good deed in saving Lucy Gray’s life in the Hunger Games, it is because he was infatuated by her; but then, everything he does is out of an act of selfishness. For a brief moment, protecting this songbird was part of that selfishness, and he even murdered for her on the night they discovered the smuggled guns.
But the point is when circumstances change, and the bloom of first love fades, we are invited to see how a man driven by ambition and protecting (and expanding) his own privilege can self-justify anything. He went to the wilderness with her because that was his best option; as soon as opportunity arose for something better, he found himself ready to believe she was his enemy and psyched himself up to pull the trigger.
Did Lucy Gray Intend to Kill Coriolanus with the Snake?
While the film and novel reach Corio’s final endpoint from slightly different paths, Lucy Gray’s ending remains equally aloof in both mediums. It is left up to the viewer/reader to determine whether she attempted to kill the boy who she once sang was “as pure as the driven snow,” and whether he in turn succeeded in killing her… but if you want to know our interpretation…
Lucy Gray grew to love Coriolanus Snow, but only because earned her trust. She asked him to get the tributes food when they were left to starve in the zoo, and he did. He promised to get her out of the Games alive, and he did, at much personal risk and loss for himself. He proved himself to be a friend, and from there warmth and affection grew.
That trust was shattered when Corio let slip he murdered a third person that summer and wouldn’t admit who. Strangely, he could’ve said someone else in the Capitol, or one of the tributes he helped Lucy regretfully poison in the Games. Instead he demurred. This signaled to her he had something awful he was hiding… and the only other person she knew who died recently was Corio’s BFF, Serjanus.
So yes, she figured out he killed Serjanus, and my read of Zegler’s version of the character is that she wanted to get away from him as fast as possible. But even if not, she left him a final, final test that he spectacularly failed.
Later in the film, when Snow limps his way back to the District 12 Peacekeeper barracks, he has the snake wound inspected by a doctor. She tells him that it was not poisonous and the heart-pounding pain he felt was induced by his own fear and panic. Like Lucy Gray’s ultimate fate, this forces Snow to second-guess his assumptions. She didn’t try to kill him, so did he overreact about a certain accident and shoot his lover to death for no reason?
Perhaps. But we strongly doubt it. Viewers are told Lucy Gray knows a lot about snakes, especially in the Appalachian woods where she grew up. And it’s far too convenient for her orange scarf to be left resting above a snake—resting right after she vanished from the cabin. She likewise refused to answer Corio’s calls when he was looking for her, despite her earlier claims that she was just going out just to dig up some katniss. Like the gun in the house, the snake was a test. How would Corio react?
He reacted by turning a gun in her general direction, confirming to her that he was the real snake all along.
Did Lucy Gray Die or… Did Her Song Return to the Capitol?
Which brings us back to the original question, what happened to Lucy Gray? In the book, the mystery plays better because it is written entirely from his point-of-view, and he has clearly descended into an unreliable rage after the snake bite. He has no idea what happened out there—although he notably admits to himself she is probably alive, and he even leaves her the supplies they brought so she can continue living in the wilderness alone.
In the film, however, it’s a lot harder to hide the facts of the situation. We see him shoot her silhouette, only for there to be no body in broad daylight. He never hit her, and she in fact drove him a wee bit mad by singing a few notes of “The Hanging Tree” and letting the echoing mockingjays torment him for the rest of the day.
She did not die, and in his bones, Corio knows she did not die. When he returns to the Capitol, he is even relieved to learn in the book that this past year’s Hunger Games are going to be scrubbed from the history books. The Capitol government will of course keep a master copy, for Dr. Gaul’s apparent personal amusement no less, but there will be no reruns or highlight reels of the girl who sang to the snakes in the Games. Her survival bordered on the seditious, and the Capitol does not want folks to remember that fact.
For Corio, this is another relief, as he will never have to see Lucy Gray’s face again. It’s like the poor little songbird was erased from existence…. and yet, we know from the original Hunger Games movies that old President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is terrified by the mere idea of Katniss Eerdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her rising popularity. His violent skepticism is never explicitly explained, and we’re only left to suspect he’s haunted by a similar tribute from many Hunger Games past.
We did not realize how true that was until Songbirds & Snakes. Not only did he fall in love with a District 12 girl who defied the Capitol by surviving Gaul’s rainbow snakes, but he never really knows what happened to her. In truth, he probably dreams about her still, and “The Hanging Tree” she was probably still singing of long after Snow abandoned District 12.
Which raises the tantalizing question… is Lucy Gray Baird the grandmother, or even great-grandmother, of Katniss Everdeen? It’s possible. She loved katniss potatoes! And if she survived Snow’s hail of bullets, she could have stayed in the wilderness for days and years before coming back to the district’s grim approximation of civilization.
Eventually there would be a new mayor and a new mayor’s daughter, and as Capitol leadership cycled through, there would be less interest in that nomadic Covey girl who the other District 12 residents do not even consider a true neighbor. Heck, even her status as a victor will have been forgotten within a decade.
She could’ve left those woods sometime down the line and had children who were more assimilated into the district. No one would remember her past; no one except the man who became the dictator of Panem, and who saw her face in Katniss—and heard her voice in the District 12 girl with a bow singing “Somewhere in the Meadow” to little Rue on live television.
It is left open to interpretation and head canon as to whether Katniss is a direct descendent of Lucy Gray, but for all intents and purposes, in the mind of President Snow, and therefore the story, she is the ghost of Lucy Gray’s revenge. It’s why he speaks from experience when he warns Katniss, “It’s the things we love that destroy us.” His love, and fear, of Lucy Gray also destroyed him when his fanatical obsession with Katniss turned her into a hero and symbol of rebellion he dreaded. And this time, he couldn’t pretend he never heard her mockingjay’s song.