You are not supposed to pick Gale. I know this, because for the better part of two years, I have been yelled at by friends and teens, none of whom can understand my preference for The Hunger Games’ odd-man out. [Note: Spoilers follow that reference specific events in Catching Fire and Mockingjay.]
The obvious choice in the series’ love triangle is Peeta, Katniss’s fellow District 12 competitor and fake boyfriend (played by Josh Hutcherson in the movie series). Peeta gets more time on the page and onscreen than Gale (played by Liam Hemsworth), especially in the first installment. He's generous. He also really, really loves Katniss, despite her indifference, and he talks about it constantly.
All of this has made it a lonely journey for Team Gale, and it will be lonelier still once the movie franchise makes it to Mockingjay, when events will render my contrarian opinion more or less indefensible. But while we’re here in Catching Fire phase, the only time spent with Katniss outside the arena and alone with her own feelings, there’s a case to be made for Gale. Please hear me out.
First, there are superficial arguments to acknowledge, like the fact that Gale is tall and handsome (all the girls at school crush on him). He is also District 12’s resident bad boy: He hunts, he breaks rules, he’s mysterious. Peeta, meanwhile, is your classic Too-Nice Guy: open and supportive, the dream boyfriend in a seminar about healthy relationships, but easily steam-rolled in real life (by Katniss and others). There is a reason that Katniss never noticed Peeta before she was thrown into the arena with him, or that nothing happens during the multiple nights they spend together in the same bed. His allure as anything other than a friend is, shall we say, lacking.
But choosing Gale for these reasons is like saying you’re Team Edward while ignoring the fact that he's a vampire; the circumstances are everything. To remind you: Katniss spent the better part of book one faking a romance with Peeta in order to win the Hunger Games and save both their lives. (She was faking, anyway; Peeta has always had genuine feelings for Katniss.) When Katniss comes home to District 12, Gale immediately confesses his love for Katniss, and she realizes she might have feelings for him, too — but she can’t explore them, because she has to continue her fake relationship with Peeta or else her entire family, including “cousin Gale,” will be killed. Over the course of maintaining this fake relationship (and plotting a rebellion, and fighting through a second Hunger Games, all of which happen during Catching Fire), Katniss realizes that she might care for Peeta, too. It’s tricky.
The obvious distinction, at least in the first half of Catching Fire, is that Katniss’s relationship with Peeta is not real. She avoids him as soon as they’re home from the Capitol; she doesn’t even know if their arena kisses “counted.” Her kiss with Gale does, though, and she describes it with startled, hormonal wonder: “You would think with all the hours I’d spent watching Gale … that I would know all there was to know about his lips. I hadn’t imagined how warm they would feel pressed against my own. Or how those hands, which could set the most intricate snares, could easily entrap me.”
Every time she begins to fight her connection with Gale, the hidden feelings bubble up: jealousy that Gale might have another girlfriend; desperate guilt when she accepts Peeta’s marriage proposal for the safety of her loved ones. (“I go back to my room and lie under the covers, trying not to think of Gale and thinking of nothing else.") She tries to run away with Gale. Her happy imaginary life — the one that would have happened had she never gone to the arena — revolves around him. Even Peeta admits this: "I knew you had something with Gale. I was jealous of him before I even officially met you."
Peeta says these sorts of things a lot — his primary appeal is the way that he can understand Katniss, because he was always obsessed with her and because he is the only other person who survived the Hunger Games. Katniss deeply admires him, and she, like any human, is eventually worn down by his constant affection. She likes making out with him, too. (Katniss is finally learning that kissing — be it Gale or Peeta — is really fun.) But here is how she contemplates Peeta’s death at the end of Catching Fire: “I realize only one person will be damaged beyond repair if Peeta dies. Me.” Devoted, yes, but not necessarily in a romantic way. Here is how she deals with Gale’s near death: “Gale is mine. I am his. Anything else in unthinkable. Why did it take him being whipped within an inch of his life to see it?"
Gale is the passionate choice; Peeta is the practical one. Or, at least, it would be that way in a world where children were not sent to their deaths for the amusement of a cruel governing capital. I will not attempt to argue away the ending of the series, in which a bloody rebellion breaks out and where, ultimately, Gale designs the attack that kills Katniss’s only sister. (Did he know that would happen? I think so.) By the end of Mockingjay, when Katniss has been manipulated by everyone in power and watched all her friends and family die, Peeta is the only person left. Katniss numbly says as much in the final chapter; she needs someone to help her through the days, and Peeta is the ultimate caregiver.
So the case for Peeta — articulated by Katniss herself, at the end of Mockingjay — is that he helps her get through the most horrible experience of her life; he saves her, essentially, as much as she can be saved. Fair. I get it. But it seems pretty clear to me that Gale is who Katniss would choose if she never had to go through the most horrible experience of her life. She would see him flirting with an early bloomer and get really angry. They wouldn’t speak for two weeks, and then finally all the tension would boil over near the lake in the woods. (Katniss would still be a tomboy, even if her family’s livelihood didn’t depend on it.) Gale would be her first boyfriend: They’d confess their love, plan their whole lives together, and then probably outgrow each other. Teenage relationships are only supposed to feel everlasting.
A Team Peeta friend of mine likes to point out that the real answer is Team No One; not only is Katniss a shell of a human by the end of Mockingjay, but she was never particularly interested in settling down beforehand. The closest she comes is when she agrees to marry Peeta, and then gets angry about the situation: "One of the few freedoms we have in District 12 is the right to marry who we want or not marry at all,” she says. “And now even that has been taken away from me.” Katniss wants to be able to choose, and Peeta is not a choice. Gale might not be the right one, in the end, but I like to imagine a world in which Katniss could find out for herself. With kissing. She likes the kissing.