The love triangle has to be the most tired, overused plot device in all of fiction. I’m hardly the first to point this out but it still feels good to type. That said, over the years a few good triangles have popped up … and by that I mean triangles with especially compelling third wheels.
The oft-fan favorite third wheel archetype takes on an all new significance on Valentine’s Day, a holiday as depressing for some as it is romantic for others. So, in honor of this oddly divisive holiday , I present my personal favorite third wheels. If you’re feeling lonely and unlovable this February 14th, the following characters will remind you that you’re not alone.
5. Eponine from Les Miserables (the musical NOT the book)
You can’t list famous third wheels without including this girl. Sad, doomed Eponine is the quintessential unrequited lover whose ballad, “On My Own,” is the personal theme song for lonely hearts everywhere. Unlike the love triangle in Twilight or The Hunger Games, though, there is no (or at least very little) division among fans as to who Marius should end up with: everyone vouches for Eponine and nobody seems to like Cosette. Even Eddie Redmayne has acknowledged this. And it’s understandable. In comparison to the street smart, heartbroken Eponine, Cosette seems saccharine and boring. That said, Eponine is still pretty bland in her own right, which is why I rank her so low. What defines her other than her love for Marius? She sabotages her father’s robbery of Valjean’s house for Marius. She dresses as a man and goes to the barricades for Marius. She gets shot for Marius. Every single thing she does in the play and the movie is for him. C’mon, sweetheart, move on.
4. Quasimodo from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame
I specify the Disney version because, while unrequited lovers are common in movies for older audiences (as this list demonstrates), Quasimodo is the only love-stricken hero in a Disney film who doesn’t get the girl in the end. Granted, Phoebus is noble and willing to sacrifice himself for his principles so we can’t really fault Esmeralda for falling in love with him, but it still hurts to see the look on Quasimodo’s face when he sees her kissing him. At the same time, I appreciate the film’s maturity in giving Quasimodo a happy ending without pairing him with Esmeralda. The move concludes with Quasimodo silently gives her and Phoebus his blessing and then getting carried out into the sunlight. It’s a good way of showing children that you don’t have to get everything you want to still be happy.
3. Nancy Tremaine in Enchanted
How I love this character! In addition to being a (soon-to-be) stepmother who’s not evil, I so appreciate how sympathetically she is portrayed. She could have very easily been written as a stereotypically bitchy disposable fiancee whom we are happy to see Robert dump in favor of Giselle. Instead, she’s characterized as a romantic who’s ultimately better suited for Disney Prince, Edward, than Robert. No one’s the bad guy in this situation. It’s just a case of two people realizing that they’re not right for each other and ultimately finding their happy endings with someone else.
2. Captain Hook from Once Upon A Time
Who would have thought that the most adult treatment of a love triangle would be between Snow White’s daughter, Rumplestitskin’s son (and Peter Pan’s grandson) and a leather clad pirate with eyeliner? I love how brutally honest Emma, Hook and Neil are with each other and it’s one of the few triangles in which I truly find all three parties interesting and likable. That said, I do find Hook to be the better choice for Emma than Neil. Though Hook took a while to grow on me, as I initially found his hypersexualization to be cheep fan service, I really love his playful yet upfront interaction with Emma. At any rate, I find his charm and occasional earnestness preferable to Neil’s constant squinting and willful somberness. It’s also worth noting that Emma and Hook were voted for Best On-Screen Chemistry for the People’s Choice Awards this year- not Emma and Neil. Of course, this love triangle has not been resolved yet so technically we don’t know how it will turn out … but of course we do. And Hook will lose. Dammit.
1. Glinda from Wicked
While I wish they hadn’t shoehorned a love triangle into Wicked when it wasn’t in Gregory Maguire’s novel, I appreciate how well the relationship between Glinda, Elphaba and Fiyero was handled. I like that Fiyero’s desertion of Glinda for Elphaba is due to character growth rather than arbitrary attraction. Glinda and Fiyero really are well suited for each other at the beginning of Act I but by Act II Fiyero has changed and Glinda hasn’t. What makes Glinda so remarkable as a third wheel (and why I rank her #1) is just how dark her story’s conclusion is. Yes, she sings “Popular” and uses made up words but in the end she is the ultimate politician who serviced her career at any cost, and whose lack of integrity ultimately cost her everything but her career. Furthermore, the writers make no attempt to mollify her loss. Unlike Eponine, she doesn’t die. Unlike Tremaine, she doesn’t find love with someone else and unlike Quasimodo (in the Disney version) she doesn’t find happiness. She ends up alone, with the weight of Oz and Elphaba’s legacy on her shoulders, forced to deal with her grief with nothing to mitigate the pain, save, perhaps the knowledge that she is now a better person for her experiences.