There are two types of drama when it comes to television. You have drama for the sake of drama, which is used to create the illusion of progressive drama. And then there’s good drama; the kind that grows characters and strengthens relationships. One of them is more common than the other. One guess as to which one that is.
Characters drive television shows. Not action. Not plot. The characters. And if they don’t, then you don’t have a good television show. Simple as that. The one thing that drives those characters that drive those television shows is love.
The single most important emotion that has the power to lift you up or tear you down. The emotion that starts wars. The emotion that heals. The emotion that sometimes brings out a side to you that you didn’t know existed, be it good, bad, or both. To quote Arrow, “love is the most powerful emotion.” It’s why you choose to fight. It’s why you choose to keep moving. It’s why it’s all worth it in the end.
If love is the most powerful emotion then the love triangle is the most powerful and overused trope in storytelling.
A love triangle is defined as “a relationship in which three people are each in love with at least one other person in the relationship.” Typically, the traditional love triangle involves all three characters in love with each other. But usually a love triangle constitutes three people that are each in love with another person. Typically, one of those characters loves two different people. That’s called a Split-object triangle, where “a lover has split their attention between two love objects.”
The love triangle is a classic trope that every show is going to attempt to examine at one point or another. Nothing sells like romance. Nothing is more common as a barrier to love than another person. But not only are love triangles so over utilized to the point where a show relies on the love triangle itself to generate conflict, but most shows aren’t using it the right way.
You don’t need a love triangle to bring drama to a couple. You don’t need a love triangle to grow a couple. There are many obstacles you can throw at a couple to progress their relationship — character flaws, trust issues, intimacy issues, past issues, — but the most common obstacle is the presence of another being to halt progress. The thing is, most of the time love triangles act as a standstill. The two characters aren’t dealing with an issue, per say, so much as they’re dealing with an issue that’s distracting us from the fact that there isn’t really an issue at hand.
Usually when you’re dealing with love triangles, they’re not being used the way they were intended to be. A love triangle, like any romance plot, should be used to strengthen a relationship. So unless there’s some deep personal understanding going on, a love triangle, for all intents and purposes, is useless.
But that’s not to say there aren’t some shows that do love triangles the right way. And we’re going to take a look at one of them below. But more often than not, love triangles portray the illusion of character growth in the way it was intended.
Below, I’m going to examine three different love triangles — two that are currently happening this season on television and one from five years ago. We’ll take a look at examples of a good love triangle, a bad love triangle, and an unnecessary love triangle.
Lucy/Wyatt/Jessica, Timeless (season 2)
When it comes to a good example of utilizing the classic love triangle, there’s nobody doing it better than Timeless. Not only is it one of network television’s best shows, but the situation going on with its main ship Lucy and Wyatt is one that a lot of television writers can learn from.
In case you aren’t watching Timeless (and if you aren’t then you need to drop everything and start right now), Wyatt Logan spent the entire first season (and the previous four years) grieving the death of his wife, Jessica. He didn’t think that he could or deserved to move on. So he chose to punish himself instead. Until he met Lucy Preston, who slowly over the course of those 16 episodes wove her way into his heart and gave him a reason to keep on living. For so long, Wyatt was stuck in the past. But at the end of the first season, he learned that he needs to “stop living in the past and start focusing on the future.” He needed to be “open to possibilities.” Possibilities that included romance with Lucy.
In season 2, Lucy and Wyatt started separated from each other for six weeks unsure if the other was alive but knowing in their heart that they were. When they were reunited, you saw it. You saw it in their faces. You heard it in their words. You saw it in their embrace. These are two people in love. And it only took three episodes before they opened themselves up and took that next step. It was natural. But just as natural it was for them to smile at each other in bed the morning after, it’s natural that happiness doesn’t last long in television. When they got back from the 1940s — happy and ready to begin their new relationship — Wyatt learned that his wife, Jessica, was alive.
Obviously Wyatt is going to gravitate toward Jessica. She’s his wife. He spent years grieving her death and even risked incarceration to try and get her back. It’s only natural that he’s going to want to make things work with Jessica. But he still feels the tug when it comes to Lucy, a woman that while he hasn’t openly admitted he loves he obviously loves. Cue love triangle.
While I want to pull my hair out thinking about how close Lucy and Wyatt were to just being happy, I stopped and thought about why this is good for this show and its characters. Sure, it would’ve been nice if Lucy and Wyatt just got to live out their lives happy together. But the fact that Wyatt was with Lucy because his wife is dead is not lost on me.
Wyatt has to choose Lucy, not settle for Lucy. So in bringing Jessica back — in presenting Wyatt the two women that he loves — Wyatt is going to be forced to think within himself; to think about what he wants; to think about who represents his future.
See, this is a good love triangle. This is going to grow Wyatt, by making him examine himself and what he wants. This is going to grow Lucy, by her recognizing that she’s not some consolation prize. This is going to strengthen Lucy and Wyatt’s relationship to the point where they can move forward knowing there’s nothing standing in between them. No what ifs or could’ve beens.
I could’ve done without this love triangle, but I do see the good in it. Wyatt has to choose Lucy. And not just because Jessica is dead. And from everything I’ve seen, it definitely feels like that’s the endgame here. That is the purpose of a love triangle, right? To show growth in these characters and strengthen their relationship and not just to stir the pot.
Oliver/Laurel/Tommy, Arrow (season 1)
When it comes to a bad example of utilizing a love triangle, I’m going back five years because this is still one that continues to baffle me even years later. Just as writers can learn from a well-written (at least to this point) love triangle, they can also learn from the bad ones. Honestly, there was never going to be a way where this Oliver/Laurel/Tommy love triangle ended in anything other than tragedy and a break-up.
In case you haven’t watched Arrow (or just forced this triangle from your mind), the first season of Arrow found the return of Oliver Queen “from the dead” some five years after he’d gone off and cheated on Laurel with her sister, Sara, while leading her sister to her death, and subsequently leaving Laurel to pick up the pieces of her destroyed family.
In Oliver’s absence, Laurel and Tommy had grown close. But it wasn’t until after Oliver’s return — and Laurel’s realization that she couldn’t be with this man that destroyed her life and cheated on her — that Laurel and Tommy began dating and fell in love. Bear in mind, Oliver dated a couple women throughout the season and never showed interest in Laurel in that way until the final episodes, when Oliver and Laurel cheated on Tommy and slept together. Yes, they both cheated on Tommy. Laurel was dating Tommy. Oliver was Tommy’s best friend. It was like history repeating itself in sick fashion. This “love triangle” wasn’t even relevant until the final few episodes of the first season. Maybe that was to wrap up the Oliver/Laurel mess or maybe it was just poorly written and executed in story.
The thing is, the writers didn’t even force the love triangle until the final three episodes of the season. It wasn’t even a love triangle. For a good portion of the season, Laurel and Tommy were happily in love. Oliver showed no romantic interest or attention to Laurel. Laurel showed no romantic interest in Oliver. And yet the writers, almost hurriedly, forced this love triangle upon us in the form of cheating (always cheating in this relationship, huh) and tragedy. The perfect example of why forcing something is never good and never works.
This love triangle forced for no other reason than to cause drama. And perhaps even to wrap up the Oliver/Laurel romance so that they could move on to Arrow’s defining ship, Oliver & Felicity (which was done right…until season 4…and is now back where it should be.)
This was a horrible love triangle from the beginning. Not only did Laurel suffer from a cheating triangle, where Oliver cheated on her with her sister, Sara, which ended with her “death” and destroyed her family in the process, but Laurel found herself stuck in a love triangle that should’ve never been.
You could say — even if Tommy hadn’t died — that this would’ve ruined the friendships she had cultivated with both Oliver and Tommy over the course of her life. It never felt like Laurel was going to be all-in with either Oliver or Tommy. There was just too much pain and history with Oliver, and there just wasn’t enough love (at least at that time) with Tommy. This was doomed from the start.
The one good thing to come from this was that the writers realized that they screwed up. They realized that not only did their lead actors have no chemistry, but they realized that they’d destroyed any possibility of that relationship being healthy in the slightest. They realized that they had villainized Oliver and Laurel to the point where their romance would be a reminder of betrayal instead of the representation of hope. (And that’s without the history of cheating in this relationship five years before this point.)
Kara/Mon-El/Imra, Supergirl (season 3)
Sometimes, a show utilizes a love triangle in a way that, while bad ,you can see the good intentions, even if it’s not executed as such. Basically, it’s unnecessary. Supergirl is utilizing an unnecessary love triangle this season with Kara/Mon-El/Imra. At first glance, it appears to be drama for the sake of drama. And sometimes it feels that way. But if you look closely, it might serve a purpose — albeit small and not technically necessary.
In case you aren’t caught up on Supergirl this season, we began this season following Mon-El’s forced departure due to lead in the atmosphere. As he was traveling through space, he was sucked into a wormhole and that was the last we saw of him until episode 7 this season. When he returned, we learned he was married. But while it had only been seven months for Kara, it had been seven years for Mon-El. His moving on — after years of refusing to do so — is completely acceptable and understandable.
But the thing is, Mon-El still loves Kara. This show has made it very clear that he’s still in love with Kara and has never stopped being in love with her. Anyone knows that a good, strong couple is strengthened by the hardships they face. There are many different hardships writers can throw at a couple, but I can’t say I’m surprised they went with a love triangle. But it’s a common trope that I expected this show to utilize at some point.
Television writers are tasked with weaving character stories in a way that keeps the audience on its toes and coming back for more while also doing right by the characters. Sometimes, it’s easy to get so caught up in wowing the audience and having those epic dramatic moments that the characters can get lost in the shuffle. I understand what the writers are trying to do with Kara and Mon-El this season. I understand the idea of Imra. But that doesn’t mean I agree with it. And that’s the beauty of television. We’re all entitled our opinions on how these writers are handling story-lines and characters. Hell, I’d take an amnesia-falling in love all over again trope over a love triangle.
Unlike the good and bad love triangles, the unnecessary have traits of both. While I see exactly where the writers are going with this storyline, the more I think about it the more I continue to say, It didn’t have to be a love triangle. There are so many different avenues they could’ve taken to bring angst to this relationship. Even if they wanted to introduce Saturn Girl, it didn’t need to be by way of a love triangle. Imra deserves to exist as an individual and not a romantic foil.
The thing is that, while this love triangle is going to force both Kara and Mon-El to examine their feelings, it wasn’t the necessary catalyst for this progression. It could’ve been done differently.
It wasn’t as if Mon-El was in love with Imra before he met Kara and needed to sort out his feelings for Imra before accepting his love for Kara. That’s not how this began, unlike TImeless. But now, that’s the position the writers have put Mon-El in. Where he has these two women that he loves, one more than the other because that’s typically how these love triangles are solved, and has to look within himself and assess his true feelings. But the thing is, Mon-El wouldn’t have had to do that had they not introduced Imra to be that other point of the love triangle. See? Unnecessary.
Unlike the Arrow love triangle we spoke about, there’s no taint with this love triangle. There were no cheating scandals. Things didn’t end on bad terms personally. There was always the understanding that if, when Mon-El returned that the door would be open for him and Kara to resume their love. And while, yes, Mon-El is married — a marriage that was conceived as a means to unite people — it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. Mon-El’s marriage doesn’t taint the possibility of reigniting romance with Kara. Not in the slightest. But it does have to end before the romance can start back up again.
Love triangles are typically used as a means to make the person torn between two people realize that the answer they’d been looking for has been staring them in the face the entire time. Usually, it’s pretty obvious from the start, to us, who that person is. For Timeless, that’s Lucy and Wyatt. For Supergirl, that’s Kara and Mon-El. For Arrow, well, I said usually, didn’t I? Because I still have no idea about that one.
You haven’t seen the last of love triangles on television. And while that term is likely to cause a lot of eye rolls, just remember, not all love triangles are created equally.