Most fans of Star Wars need very little convincing that The Empire Strikes Back is the “best” movie of the franchise thus far. It has the benefit of not having the burden of world building, like the first one. The writing was tight, and the dialogue actually sounded like humans speaking.
It has its problems; that is undeniable. The timelines are rather sketchy (either it took several months to fly to Bespin or Luke learned to be a Jedi over a weekend…) and it fails the Bechdel test miserably, but these are flaws that can be overlooked. It was dark; the heros lost, but the darkness wasn’t overpowering to the point of apathy. And a lot of the reason for that is that, in the midst of all the war, and asteroids and torture, there’s a well-developed, complex relationship blossoming.
Yes, I speak of Han and Leia. And all their mushy stuff. I doubt I was the only ten-year-old who watched them in Empire Strikes Back and wondered what these… odd feelings I was having were. It was the first fictional relationship I ever found compelling and now as I revisit it, years later, I find it’s even more interesting then I remember.
Something that bugged me, even when I was ten, is how little attention is paid the Leia and her obvious trauma throughout the series. I mean, in the first movie, she was captured by a scary dude, tortured, forced to watch her whole planet explode and told it was her fault, shot at, almost squashed by a garbage compactor, shot at again, and then she had to sit through a battle where the planet she was on might get blown up.
I don’t know about you, but that might mess me up a little.
As a result, Leia in ESB is probably not in a place to have a relationship. But Han apparently is. I mean, the man is really, really into her. He has a price on his head, he’s very concerned about the need to pay off Jabba the Hutt, if you recall, so what was he still doing there? Maybe it’s not immediately clear to casual movie watchers, but there are officially three years between the first two movies. That is a long time to stick around just because of inertia. And then at the beginning of ESB, the man ostentatiously tells that general dude that he was leaving when Leia just happens to be there and then immediately he’s all, like, “so, talk me out of it Leia. Come on, you know you wanna.” And she’s like “yeah, go fuck yourself you nerf herder.”
I suppose it’s possible that Han was creeping on her for three years, but I have a better idea: they were fucking. They were fucking like bunnies and Han was insisting on something more than quickies in the broom cupboard or whatever, and Leia said no. Thus, Han is leaving.
And this is all hardly subtle in my opinion. Like, people in the rebel base on Hoth just kind of casually stroll by while they’re screaming at each other in the hallway. This has been an open secret for a long time. People know not to open the door to that broom cupboard on Friday nights.
Then they end up on an involuntary road trip where they face death a lot. Do I even need to point out that he came back for her in the middle of a battle. And then she told him to fuck off.
Did you know that there’s a deleted version of the famous making out scene on the Falcon where her agency is made quite clear? “Alright, hotshot,” she says. And we can all agree that kissing is code for sex, right? “You could use a good kiss” means… something else. And there’s an extended version of the hallway argument where Han accuses her of having no feelings and says he’s “not interesting anymore”? I can’t imagine why this prime material ended up on the cutting room floor, unless it was because it made their extra-curricular activities a little too obvious to the PG in 1980 crowd.
There are several things I really love about this dynamic. Firstly, kudos to Leigh Brackett and/or Lawrence Kasdan for even doing this, rather than the more predictable Luke and Leia which was clearly being set up in the first movie. It should be obvious that you should not write a romance between two characters who clearly have no chemistry whatsoever, but I’ve seen Attack of the Clones, so maybe it should be stated every once in awhile. It probably means something that the only time a woman touched a Star Wars script thus far is the only time female sexual agency seems to have been considered.
Secondly, it’s still quite rare for relationships to break the gendered roles of women actively seeking commitment and men avoiding it, especially if it’s because the woman had a troubled past and is slightly broody. But, it’s a realistic one; not all men and women are the same, you know. And it makes perfect sense that this would be their dynamic too, given Leia’s obvious trauma that is never addressed, the fact that they’re in the middle of a rather long-shot armed insurrection, and the social distance between them. (“A princess and a guy like me.”)
But it’s also worth noting that a lot of fans seem to miss this. Most Han and Leia fanfic features a virginal Leia (it’s all the white she wears) being very concerned about whether or not Han will stick around after having his way with her. This, despite the fact that we see him go out of his way to create a situation so that she can ask him to stay, and she says no. More than once. Clearly she’s the one who needs to be convinced to take this relationship seriously, despite how obvious it is to everyone, especially Han, that she feels the same way he does. Why else would he stick his neck out like he did?
Rewatching the movie with this in mind is an experience. When they chatting in Cloud City and Han says “we’ll soon be gone”, Leia’s “And then you’re as good as gone, aren’t you?” is no longer “you’re gonna ditch me, aren’t you, you jerk?” it’s “I permanently screwed this up, didn’t I?” And Han seems like much less of a jerk for saying “I know” when you realize that’s she’s been pushing him away for years.
Maybe we should consider that she just wears white to blend in with the snow, eh?
Even if you miss this deeper dynamic you still get a wonderful movie, but once you do see it, the whole saga becomes much richer. And much hotter.