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The best Star Wars scene is Han and Leia's 'I love you/I know' exchange in Empire

By Brian Silliman
Star Wars Han Solo I Love You

This month's Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker marks the end of the Skywalker Saga, a nine-movie series that's spanned 42 years and three generations of characters that have captured the imaginations and hearts of millions of fans around the world. While it's impossible to sum up everything we love about these films, we here at SYFY WIRE are going to try.

Leading up to The Rise of Skywalker, we're breaking down and celebrating our favorite scenes from the series, and what better way to kick things off than with Han and Leia's most famous exchange?

Whenever a movie character says "I love you" to someone, the response is usually "I love you, too." It's almost expected, so naturally that's what George Lucas intended for Han and Leia in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. That's nice, isn't it? Sure, but it's not what's in the movie.

The second Star Wars film ended up turning this scenario on its head, giving us a subversion of expectations that is not only the best exchange in the movie ... it is likely the best exchange in any Star Wars movie.

To this point, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) have been bantering, flirting, and really getting on each other's nerves in a not-so-subtle "Oh, they are so into each other" kind of way. They've shared a kiss, and everything is fairly chill ... but that's before they fall right into the clutches of Darth Vader on Bespin. Things get dark, they get serious, and the stakes get high. What once was a bickering flirtation gives way to real feelings.

The trouble here is that Han Solo is one guarded man. He's fine with a flirty repartee (and some closet kissing) when everything is easy breezy, but when things take a trip to Serioustown (a real place), he's not going to let his guard down. He's been emotionally and romantically hurt, he's done the same in turn to others, and he's not going to say the "L" word to anyone.

So what happens when Han is being put into carbon freeze, soon to be on his way to Jabba the Hutt, and right out of this film? He tells Chewie to save his strength — they've lost this one, and while they don't have to like it, Chewie has to make sure Leia is safe now. In short, he's once again being noble and selfless when it really matters, showing how much heart he has beneath his gruff exterior.

Still, he's not ready to give in entirely to the moment.

Han turns to Leia herself, and they have one last kiss (a serious one, too) before the Imperials drag him toward the chamber. Almost without thinking, Leia says, "I love you."

Han's response: "I know."

He's not ready to say the words (who is, really?), and for all he knows, he's about to die. All he can do is let Leia know that he is fully aware of their bond, how it has changed, and how it has grown. Even in the face of his freezing (and possible death, for all he knows), he's going to go down guarded. Ford's delivery gives you the feeling that Han has heard this before, said the appropriate words back without meaning them, and trouble has ensued … as it usually does.

In this situation, with Leia, with the one true love of his life, he's not going to make that mistake. He's not going to say the words until he knows that he means them, before he knows that he can truly commit. Saying those words is a promise and a choice … there were probably others that got the line from him, but he likely let them down. Not this time, not with this woman. This time it's going to be different.

Yes, he goes down guarded — but it's really a moment of growth and responsibility. If this budding relationship is going to have a post-freeze chance, then Han is not going to rush it or commit to something that he's not ready for. He cares for Leia enough not to lie to her. Instead? He gives assurance that he knows that she cares, and seems grateful for it in those final moments.

As for Leia herself, did she even really know what she was feeling until she blurted it out? She always has an undercutting line to say to Han while expressing affection or appreciation, such as "You have your moments ... not many of them, but you do have them." They are always tinged with playful banter, but here? Here she just comes right out with it, and Fisher's delivery is boldly honest. Who cares about protocol, who cares about what's proper, this is how she feels and it just comes out.

It is one of the most honest moments between two characters in the saga, possibly in cinema history, and I don't care if that sounds hyperbolic. Yes, this is not the moment that everyone tends to remember first from this film (a certain line about someone being a father tends to take that prize), but it's right up there.

The moment is even more special because it was unplanned. The script had Han's response be "I love you, too," but neither director Irvin Kershner nor Harrison Ford liked that, and neither thought Han was there yet. Accounts vary as to how the now-famous response happened — in one interview, Kershner says that he just told Ford to say whatever popped into his head, called action, and this was the response. Another version (the above video) has Ford making it sound like his idea because that's the last thing any woman would want to hear.

Despite the disagreements, accounts agree that this line was never intended, however. It shouldn't work, but it does. Welcome to the brilliance that is Star Wars.

It also went on to give us a fantastic turnaround exchange in the following film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Toward the end of their ground battle on Endor, Han has already committed fully to the Rebellion and to Leia. He finally says the words, and Leia's response is, of course, what she got from Han in the previous movie. Fisher's own delivery of the line is magical.

Ron Howard's Solo: A Star Wars Story has since given new life to this moment (a different version of this exchange takes place between Han and Lando in that film), but we also have a much better idea of why Han is so emotionally guarded now. It's not vital intel, but having that background is a lot of fun if you watch the films in chronological order.

As great as this moment is, and as great as Han and Leia are, I must warn you — when someone in real life is bold enough to say those words to you, don't give them Han's response. I've been stupid enough to try it (more than once), and it was not appreciated. For the man who always runs solo, who has no people, and who thinks that he's going to be on the run for the rest of his life? A simple "I know" has the same power as a bent-knee proposal.

I love this moment with all of my being. It knows.