The Jenji Kohan series “Orange is the New Black” has been lauded for its portrayal of a Connecticut womens' prison, including a cast of diversified characters. Less attention has been given to its excellent and intricate camerawork. I’m going to examine a scene from the last episode of the third season, entitled “Trust No Bitch”.
Warning: There be spoilers here (albiet relatively small ones).
Much is made over the first three seasons of “Orange” about Sam Healy’s rocky relationship with his mail-order Russian bride, with who he communicates via Kate Mulgrew’s Galina Reznikov. She is shown to be generally disinterested and dissatisfied with Healy, constantly threatening to leave him.
The scene I’m analyzing is the confrontation between Healy and his wife which brings the story arc surrounding their relationship dynamic to its pinnacle.
Healy has just had a great day at Litchfield prison, and has come home to his despondent wife, who is sitting at the kitchen table. We start with Healy inside an artificial frame formed by the doorway, draped in shadows.
His wife is first shown (in the initial framing) to be marginally on the right side of the frame and out of focus. We’re given a reverse shot from Healy’s point of view, evidenced by the angle at which she is seen. Much like his internal perception of his wife, she is very much in the center of the frame, although there is something slightly askew in the way she is presented – even though we can’t initially identify it. She is pushing the boundary of the frame, uncomfortably pushed into a space in which she finds little comfort.
Next, we’re shown the wide shot, giving us a view of the entire stage area of the scene. This shot is used a few times during the standard shot / reverse-shot rhythm. In the initial view we have of this shot, both characters are clustered to the right side of the frame, forming an external indication of the relationship dynamic. Healy is crowding her into a corner of the frame, even though he is physically nowhere near her.
We jump cut in further to reestablish the comfortable boundaries, allowing the characters to return to their standard thirds:
Healy begins to regale her with his Litchfield stories as we jump cut back out to the previous framing. Their eyeline lies along a diagonal third, but there’s still a conspicuous amount of negative space on the left side of the frame – she is still trapped, even if Healy’s body language isn’t clearly indicating it.
As Healy talks, we settle into a very comfortable shot / reverse-shot rhythm. Both of them sit slightly inside the thirds, making us subconsciously aware of the claustrophobia inherent in the relationship. Her body is facing away from him, even when her eyes and face are towards him.
As Healy begins to become upset, the camera cuts back; rather than going to the reverse shot of Healy, we go to what is almost a cropped two-shot, as he pulls away backwards from her.
We go back to the shot / reverse-shot rhythm.
As the confrontation picks up steam, we cut back to the wide shot. Healy and his wife are still along one of the diagonal thirds, but there is also a butcher block with a knife sticking out of it and a Russian nesting doll – slightly out of focus – along the other diagonal third, paralleling the fighting couple. Healy is dead center frame for this, with his wife still marginalized in the corner.
The next two screen captures illustrate the next shot, which is a traditional two shot with the actors on the vertical thirds. The focus starts on the wife as Healy bangs his fist on the sink …
… then pulls to Healy as he begins to get louder. The wife is also progressively marginalized in the frame as we move forward. More importantly, this framing represents, as Healy is pulled into focus, how he perceives his place in the relationship; he is distant, no matter how close he tries to get to his wife.
In the reverse, we can see the situation from his wife’s point of view; she is centered (or rather, her seating position is centered, even though she’s leaning into the proper position, camera or otherwise), with the imposing form of Sam Healy looming over her.
They switch to Russian, and Healy asks what she wants from him. Even though this could have been a shot from his wife’s point of view, it isn’t; this is just a closer version of the same objective shot we’ve seen earlier.
She responds to the looming shadow “My freedom” in Russian …
… and the more important shot – Healy’s reaction – is left for us to consume. We flip back and forth between the shots which have been set up to show us a shot / reverse-shot setup at the same time that they are giving us an external representation of the internal perception of their relationship.
As the wife begins to realize that she may have been granted her freedom, she is shown by herself, in the center of the frame.
In the final moments of the confrontation, as well as his marriage, Sam Healy can’t find a comfortable place in the frame, even as his soon-to-be-ex wife sits comfortably in a central framing position, leaning into the right third. She is shown to be balanced, even as Healy’s self-assessment of his place in the relationship is represented by his inability to stay in a comfortable framing …
… he is either pushed out of being comfortably represented in the frame:
… or made diminutive through additional headspace in the frame.
“I’m surrounded by women in captivity all day long. I don’t need to come home to another one who feels like she’s trapped in a cage.” - Sam Healy
I tend to enjoy external representations of internal relationships and character properties through careful camerawork, and “Orange is the New Black” performed marvelously with this scene.
(All images are presented under fair use guidelines – all frame grabs are property of Tilted Productions, Lionsgate Television, or any other entities who hold copyright on this film. They are presented for exclusively educational purposes.)