(This be yet another one of them posts.)
Before analyzing a sequence from the "Van Gogh Job" episode of Leverage, I need to discuss a little something about color and continuity. First, you may be familiar with Vincent Van Gogh, but if not, all you need to know is the man loved his yellows:
If you're thinking those yellows are a little brown, you're not wrong. But that's the fault of history and chemistry, not intent, so imagine those yellows are as vibrant as they were the day he painted them. This is important. So too is another of his paintings with which you're probably familiar:
What's significant here is the contrast between the once-vibrant yellows and the rich swirls of blue that these lights fail to illuminate. The stars and moon exist independently of the night sky, which has always struck me as a visualization of a menacing thought: things can hide in the presence of all this light. Light can not only fail to illuminate, it can be swept up and away by raging torrents of darkness. (Which invariably contain monsters, because darkness light can't penetrate always contains monsters.)
That I'm going on about Van Gogh in a post about the "Van Gogh Job" should be fairly self-evident, but it's not just that the director of this episode/author-of-the-challenge-to-write-this-post, John Rogers, employs a palette similar to that of his subject. More significant is how he employs it, which is both 1) often to the same end and 2) create continuity between his parallel narratives. In the modern narrative, Charlie Lawson (Danny Glover) sits in a hospital bed recounting the events of the World War II narrative to Parker (Beth Riesgraf):
That would be her doing her best "Starry Night" impersonation. I'm normally reluctant to put too much stock in the analysis of color—such analyses usually end up sounding like impressionistic pseudo-psychoanalytic shtick—but in the frame above you don't even have to know what the episode's about to realize that this isn't a case in which a bright color's emerging from a deep dark as a visual representation of hope. Instead, Rogers captures an image of a bright color about to be overwhelmed by a pervasive and pernicious darkness. (Which, again, most likely contains monsters.) All of which is a belabored way of making a simple point: the color yellow is doing double-duty in this episode: 1) creating narrative continuity between the two historical periods and 2) suggesting a connection between the earlier narrative and its content (the loneliness and isolation evident in the stolen Van Gogh).
One last note about continuity, in particular, the decision to use the Leverage team in both narratives: it may seem like a strange decision, one designed to cause confusion, but it actually makes perfect sense. After all, in the modern narrative, Lawson's narrating his experience to Parker, the result of which is the WWII narrative, which comes from Parker. We all do this when we're being told stories. When I taught journalism, one exercise I used to emphasize the importance of detail was to give my students a description of a man, e.g. "He is short and squat with brown hair and wears clothing typical of workers," then have them describe him in more detail. Invariably, the Asian-American students described an Asian-American man in a white shirt and cheap khakis, the white students described an overweight man in a hard-hat, etc. Point being, we all draw on our own experience when constructing narratives, and Parker's "decision" to cast her friends in the historical narrative is simply another example of this logic.
Why did I spend all this time talking about continuity? Because Leverage is, in the end, a heist show. Rogers describes it as a show about "punching rich guys in the neck [b]ecause they have Sinned, and Deserve It," but I'd go one further: it's a show about sucker-punching those who deserve it. They're not supposed to see the punch coming—or if they are, it's only to distract them from the one they don't. So a number of the shots in any episode are functional not in the deragotory sense, but in that they exist in the service of a shot later in the episode. A number of examples of these service shots occur as Historical Parker (H.Parker from here on out) aims to escape to France with Historical Hardison (H.Hardison). H.Parker is about to start playing an old organ at a skating rink as a performance begins:
First, note the colors: H.Parker's in yellow and framed by it. This is before she makes the escape depicted in the previous frame, so more than a little hope is allowed to creep in. After all, this is a heist show in which the Leverage team typically pulls off successful heists, so the audience expectation is that she'll successfully escape, and Rogers' palette plays to that expectation here. As she leaves to take her place at the organ, the camera reverses but stays on her father, the villain of the piece:
That awkward, empty space on the left side of the frame makes an audience uncomfortable. We want balanced shot composition, and those blurry folks in the background don't qualify. This isn't poorly shot, it's the only way to make an absence visible on screen: you have a character vacate an occupied space without altering the shot's length or its angle or level of framing. Everything's the same, except that one element's absence is suddenly pronounced. Moreover, it's a moment in which the audience feels, however fleetingly, what the character does (or believes he soon will): the absence of H.Parker. Because he's about to do something about his forthcoming loss, Rogers then balances the shot by having the camera and the father move to the left:
Everything may not be right with the world, but everything in shot is going according to plan. H.Parker's father is setting his world aright, which means that he's the one who suddenly has the Yellow Light of Hope:
The angle and level of framing are significant here, as both indicate that the audience occupies a position in space they'd rather not: the underside of a speeding freight train. Rogers then cuts to the tunnel beneath the tracks, where H.Hardison leans against a wall writing the times the trains pass:
Two elements are being established here: the first, crucial to any heist, is to provide the audience with an understanding of what's to come. In this case, we know that the timing of the trains will be crucial to any escape. The second element is spatial: this isn't just an ordinary tunnel, which is why Rogers uses a long shot instead of just the close-up on H.Hardison's face he'll cut to momentarily. He needs to establish the importance of this space (which attentive readers will recognize as the same one H.Parker stands in above). The long shot allows him to do that; moreover, the fact that it's off-balance brings some of the same unease as the scene with H.Parker and her father, only moreso, because in that scene the shot was unbalanced by an element leaving the frame, whereas in this one it's unbalanced because something's going to enter it. Could be H.Parker, but it could also be something else. (Monsters?) Rogers then cuts back to the skating rink as 1) the performance begins and 2) H.Parker begins to play:
The second frame is strangely balanced by H.Parker and the element on the right, but there's still an empty space in the central portion of the screen. Instead of filling it, Rogers cuts to her hands:
Often times such shots are merely ornamental, i.e. proof that the something that seems to be being done is being done. Not so here, but more on that in a minute. Rogers cuts back to the oddly balanced medium shot:
Only now the empty space is occupied by Historical Sophie (H.Sophie). What's she doing there? SQUIRREL!
The audience will get to see why crowd at the skating rink is being distracted, but first they're made to understand that this performance is a distraction. As long as the room's dark and everyone's focused on the skater in the spotlight, they won't see this:
The purpose of showing the hands earlier is, in part, to point to the technical flawlessness of the switch. Neither the performer nor the crowd can tell that H.Sophie has replaced H.Parker, which means that we, the viewing audience, think everything's going according to plan. Which, so far, it is. At least until the performance ends and the scene transitions:
Note the continuity in the lighting: we're blinded by the spotlight as it shines directly at the camera, then transitioned to a dark scene in which the light source seems be similarly located (the upper-right corner of the frame) but ominously dimmed. Again, the off-balance shot creates a little anxiety, as there's no telling what might come to occupy it. Actually, there is telling:
Only not really. Like the spotlight moments earlier—not to mention "Starry Night"—these lights don't illuminate anything. They're the kind of lights that hide their source, suggesting that they're being held by people who'd rather not be seen doing what they're doing. And they barely can be:
There's just enough light to recognize that that's H.Parker's father, and the fact that he's there means all the Yellow Light of Hope we've seen so far has been so much misdirection. Or has it? In the following shot-reverse sequence, the domination of the frame shifts from what is typical of this episode (H.Parker's father lording over his domain):
This dynamic works for regular viewers of the series—because they strongly believe in the eventual success of the Leverage crew—even though it defies the laws of physics regarding hills. H.Hardison can't be both below and above H.Parker's father, which seems to indicate that Rogers specifically wanted to toy with his audience's expectations about the eventual success of this escape. Because if the angle of framing is a little lower when on H.Hardison, it's only a very little lower. Rogers isn't toying with us the way, say, Toby Haynes did here. In terms of composition, H.Hardison's advantage is, literally, the tip of a cap. Cut back to the rink, below it, if I'm not mistaken:
And even if I am—it could be behind or around as well as beneath—it's still a highly confined space. The formal elements of this shot militate to make H.Parker seem entrapped. She's escaping down a tunnel that's both brightly lit but yet still dark. The lines of the brickwork appear to stream seamlessly to a vanishing point except that they're abruptly terminated by a door. That everything's pointing at the door makes her escape seem contingent. It's a door, certainly, and doors are perfectly fine vehicles for egress, but it's not an open door, nor is it a brightly lit hall. Combined with the previous scene on the hill with H.Hardison, this shot of a tiny woman rushing down an over-long hall seems an indication of imminent failure. And, sure enough, she's quickly stopped by that door-that's-not-an-open-door:
H.Hardison both occupies the central portion of the frame and physically dominates—by a head—every other character on screen. How can the tide have turned so quickly? Rogers incorporates a flashback within his flashback:
As the Saving Private Ryan palette indicates, this isn't a flashback to the WWII era, but to a moment in Occupied France in which H.Hardison acquired a handgrenade. You can guess what's in that rucksack being rummaged through in the previous frame, and why H.Hardison is suddenly in control of the situation. Not that he still doesn't do the smart thing and run:
Medium close-up on our resident hero, H.Nate, shooting at the bad lights. There's a long-established righteousness to these medium and medium close-up of sheriffs in hats shooting at slight angles off-screen. (For example.) They can't shoot directly at the camera without being off-putting to the audience—no one enjoys being shot at—and it needs to be a close-up of some sort because the steeled quality of his face is crucial to establishing the justness of his violence. Rogers didn't need to have H.Nate speak a word, as the composition of this shot speaks to the justice of his cause. Speaking of which:
H.Nate put down the cover fire, and H.Parker and H.Hardison took advantage of it. Everything seems to be coming together just as it does when the Leverage team pulls a heist: perfectly timed. They bolt for the train just as it arrives through the upper right portion of the frame, and Rogers' shot indicates that they'll collide, in the good way, somewhere in the upper left. Freedom is at hand! Everything went according to plan! Or did it?
I won't spoil the episode for those who haven't seen it.