Scandal is not quite the most-watched show on television, nor is it the most acclaimed, but it might be the most consistently fascinating. It has a place in the TV landscape that defies description: a network hit that also counts as “quality” television, or at least gets critical attention comparable to it. (NCIS is a network hit but is not quality television: The Good Wife is quality network television but is not a hit: HBO has plenty of quality television, but its success tends to be measured in critical buzz instead of viewership.) Yet when critics ask what makes Scandal so special, the uniformity of the answers doesn’t match the scope of the show. There is a standard template of talking points: its roots in melodrama (soap operas and Douglas Sirk are the most common references), its racially diverse cast, its strong African-American female protagonist (Olivia Pope), and its strong African-American female showrunner (Shonda Rhimes).
On the last two points, the show stands nearly alone (with some company from Empire’s Cookie and Rhimes’s other work, respectively), and these are enormous achievements. But because the template of talking points has become so ingrained, the show, ironically, doesn’t get enough credit. Everyone seems to agree that the show is endlessly interesting to talk about, but the reasons for this almost always boil down to the identities of the show’s characters. The controversy several months ago around New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley’s “angry black woman” piece intensified the interest around the show, but further limited the range of interests in it.
There’s something strange about this. It isn’t that the show’s importance always seems to come down to politics—Scandal is, of course, an overtly political show. It’s rather that, the more talk is generated about the show’s politics, the more it seems like its politics can only talked about in one or two ways. Writings on Scandal tend to confine themselves to quoting snippets of dialogue or psychologically profiling Olivia Pope and company, to ask variations of: "What does it mean when the show doesn’t discuss race?” (See some early criticism on the show.) “What does it mean when it does?” (See the discussions of the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings reference from season two, or of the recent Ferguson episode.) “How active or complex a character is Olivia?” (See the post-New York Times incident fallout.) These questions are important. But because it's deceptively easy to come up with social-media-friendly answers to them, and because people seem to think that, beyond matters of identity, the show's politics are ridiculous (unlike those of, say, The Wire), they become the standard operating procedure for talking about the show.
Most people who care about TV as an artform and as an index of its culture, I think, would agree that what no show is merely the sum of its lines or its characters: what a program does is not reducible to what it seems to say. Shows are not their scripts, and even scripts are not fables with clear morals. Yet, even though critics agree that there is a Shonda Rhimes “style,” they leave it at vague words like “pacing” and “tone.” (Compare to the attention given to the aesthetic choices and influences of Matthew Weiner, a TV auteur whose race and gender are such that he doesn't have to keep answering questions about race and gender.)
Much of this lopsided attention is due to two factors: the journalistic nature of much of TV criticism, whose primary virtue is its speed and whose primary weapon is summary; and the high-volume nature of television itself, which all but demands speedy response and summarizing. The dominant form of TV criticism today, the episode recap, lends itself better to story and character than to picture and sound. Scandal does make for fun and frantic recapping, but it also has one of the most instantly recognizable styles of any show on television. If the show is to get its due credit, then it needs credit for its style.
The show has plenty of signature elements. There are the once-per-episode montages set to R&B/disco/soul songs, which are always curated to comment on the action, like a Scorsese film or a Kenneth Anger short or a Warner Brothers cartoon—for example, laying “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” over footage of Olivia’s father. There are the rapid-fire snapshots that establish locations, which give us a short break from the action while reminding us that someone is always watching (what viewer has ever been surprised by any of the surveillance-footage-revelations?). There are the prismatic effects of the windows at the Olivia Pope and Associates office.
These trademarks are easy to notice, and their functions are fairly clear. But there’s something else that the show does with its visual effects, more subtle and daring. About twice per episode (sometimes less, sometimes much more), the show revives an archaic kind of editing transition to take us from scene to scene: the wipe.
In a wipe, the border of one shot moves across the screen to reveal the next shot. Of the four basic ways that shots can be edited together—the straightforward cut, the fade-out/in, and the dissolve are the others—the wipe is by far the least common. It wouldn’t have been unusual to see a wipe in, say, a 1930s film, but the effect today is jarring. If you see a wipe now, it's either from an old movie or from something that's referencing old movies.
In their heyday, wipes, like dissolves, were often used to mark the end of a scene, as a shorthand to indicate that the narrative is skipping ahead in time or changing place. In Fury, Fritz Lang’s 1936 social problem film, Lang uses dissolves and wipes against each other to establish competing tones. The early scenes, dominated by a love story, mark their ellipses with dissolves: later on, when some criminal activity is hinted at, wipes are used instead. The dissolves are gently-paced, pillowy, reassuring.
The wipes are more quick, hard-edged, unsettling.
A dissolve feels like a pause in a conversation, while a wipe feels like an interruption. Frank Capra’s 1934 romantic comedy It Happened One Night, a film whose humor depends on people who talk and think fast, consistently uses wipes to keep its comic energy up. At one point, Capra transitions from an apoplectic newspaper editor to an apoplectic millionaire, and the wipe carries the momentum. In the second shot of this transition, the millionaire starts ranting even before the wipe shows his face, so it takes us a second to see who’s speaking.
If this sequence were shot today, it would likely be handled with a simple cut and a sound bridge. To the contemporary viewer, a wipe looks like old slang sounds, a form that has outlived its function. Dissolves aren’t as commonplace as they once were, but it isn’t surprising to see one in a current movie. The slowness of a dissolve is useful. The kind of transition it offers is mysterious, alchemical. One shot becomes increasingly transparent while the next becomes increasingly opaque, by means of a thousand tiny points, not unlike the change in state of matter (a solid diffused into a liquid) after which the device is named.
Jonathan Glazer emphasizes this quality in Under the Skin to break down our sense of time and place, suggesting a more abstract relation between shots. Alien-female protagonist Laura's eye clouds over in extreme close-up: this gives rise to a complex series of dissolves that lasts nearly a minute. (You may just as well call it one very long dissolve.) Dozens of city bystanders blend together into a golden fluid suffused with light, from which Laura’s face then emerges. It doesn’t really matter when or where this happens, because nothing is “happening” in the literal sense. Instead, a change is being evoked: Laura is becoming something else.
It’s hard to justify using a wipe in any similar way. Because a wipe merely moves the border of a shot along the screen, it looks like one layer of action is being peeled away to reveal another layer—that is, it flattens the screen out. Suddenly, all the movements of bodies inside the shot that had made the scene feel so alive are overtaken by another kind of movement, purely optical and mechanical. Instead of being evocative, the transition feels decorative. What had been a window on a three-dimensional world becomes a two-dimensional picture plane. Hence the term “wipe,” which suggests that someone is removing a stain from a surface.
This is why, I think, wipes after the classical era have tended to be used as throwback devices, winks to the audience. The wipes in the Star Wars franchise go for this effect, in playful reference to Kurosawa and action serials. Rainer Werner Fassbinder makes the transition into a running joke in his Veronika Voss, which was made in the early 1980s but recalls Germany's fascist-era decadence of the UFA studio. The sheer variety of shapes that Fassbinder uses (diagonal wipes, checkerboard wipes, stripe wipes, wipes that mimic the dial on a telephone) turns into a visual game in itself. Wipes tend to make the screen into period-piece wallpaper.
Scandal, thanks to some inventive uses of digital compositing, takes a different approach. Its wipes don’t flatten out the action but sweep across it. In one moment from the season two finale, we are transported from an impromptu torture chamber, where Huck is about to interrogate Billy Chambers with a power drill, to the White House, where the President, Fitz, is reading peacefully.
This looks like a wipe, but it doesn’t feel like a wipe, because it's being matched to a moving camera. We remain, in a strange way, embedded within the torture chamber, even as we are shuttled over to the White House. It doesn’t look as if a new frame is being imposed on the shots, as it would be if, like in the Capra or Lang examples, the wipe were connecting two static takes. Instead, it feels like we’re transported in a single impossible movement across unconnected places. The seamlessness between the two shots makes the tonal contrast between them all the more unnerving.
To get this effect, it's crucial that the border between shots move at roughly the same speed as the camera from the first shot. It's also crucial that the border match up with something inside the first shot. In this case, it’s the back of Huck’s head, which has been “scrubbed” to become the new outline for the space. (The basic principle behind this effect, layering the shots and scrubbing a new border for the top layer, is recognizable to any Photoshop user.)
The transition in this case is especially smooth because the camera moves at about the same speed in both shots. Matching camera speed, however, isn't necessary. It isn't even necessary for the camera to be moving in the same direction, as long as the wipe stays with the movement and figure from the first shot. This is exactly what happens in another moment from the same episode. Here, we’re carried from a lateral move across the back of Vice President Sally Langston’s head to a vertical movement to frame Olivia somewhere else.
Wipes can even be combined with dissolves, without losing momentum. Elsewhere in the same episode, we stay on attorney David Rosen while the background fades into a view of Fitz at a hospital, with Rosen and Fitz on top of each other for a moment, both faces in perfect focus.
There are countless variants, and the show keeps throwing them at us to keep us off-balance. (The season two finale goes for broke on the device, using it over a dozen times to cover all the overlapping action, but even this season's claustrophobic winter-premiere, which focuses almost solely on Olivia, finds a couple places for the effect.) We just don’t expect shots to stop like this: the show’s default transition is the standard cut, and that’s what we’re used to.
More to the point, we don’t expect a space to end so abruptly. A shot is a freestanding unit of space and time that engulfs the figures within it: the figures inside that unit are not supposed to define its borders. It’s like getting up from a restaurant table where you've been sitting with a friend, only to find that, once you pass by the friend at the table, you’ve somehow exited the restaurant.
It takes an extra moment for us get accustomed to the new view, and the show won’t wait for us to catch up, usually launching right into its trademark dialogue. Characters speak in long sentences with hardly a pause for breath, and this often requires the actors to vary the emphasis among their words a lot just so that we can understand what they're saying, which, in turn, heightens the urgency. Kate Burton's voice goes up on "atthispoint," "withthispresident," "ifIdidn'toffer"; Kerry Washington's voice goes up on "pretend," "doesn't," "BillyChambers." The wipes make more taut a show that's already daring us to keep up with it.
But beyond this edgy, moment-to-moment confusion, the moving-camera wipes point to a more fundamental confusion. The device is not unique to Scandal (it comes up from time to time in Sherlock, another fast-moving, fast-talking show), but it is uniquely suited to it. To call Scandal a merely confusing show would miss the point. This is a show about confusion.
When a camera movement and a wipe are placed together, the result will always be a kind of visual paradox or vertigo. A camera movement, almost by definition, requires a single unified space to move through, and when it does move, the world of the characters seems to exist beyond the frame in such a way that the viewer could, at least in theory, move through that world as well. Garrett Brown, inventor of the Steadicam, describes the significance of the moving camera like this:
When the camera begins to move, we are suddenly given the missing information as to shape and layout and size. The two-dimensional image acquires the illusion of three-dimensionality and we are carried across the divide of the screen, deeper and deeper into a world that is not contiguous with our own.
The languid roving takes of Elephant and the high-speed walk-and-talks of The West Wing alike establish an architecture in which we are, so to speak, free to roam. (The effect is the same in virtual CGI environments, like those of Avatar.)
Compare that to what happens with a wipe, which, by definition, relates two incommensurate spaces. A wipe doesn’t move through anything. Instead it works like pulling back a curtain, if what’s behind the curtain might always turn out to be another curtain that could be pulled back.
In a single moving-camera shot, two adjacent things onscreen can interact with each other: in a wipe, they can’t. When you put these effects together, the free-roaming quality of the camera movement and the flatness of the wipe negate each other. The spaces become continuous with one another, but in a way that locks each character into a separate slot. Everyone gets mushed together, but with no chance of anyone directly acting on anyone else. The President is practically right next to Billy Chambers but can’t hear his screams.
Call the effect an isolated closeness—a contradiction-in-terms that runs through the whole of the show. Even though these characters have oceans of information about each other and remain in near-constant communication (almost every scene features a computer screen, or a cell phone, or both), no one knows what’s going on.
Think of isolated closeness as an opposite to spooky-action-at-a-distance. In spooky-action-at-a-distance, at least according to Jim Jarmusch’s vampire romance, Only Lovers Left Alive, two entwined particles that have been pulled taken apart will always mirror each other, regardless of how far apart they are. The film’s titular pair use this term as a metaphor that describes their eternal bond of love, which unites them across vast distances. In some unexplained way, these two souls will always be bound together, always understand each other.
The relationships in Scandal, of love, enmity, and any variation thereof that you can imagine, are defined better by a very different example: the prisoner’s dilemma. In the prisoner’s dilemma (a core problem of game theory), two accused people must choose to either betray each other by cooperating with the authorities or cooperate with each other by remaining silent. Each option carries a risk and a reward, and the choice must be made in the absence of knowing what the other prisoner will do.
The politicians, handlers, and shadow operatives in Scandal all constantly act in something like this position, gaming each other, weighing the possible outcomes, and assessing the odds. The procedure is the same with lovers, friends, and enemies, so one may turn into another at any time. This situation goes beyond the cells, bunkers, storage units, lightless pits, fake Middle Eastern abduction holes, handcuffs, duct tape, Saran wrap, and other actual sites and materials of imprisonment that the show is fond of depicting. It goes beyond the irony, often pointed out by the show, that the President of the United States often has very little real power because he’s kept in the dark about so many things. It goes beyond the ways that Olivia, Quinn, Huck, Mellie, and others remain metaphorical prisoners of secret past traumas.
It goes to a condition more difficult to picture than all that: the very flow of information that makes surveillance possible (and, by extension, makes a scandal possible, since surveillance is nothing but seeing what someone doesn’t want you to see and a scandal is publicizing what someone doesn’t want the public to see) also makes prisoners of everyone. Information changes too quickly for anyone to keep up with it—which amounts to the same thing as being permanently locked away from it. The characters are imprisoned by the sheer movement of information.
This is what the moving-camera wipes crystallize: an arrangement of people who are linked in ways they have almost no control over, who are imprisoned by movement, and who, flooded with information, can do no better than guess (and often guess wrong). The show rebuts the oft-repeated slogan of the information age that “everything is connected.” If we’re all connected but no one can see how, what are we supposed to do?