Cinematography and Morality
in Scandal and Sherlock
Near the beginning of his 1972 book Ways of Seeing, the English art critic John Berger emphasizes that the act of seeing is more than just looking; rather, “we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” As a result, Berger explains, images are more than just a perfect, objective record of what was seen. Instead, they “embod[y] a way of seeing,” the relationship between the person creating the image and the image itself. Take the example of the photograph. As Berger explains, “Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights. This is true even in the most casual family snapshot. The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.” In this way, an image is more than just a representation of a subject. It is also a representation of its creator’s relationship with the subject, as well as the viewer’s own understanding of the image and its place in the world.
While Berger’s analysis focuses on still images, his argument that the way in which we see affects how we understand can be applied to moving images as well. For example, the television show Scrubs, which aired on NBC (and later ABC) from 2001 to 2010, told the story of employees at Sacred Heart Hospital, focusing on a young doctor named J. D., who is prone to daydreams and ridiculous fantasies. Unlike many sitcoms, Scrubs used a single-camera setup, which gave the show a stark grounding in reality in spite of J. D.’s wild imagination.
The effect of this camera setup became particularly apparent during the season four episode, “My Life in Four Cameras.” The episode began with J. D. telling a patient he has lung cancer, Dr. Cox firing a cafeteria worker, and Turk and Carla (two of J. D.’s best friends) having relationship problems. After J. D. comments in a voiceover, “There are moments when we all wish life was more like a sitcom,” the camera setup shifts from the usual single-camera to a multi-camera setup, complete with bright lighting and a laugh track. Everything takes a turn for the better, leading up to a talent show that magically fixes all the earlier conflicts. As J. D. turns to deliver the voiceover to end the show, his patient collapses, and J. D.’s colleagues rush to help. J. D. looks on, saying, “Wait—this isn’t right,” a comment that draws attention to the incongruity between the cinematography and the direction of the plot. At that point, the camera shifts back to a single point of view, the lights darken, and reality sets back in. The shifts in camera setup throughout this episode underscore how the way in which we see affects how we interpret what we are seeing, a fact particularly important when analyzing the carefully constructed shots of television shows and films.
Thinking about these ways of seeing draws attention to a cinematographic technique used in two recently popular shows—ABC’s Scandal and the BBC’s Sherlock—that gives viewers a way of seeing moral ambiguity in the actions of key characters. Scandal centers on the character of Olivia Pope, the head of a crisis management firm in Washington, DC. Pope, played by Kerry Washington, is extremely good at her job, and she sees her work as a way to fight evil in the world. This is made very clear from the very beginning of the show. In the first episode, Olivia’s colleague Harrison tells a future employee what it means to be a part of Olivia Pope and Associates; he says, “We’re the good guys… Best job you’ll ever have. You’ll change lives, slay dragons, love the hunt more than you ever dreamed because Olivia Pope is as amazing as they say… I’m a gladiator in a suit ‘cause that’s what you are when you work for Olivia.” This theme of being a “gladiator in a suit” recurs throughout the first three seasons of Scandal (the fourth season will air beginning in September 2014); multiple characters use this phrase to describe the work they do with Olivia. Olivia also frequently talks about wearing her “white hat” as she fights for justice, a phrase reinforced by the costumers of the show who dress Olivia in cream-colored pantsuits, white sweaters, and soft, light-colored fabrics. These elements work together to create the picture of Olivia Pope as someone firmly on the side of good.
And yet things are much more complicated than they appear. For starters, Olivia’s personal life is morally complicated; she is having an affair with the married President of the United States. And while the first season showed Olivia clearly fighting to protect innocent people, seasons two and three showed her rigging an election, manipulating the lives of those close to her, and questioning her ability to accomplish anything good through her work in DC. The lives of those close to Olivia reflect this murky morality as well. Her sometime-boyfriend Jake Ballard is a shadowy figure who initially appears to be someone protecting the President, but later episodes reveal that he works for a secret spy organization. Huck, one of Olivia’s associates, uncovers information key to many of her investigations, but he often uses torture to acquire this knowledge. Even the names of the second season premiere and finale—“White Hat’s Off” and “White Hat’s Back On”—emphasize the shifting, uncertain nature of what is right and what is wrong in Olivia’s universe.
Returning to Berger’s argument, the way in which the show is shot reflects this ambiguous morality. A frequently used shot throughout Scandal’s three seasons—in fact, perhaps its visual trademark—shows various characters, but particularly Olivia, through glass, making them appear fragmented. For example, in one of the final scenes in the season three finale, “The Price of Free and Fair Election,” Olivia tells two of her associates that she is leaving the firm, but throughout the entire sequence, there is not a single shot of any of the characters without some sort of distortion. Olivia’s colleague Abby speaks of the moral certainty she once felt while working for her: “Over a cliff, Liv. Over a cliff! We went over a cliff for you and you just, you walk out on us?” Olivia reassures Abby that she will be taken care of, but the fragmented representation of this key decision calls into question this promise of security. Even though Olivia appears to ride off into the sunset on a jet at the end of the season finale, the uncertainty and ambiguity established by the cinematographic choices throughout the show leave viewers doubting that Olivia will remain outside of the murky morality of Washington, DC.
A similar cinematographic technique is used in Sherlock during the third episode of season three. Sherlock is a twenty-first-century retelling of many of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories. This particular episode, entitled “His Last Vow,” is based on the story “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” The episode pits Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) against a newspaperman named Charles Magnussen, who has information about most of the powerful people in England and uses it for blackmail. Throughout the episode, viewers receive distorted glimpses of scenes. As it opens, we first see a blurry shot of someone’s glasses, with the camera positioned below the glasses and the fluorescent lights of the ceiling out of focus. Next comes a blurry shot of Lady Smallwood, a government official who is questioning Magnussen about his influence over the British Prime Minister, and we see that Magnussen is sitting without his glasses. As with Scandal, these noticeable visual distortions provide clues that this episode of Sherlock deals with uncertainty and ambiguity.
The nature of this ambiguity becomes clear shortly after the opening scenes when Magnussen visits Lady Smallwood and reminds her of compromising letters that her husband had written long ago. When she accuses him of trying to blackmail her, Magnussen responds, “Of course it isn’t blackmail. This is… ownership.” While blackmail is clearly a crime, ownership is a broader issue that occupies a less well-defined moral space. Magnussen’s use of information to influence politicians and even entire governments falls into this space and could be considered what Sherlock’s brother Mycroft calls “a necessary evil.”
While it would be tempting to attribute moral ambiguity only to Magnussen, the episode rejects such easy interpretation, both visually and in terms of the plot. Dr. John Watson’s dreams of combat in Afghanistan, interspersed with memories of Sherlock Holmes, are blurred around the edges. John’s visit to a drug house is marked with visually distorted shots as well. These visual effects are accompanied by moments of uncertain morality. Not only do we see John harm a man to gain information (and satisfy his own craving for danger), but we also see Sherlock himself on drugs, allegedly as part of his undercover work for a case. Midway through the episode, viewers see fragmented shots of Mary, John’s wife, as part of a secondary plotline involving Mary’s secret past. The cinematography used during these moments reminds viewers that Sherlock, John, and Mary are complex, fallible humans, rather than just heroes fighting evil.
However, as the episode progresses the ambiguity surrounding these central characters falls away. As Sherlock and John fall back into their old routine, viewers are provided with mostly clear shots of the two men, without any special effects. Shots of Magnussen, on the other hand, continue to be distorted. During his first meeting with Sherlock, Magnussen at first can be seen only reflected in the layered border of a mirror. Near the end of the episode, Sherlock tries on Magnussen’s glasses, giving the viewer yet another blurry look at this man who balances on the border between citizen and criminal.
The ending of the episode seems at first to resolve this distortion and to offer an exoneration of Magnussen. When he reveals to Sherlock and John that his vault of compromising information is kept nowhere but in his mind, Magnussen is seated in an all-white room, facing the camera, without any distortion or blurriness, a portrait of goodness and light. He even tells Sherlock, “I’m not a villain. I have no evil plan. I’m a businessman, acquiring assets.” But in spite of both this visual and verbal rejection of evil, it comes as too little, too late. The consistent visual and moral distortion of Magnussen throughout the episode is too strong to overcome in the end. His death at the hand of Sherlock brings instantaneous relief to the tensions in the plot; moral and visual clarity once more take precedence.
Although both Sherlock and Scandal employ similar cinematographic techniques to represent the ambiguous morality in both shows, the source of this distortion is quite different. In Scandal, the visual distortion comes from the outside, looking in at Olivia and her associates through a window or the lens of a camera. In Sherlock, on the other hand, particularly in the opening scenes, the distortion comes as viewers are looking at the world through Magnussen’s eyes. This visual distinction suggests that Olivia’s ambiguous morality comes as a result of external pressures, while Magnussen’s lack of clear moral categories is an intrinsic part of his nature. Such a reading is further enhanced by a plot twist late in the Sherlock episode; the glasses Magnussen wears, which are the source of much of the visual distortion throughout the episode, are not embedded with a computer as Sherlock has supposed. Rather, the secrets Magnussen keeps are all stored in his memories, making his mind the ultimate source for his ambiguous morality. The visual distinction between Sherlock and Scandal might also explain why the only possible resolution of “His Last Vow” was for Magnussen to die, eliminating his inherent moral uncertainty from the show, while on the other hand, millions of viewers are still eager to tune in to Scandal each week, hoping to see Olivia push back against the world around her and find her white hat once again, maybe this time for good.
Jennifer Miller teaches English at Normandale Community College in Minneapolis, Minnesota.