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Secrets of Scandal: Spies Like Us

  • By Jess Brownell, Researcher

HuckIn this week’s episode, a nice-looking older man is out for a stroll to drop off a piece of mail. Nothing to see here. Except that this particular piece of mail is addressed to Olivia Pope, which can’t be good. Accordingly, after this nice-looking older man drops off said piece of mail, he shoots himself in the head.

What piece of mail could be so powerful as to turn a bright, sun-shiny day into a bloodbath? You might think of any of the usual documents Olivia deals with – incriminating photographs, a confession, or a will, perhaps. But, no, this is much bigger.  This is… a sheet of music! A suicide-inducing sheet of music must be a pretty sad song, you’re thinking. But it’s not just any sheet of music. It’s Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but more importantly – it hides a secret code. Huck peels apart the piece of paper, revealing a second, secret layer of paper with a hidden message on it: a list of names with the word “protect them” written at the bottom. Turns out Huck’s former case officer in B613, the top secret killer spy division funded by the CIA, was the man who shot himself in the beginning. The people listed in the message – which includes Huck’s name – are all former operatives who led torture, coups and assassinations at the directive of the US government. But the government isn’t going to want to take responsibility for such actions, and Huck knows that if this list gets out, he and his former colleagues are in grave danger.

So, what’s the history of secret messages like this? As Huck says, this is “classic spycraft.” Steganography, or the art of hiding messages, has been around since at least 440 BC when Histiæus tattooed a secret message on the shaved head of a slave. Before sending out the message, he waited for the slave’s hair to regrow, hiding the message much the same way the sheet of music hides a code. The double-sheet message evolved in Ancient Greece when Demeratus warned Sparta of an imminent invasion by writing a message on a piece of wood and then covering it with wax, making the tablet look totally blank.  And the sheet music trick specifically was employed by German spies, who used things like indentations and invisible ink on letters to send out stolen military plans. Today, steganography has advanced alongside the digital revolution. Spies can hide secret messages at the pixel level inside photographs that are online and available for the world to see.

Huck’s training is old school, so when he sees the sheet music message, he knows exactly what it means: RUN. But Olivia talks him down and gets Huck to call in his comrades using something called a “numbers station.” Numbers stations have been used since at least WWII to transmit secret messages between operatives via shortwave radios, making the transmissions virtually untraceable. (Fun fact: As we were writing this episode, we played several of the numbers station recordings in the writers’ room. You can find some online with a quick search.)

When the spies arrive at the office, they all appear unassuming, from sweet-looking soccer mom to pervy professor (alliteration makes spies a lot less scary). But the team has learned that one of them is the person who is set to release the list to a Julian Assange-like masterhacker named Aaron Sarnoff, putting them all at risk. The Associates do a little spy work of their own and learn that Melvin Feen, our dour doctor, is the one who tipped off Sarnoff. The dossier exposing the names is taken from a storage locker before Sarnoff can get to it and the sweet soccer mom shoots the betrayer, leaving no loose ends. Case closed.

In this episode, we also learn Huck’s spy nickname: “Spin,” short for Spinster (not for the type of media spin Olivia does). The rest of the Associates don’t seem like a real nickname-y bunch, but “Charm” is Harrison’s super power and a lot of people seem to like to call Abby “Red.” Quinn Perkins/Lindsay Dwyer, though, has one name too many already. What do you think, Scandal fans? If the Associates had super spy nicknames, what would they be?


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