In this fifth season of Suits on USA, it’s become clearer than ever what the show is really about. Its central theme has been hidden in plain sight, right there in the title.
And this, by the way, is a great example of the difference between plot and theme. The plot is what the show is about, but the theme is what the show is about, you get me? It’s the idea that’s under the surface, what the creators are driving at, what grand picture is being painted in the aggregate through the various character arcs and plot changes.
For example, in the 2011 pilot episode of Suits, the story follows a young, aimless drifter named Mike (Patrick J. Adams), who, in a desperate panic to avoid being caught selling drugs, barges into an interview room where a hotshot attorney and his attractive assistant are looking to hire an associate. Somehow, through a combination of wit, charm, photographic memory, and naked desperation, Mike convinces said hotshot attorney (Gabriel Macht as Harvey Specter) to hire him, despite his having neither passed the bar exam nor even attended law school. The show follows the duo and several others as they attempt to assimilate Mike into their high-powered New York City law firm while protecting his explosive secret.
This is the plot, more or less. At least it was initially.
But five seasons in, creator Aaron Korsh and his writing staff have broadened the focus. Instead of revolving around Mike and his secret, Suits has become a character study that manages to feature many of the firm’s major players. In addition to delving into the relationship between Mike and Harvey, the show manages to paint layered, compelling portraits of Donna (Sarah Rafferty as Harvey’s assistant), Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman as Harvey’s main frenemy), Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres as managing partner), Rachel (Meghan Markle as the enterprising paralegal and Mike’s fiancée), and many others.
From these interwoven stories, a theme has slowly emerged: the practice of law is so alluring, lucrative, and demanding that it’s nearly impossible to have any semblance of normalcy in a personal life.
Thus, by having to manage a career-threatening secret, Mike fits right in. Their suits may project an air of success, but underneath the Wall Street façade, Harvey, Louis, Donna, Rachel, and Jessica are just as scared, confused, frustrated and incapable as Mike (and for that matter, anyone else). And like an actual suit of armor, the things they rely on for protection (money, prestige, power) weigh heavily enough that sometimes they lose balance and fall prey to hazards both occupational and personal.
The term “suits” may be a generic pejorative for business professionals, but in Suits it’s a lifestyle.
Nowhere is this dynamic more obvious than with Harvey Spector, the classic alpha dog, hyper-competitive to a fault. But in season five, a series of panic attacks render Harvey especially vulnerable. Through a combination of dream sequences, flashbacks, and visits to a therapist, we see deeply into his emotional upheaval. What’s behind it is crippling insecurity, forged through years of winning at all costs. Because of his history as a freewheeling strategist, inveterate womanizer, and verbal pugilist, it takes a crisis of epic proportion to motivate Harvey to deal with his emotions, instead of ignoring them, lashing out, or channeling them into his work.
Centuries prior, I like to think the apostle Paul knew there would be guys like Harvey, high achievers whose identities are so tied to their work that without it, they feel like they have nothing left. It was for guys like these that he wrote the following in Colossians 3:9–20 (emphasis mine):
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
What I love about this is how much it seems to anticipate our current reality. The truth is, being a Christian is incredibly countercultural, not just for political reasons, but because it supersedes any other form of identity we have. So when guys like Harvey become believers, these are their struggles. Forget about all the things you’ve been taught to think matter, like money or status, Paul is saying. Instead, wear these attributes that indicate that you’re about something different.
Later in the New Testament, the apostle Peter was writing his own letter to a group of churches, and in chapter 5 he offers a bit of counsel to church leaders that seems to mirror the kind of relational dynamic between Harvey and Mike (again, emphasis mine):
Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (1 Pet. 5:2–5)
Imagine Harvey as the elder in this scenario. Harvey was willing to take Mike under his wing, despite his obvious deficiencies, even at tremendous risk. Maybe because Mike reminded Harvey of himself, or maybe because he never had children and this was his first opportunity to experience the joy of mentoring. Either way, you can see that he’s getting a lot out of the relationship besides the benefit of a competent associate. And Mike definitely submits to Harvey’s elder mentorship.
But Harvey’s missing a key element. Rather than being clothed in the power and prestige of the latest Brooks Brothers ensemble, Harvey could instead clothe himself in humility—which might’ve prepared him for all the emotional turmoil he’s facing. As it is, Mike feels torn between wanting to emulate Harvey’s professional acumen and wanting to avoid his relational habits. Instead of observing Harvey be humble, Mike is observing Harvey be humbled. It’s a scary and difficult thing for both of them.
Of course, you don’t have to be an elite attorney to fall from a high perch because you got your identity from what you do. The challenge is the same for all of us. We must find ways to separate our self-worth from our employment and instead learn to wear humility. We must learn to wear our identity in Christ, not as a badge of honor, but as the armor that will protect us from the enemy’s schemes.
On the other hand, if you’d rather go through it the hard way, by all means, suit yourself. But just so you know…I’ve heard tears can ruin gabardine.