Suits Is an Unlikely Time Capsule for a Troubled Decade
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.
It’s 2023, and everyone is watching Suits. The question is, which Suits are they watching?
In one corner, we have Suits, seasons one through four, the absurdist morality play. The concept: a high-powered Manhattan law firm and the cutthroat corporate lawyers who do their clients’ bidding. The title: A reference to the sleazy characters, the glitzy aesthetic, and the fact that, unlike most legal dramas, Suits rarely ends up in a courtroom.
The catch: One of these hard-charging lawyers, bushy-tailed eager beaver Mike Ross, apprentice to the dashing artful dodger Harvey Specter, isn’t actually an attorney at all.
In the other corner, we have Suits, seasons five through eight (just ignore season nine and the short-lived one-season spinoff, Pearson, neither of which is included on Netflix where this culture-wide rewatch is taking place): in which the show becomes self-aware, jettisons the moral antipathy of previous seasons, and puts itself on trial.
Suits never got its cultural due during the nine seasons it aired on the USA network. Until 2023, its main claim to fame was boosting the career of one-time princess Meghan Markle. Yet it currently stands poised to become Netflix’s biggest streaming hit of all time, after a viral TikTok video that made the rounds in May sparked renewed interest in the show — which has since been setting streaming records so wild they sound like they’re completely made up.
The TikTok clip showcases the key scene of the entire show: The moment Harvey (Gabriel Macht) and Mike (Patrick J. Adams) meet, and Harvey falls in love at first recitation with Mike, his polymath brain, and his photographic memory. Although Mike is a dropout bike messenger who’s literally in the middle of running a drug deal when they meet, Harvey hires him on the spot to work for his law firm, Pearson. The two of them construct an elaborate lie to create the illusion that Mike graduated from Harvard Law. Harvey’s drive to keep Mike by his side against all odds fuels the plot for most of the show’s eight-year run.
Suits may be the unexpected hit show of 2023, but it premiered in 2011, in a world that felt profoundly different from the one it finished with, in 2019. The result is an odd little time capsule. Over the course of the show, the world changed rapidly, and Suits responded to and evolved with that change — so much so that we can follow the trajectory of our own cultural evolution within its seasons. Suits was born out of an era when nihilistic absurdism dominated TV across a broad range of shows, from Always Sunny to Scandal. The oblivious ethos of that early-season Suits may be key to its renewed popularity: Philosophically, it’s escapist comfort food mixed with geeky pop culture refs and far too much reverence for Aaron Sorkin.
Yet it’s the latter era of the show that’s really fascinating. Suits was born out of a society that memed performative uncaring, and it was all too fun and silly to take seriously — until it wasn’t. As it progressed, Suits absorbed the ripples of political and cultural unease that characterized the ’10s. In the show’s highest-rated episode (per IMDb votes), “Faith,” Mike’s childhood priest tells him that he might think of “God” as “consequences.” Suits’ gods are capricious, but when they demand tithes, a bitch better pay up.
Suits’ first half: A slick legal buddy drama that becomes an epistemic looking-glass
Suits’ first half follows a law firm full of clearly drawn office character tropes: no-nonsense boss Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), ultimate secretary Donna (Sarah Rafferty), volatile wannabe partner Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman), and long-suffering paralegal turned ultimate girlfriend Rachel (Markle). They all have one thing in common: Their lives revolve around the firm, eventually known as Pearson Specter Litt, or PSL.
That means that whether they know it or not, their lives revolve around keeping Mike’s secret. Despite the flimsiness of the premise and the complete lack of logic about, well, anything, the first half of Suits fully milks the tension between Mike’s go-getter enthusiasm for the law and the fact that he’s flagrantly breaking it.
Between this (silly) high-stakes drama, Suits’ procedural formula deals in high-powered pettiness. Each episode sees the firm defending a shady corporation against another shady corporation, going back and forth over a series of legal maneuverings that allow them to trade quips and drop highly improbable interpretations of the law. Our antiheroes usually finagle their way into some kind of moral high ground, but not without stretching their credibility and our credulity. This Suits is a frothy treat in the pantheon of self-serious legal dramas. And thanks to the increasingly outlandish things Harvey and Mike do to get away with Mike’s crime, like hacking the Harvard database and printing a fake Harvard degree, we never have to take any of it too seriously.
Except then we do!
Season four begins a gradual tonal shift characterized by forewarnings of disaster for the firm, as well as increased dysfunctionality among the ensemble. The show’s blatantly antisemitic early-season portrayal of Louis Litt actually gets worse for a while because seasons four and five double down on all of his worst traits in the name of drama. Those traits are all heinous stereotypes: Despite Rick Hoffman’s best efforts at humanizing Louis, he’s mean-tempered, buffoonish, weak, disloyal, effeminate, and selfish above all else. The show presents him as spiteful and vindictive, a cheap, greedy, money-hoarding backstabber who’s obsessed with power. At one point, he plays the role of Shylock, as if the theme couldn’t get more explicit. Any time the screws are put to him, Louis turns volatile and vengeful. It’s a tired, troubling routine, and unfortunately, even after the show writers finally realize what they’ve done and rapidly rehabilitate his character in later seasons, the subtext that he could be the firm’s weak link — more of an existential threat even than Mike who’s literally not a lawyer!— never fully goes away.
Seasons five and six: The game changes
In season five, which aired in 2015–2016, the tonal change becomes even more pronounced: Harvey, who’s hitherto prided himself on his weaponized superficiality, starts going to therapy to deal with his many abandonment issues. And someone finally prosecutes Mike for fraud. This development forces Suits into a much darker iteration of its implied “ethics schmethics!” worldview. By the time Mike is finally facing trial in the latter half of season five, he and Harvey have gone from season one lawyers (and “lawyers”) who proudly draw their moral lines and refuse to cross them to people willing to commit blackmail, forgery, perjury, and beyond. “Do whatever you have to do,” Harvey tells Mike as they get more and more desperate to avoid prison. “Just don’t get caught.”
However, any time Mike and Harvey use their typical tactics — strong-arming, bargaining, one-upmanship — to shut down the case, opposing prosecuting attorney Gibbs (Leslie Hope) surmounts them by relying on the unshakeable truth: Mike isn’t a lawyer. Mike isn’t a lawyer! Yet one by one, all the other players at Pearson Specter line up behind him, committing to performing the lie that he is. The world of that lie keeps expanding; by the time Mike is finally exposed, no fewer than 13 recurring cast members know he never went to Harvard and are casually walking around covering for him.
Suits thus becomes an apt and revealing, if entirely unwitting, metaphor for the broader epistemic crisis that’s come to define much of the modern age, in which people who are otherwise rational find themselves moving in an entirely different version of reality, from climate change denialism to Covid skepticism to the factual outcome of elections. Just as many of Trump’s supporters started out espousing extremist nonsense for laughs yet wound up believing their own rhetoric, Mike and Harvey, who get together initially almost as a troll, ultimately come to believe their own reality distortion.
Mike becomes so convinced that he’s an actual lawyer that he tries to take on a new case while he is on trial for pretending to be a lawyer. Every time he careens into the fact that no one will testify to knowing him at Harvard because no one knew him because he never went to Harvard, he reacts with a dazed headshake, as though he can’t quite believe they’re inconveniencing him by refusing to help him bend the truth. It’s difficult to watch him spend the back half of season five frantically trying and failing to coerce, beg, extort, and bribe witnesses to help him without being reminded of Trump asking the Georgia Secretary of State to “find 11,780 votes.”
For all the writers clearly want us to root for Harvey and Mike to agree that Mike is, as one client’s mother insists, “innocent in [his] heart,” it’s harder for a post-Trump audience to do that than it would be for the sweet summer children of the Obama era. Harvey and Mike might deserve mercy after their sins have been acknowledged and confessed. But innocent they are not — and Suits, for its first six seasons, isn’t interested in rehabilitating them. It only takes them a few episodes after Harvey finally engineers an early prison release for Mike in season six before the two of them are back to doing highly unethical things to get what they want.
Suits tries to create a world where the law isn’t reality because it can always be manipulated for the right price. The show wants us to believe that since everyone in this universe is cutthroat and amoral by default, these guys are heroic for at least trying to do the right thing some of the time — except when they don’t. In other words, it’s vibes, not truth, that really matter.
Which makes its entire abrupt turnaround in season seven such an interesting reveal — not for what it says about Suits but what it says about the rest of us.
Season seven of Suits tries to right its wrongs
Throughout Suits’ first six seasons, its characters are essentially caricatures whose relationships with themselves and each other are mainly shallow and undeveloped. The show’s female characters suffer the most from this underwritten tendency, particularly Gina Torres’ Jessica, who never really gets to be more than a plot device. (Torres captained a spinoff, Pearson, launched from Suits’ seventh-season finale, but it only lasted a single season, and it’s hard not to wonder if that was partly because the writers had so little to build on.) And though the show lives and dies with the lighthearted chemistry between Mike and Harvey, not even Gabriel Macht’s deep commitment to sending flirtatious smiles in Adams’s direction can fully convince us that Mike deserves to be where he’s at.
Season seven’s writers seem to have realized all of this abruptly. (It’s probably no coincidence it was the first full season to follow the 2016 election.) Once it has straightened out the giant plot wrinkle it started with, the show goes full-throttle redemption arc, working overtime to deepen its characters and repair all of its negatives at once. Newly born again and (somehow) (nonsensically) admitted to the bar for real-real, Mike begins tackling large-scale pro bono cases with a social justice edge. Louis, we learn, has actually been in therapy all along; the show fast-tracks him through a personal growth arc that sees him almost instantly learning to put other people before himself. Donna, whose whole character til now has been “being loyal to Harvey,” suddenly gets dreams and lines like, “I think I regret putting Harvey over myself.” Season seven can’t stop telling you how feminist it is: “A man can’t swing a dead cat around here without hitting a strong-willed woman,” Rachel’s father says at one point.
When, in the seventh-season finale, Mike finally tells Harvey, “This is who I am, it’s who I’ve always been” — meaning that he’s an ethical do-good lawyer who only wants to take pro-bono work for the betterment of humanity — Harvey is too good to remind him what a giant retcon this is, for both him and for Suits.
It helps that the show doesn’t have to keep Mike on the straight and narrow for long: Instead, it gives Mike and Rachel a season seven finale send-off, providing them both with a chance to sail into the sunset as pro-bono lawyers. (Rachel’s fictional wedding aired in April 2018, just three weeks before Markle’s actual fairy tale wedding.) That send-off also doubles as another reset: As season eight rolls around, the remaining crew is right back to corporate schemes and stratagems, now headed up by Rachel’s dad (Wendell Pierce), who manages to be both fun and terrifying as the new top brass. Still, Suits, now self-aware, can never completely retreat into its former malaise of substituting movie quotes and pop culture cred for human connection and empathy.
By the show’s end, it’s all grown up; and if we all liked it a little better when it was younger, obnoxious, and oblivious — well, perhaps we all liked ourselves a little better in 2011, too.