By George Tsakiridis
Recently, I was a guest on the Protagonist Podcast and had the opportunity to discuss one of my favorite protagonists, Harvey Specter from Suits. The show just finished last year, and is part of the USA Network’s plethora of shows ranging from family friendly to almost family friendly. Suits blends comedy and drama with witty banter and beautiful imagery and fits into the latter camp. The show follows the exploits of Harvey Specter and Mike Ross, with the first season tagline “Two Lawyers, One Degree.” I’ve been a fan of the show for a number of years, and though I don’t watch it for theological reasons, there is an interesting theological subtext.
For those unfamiliar with Suits, the show is about Harvey Specter, the best closer in New York City, who is forced to hire a new attorney to be his protégé. The interview process is crashed by Mike Ross, who is evading the cops with a briefcase full of weed. Hilarity ensues as the briefcase pops open during the “interview,” but ends with Mike impressing Harvey with his photographic memory. Harvey ends up hiring Mike and the series is off and running with this new “lawyer” and his mentor tearing through cases in New York City (of course shot in Toronto). The major characters are Harvey Specter – alpha-male and dominant closer, Mike Ross – brilliant protégé and fake lawyer, Donna Paulson – emotional quotient through the roof and a loyal friend to Harvey (and more? – no spoilers), Louis Litt – Harvey’s nemesis/friend/”little brother” who is a financial law wizard and comic gold, Rachel Zane – paralegal, future lawyer, and more (played by Meghan Markle who is now actual royalty), and Jessica Pearson – the managing partner and an awesome lawyer in her own right. That is the super duper short overview. If you want the full picture, I highly recommend watching the show, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. I’ll try not to give too many spoilers, and keep in mind, this is a brief theological piece.
Now, let’s get theological.
The premise of Suits is that despite the underlying relationship of the main characters being based in a lie, the characters love each other and have been saved/healed/made whole through the person of Mike Ross, who has ultimately brought everyone together. Without digging too deeply into the specifics, it raises the question: is it possible for an immoral act or premise to create moral ends? Sure, this question has been beaten to death by philosophers and ethicists (and even theologians), but can evil create good? In order to answer this question for the TV show Suits, we first have to ask two questions: One, is the act of hiring a fraud lawyer sinful? Two, if yes, is this sinful act justified by the ends it creates?
Is the act of hiring Mike Ross a sinful act? Although as a viewer of the show and a big fan, I want to say no, the reality of it is that yes, it is sinful/immoral. There are some various ethical gymnastics we could do to show the good that was done by the act, but ultimately, those are balanced out by the number of people hurt by the act itself. In some cases, it was willful, and in others out of ignorance, but many people had their lives hurt by this act. The interesting part is that because of the “sin” of Mike Ross and Harvey, other characters are forced to sacrifice major parts of their own lives in order to protect this lie. Jessica Pearson ends up giving up her New York career to save Mike (just in time to leave for Chicago and do a spin-off series), and Louis’ professional and love life is continually affected by Harvey and Mike’s actions both willfully and as a result of collateral damage. There’s a lot of debate to be had, but let’s grant that the act itself was wrong.
Second, assuming is was a sinful act, is it justified by the results? Well, it depends on what sort of ethical approach you want to employ. As I just mentioned, a number of people were hurt by the act. So, what good came of it? Well, I’m glad you asked (you really didn’t have a choice). Salvation does come from Harvey and Mike’s sin. First, Mike Ross is saved. He comes out of a life of slackery and pot use to act as a lawyer at the highest level. He helps the downtrodden (and a bunch of corporations) and is one of the few lawyers at Pearson Hardman (later Pearson Specter, later Pearson Darby, later Pearson Specter Litt….etc.) that actually cares. This is exemplified by a season five exchange in episode 14, “Self Defense.” Benjamin, the IT guru, helps Mike out and then the following exchange ensues.
Mike: “You know, you never asked if what they’re saying about me is true.”
Benjamin: “I didn’t need to. I knew it was true the second I heard it.”
Mike: “I don’t understand.”
Benjamin: “All these kids who went to Harvard, they never gave me the time of day. All they cared about was letting me know where they went to school and I didn’t. You’ve never done that to me. Not one time.”
Though the premise of the show is based on an (entertaining) lie, Mike is shown to be of good character, and exhibits humility, which the many Harvard lawyers do not. Yes, he is flawed and does a number of things in the show a traditional Christian would consider “sinful,” yet he and Harvey live by a fairly strong moral code.
Second, Harvey Specter is saved. Though a product of a tough upbringing, yet now owning a seemingly perfect life, Harvey comes to care for Mike and is like an older brother to him. He protects Mike and as I believe Donna states (whether directly or indirectly), he is a better man because he has someone to protect. Third, Louis Litt is saved. Through Mike, Harvey and Louis are forced into confrontations and experiences that ultimately lead to a better understanding between the two. Louis learns to care for more than himself; he is forced to confront his demons head-on. Some of this is directly because of Mike, some indirectly, but the catalyst for the show results in the deeper development of Louis Litt, if only because he has to forgive Mike for his “sin.”
Furthermore, we see development in other characters from Jessica and the firm, to Benjamin in IT, to Robert Zane, Rachel’s father. Even Donna exhibits moral development, despite starting at a higher emotional depth level than most characters. In all cases, part of their salvation has to do with cleaning up the sins of Harvey and Mike, and as a result learning deep sacrifice and growth. In the end, the “original sin” of Suits is not defensible. However, just as with sin in the Christian tradition, though sin is not good, acceptable or normalized, it is forgiven and good comes from it. Through the forgiveness of the sins of Mike and Harvey comes salvation for most of the characters in the show. Though redemption does not come through sin, our characters are cleansed and justified through the forgiveness of Harvey and Mike’s wrongdoing. Sin does not save from sin, but the broad sin undergirding the show does lead to the salvation of many of our characters through having to forgive, sacrifice, and look at their internal souls. Sometimes the sin of another can be a mirror into our own shortcomings. For Suits, this is definitely the case. The overall greed, power and selfishness that pervades the show is balanced out by the virtuous character of our main cast. This character reveals itself and grows through the response to the original sin of Mike Ross and Harvey Specter.
As I start to think about how this relates to our own lives, a key practical point arises. Often people justify mistakes in their own life saying that they “wouldn’t change a thing.” Although I think the sentiment may be on the right track, I still think we need to admit when an error is an error. In Suits, we see a similar situation. It is not sin that saves Harvey, Mike, and all of their friends. It is owning up to it and the transformation that forgiveness and healing can bring to people’s lives, including our own. Sometimes wrongdoing is an opportunity to grow/heal/forgive and we need to take that opportunity. In the end, Mike and Harvey may or may not regret their “original sin,” but the virtue that grew out of and responded to that sin is still quite valuable. So in the end, do our sins save us? Of course not, but they create the conditions wherewith we can be saved, need to be saved, and are truly humbled. That makes our restoration all the more powerful.
Dr. George Tsakiridis is a Lecturer of Philosophy and Religion at South Dakota State University. He is currently writing Theology and The Americans and editing Theology and Spider-Man for the Theology and Pop Culture Book Series. He is also the co-host of the podcast Cheers Weekly, an episode-by-episode podcast on the TV show Cheers. George is an actor and filmmaker and is currently in post-production with his latest project Are Her Digits Worth It? Dr. Tsakiridis is also a contributor to popularcultureandtheology.com (you know, the site you are currently on!). Check out his previous article on Fleabag!