One of the core players at SUITS’ Pearson Specter Litt is the ever-resourceful and all-knowing Donna Paulsen, played by the wonderfully talented Sarah Rafferty. But somehow, in SUITS season 6, she’s slowly being reduced to nothing more than a fixer and plucky sidekick of sorts. In some of my travels across the internet, I’ve seen quite a bit of discussion regarding the waste of Donna via a lack of storyline — and I’ve even made mention of my own distaste for this in my last two recaps — and while there are certainly bigger things at work in the current arc, Donna Paulsen most certainly deserves better. She’s been cast aside, demoted to the role of house hunter and matchmaker. To quote the woman herself, though: “But today’s your lucky day… Because it’s the day you get to meet Donna.”
So, who is Donna Paulsen, exactly?
While her unfathomably quick wit and uncanny ability to fix everyone else’s problems has been well-documented through SUITS’ run, there’s a lot more to this character; and the series has barely scratched the surface. We learned via flashback that, when Harvey Specter first met Donna, she was already the self-assured, no-nonsense woman fans have come to know and love. She wanted to be an actress; instead, she wound up playing Harvey’s secretary, conscience, and potential love interest — if either of them could ever get their acts together — as well as the glue that holds the entirety of the Pearson Specter Litt family together for the next thirteen years.
Was it really just love or a sense of family that kept Donna at the firm, rather than off chasing her dreams? Or was it something else? In the SUITS episode, “Pound of Flesh,” Donna admitted her fears to Louis: “What if I’m not even good? I was pretty damned good, Louis. I was! But I knew the odds of somebody making it were close to zero, no matter how good they were. My father lost our money when I was 13, and I…I found out what it was like to struggle, so…Instead of pursuing my dream, I chose this. And that let me pretend that maybe I was good enough to make it. What if I wasn’t?” It’s unclear, though, (mostly due to SUITS’ lack of really involving the inner workings of Donna) whether this confession was the result of Donna’s in-the-moment stage fright and doubt, or evidence of actual insecurity having caused her decision to choose the more stable career. Most likely, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Aside from an aspiring actress with a potentially very large fear of failure, who exactly was Donna Paulsen before she met Harvey Specter? Cue another SUITS flashback, this time to Donna’s teen years. Here, we learned that everyone’s favorite redhead was once a dedicated piano student and, like with everything else, she was quite good at it. But when her father lost the family’s money and had to relocate them to a smaller home, she had to give that up. Perhaps that was the first moment when Donna Paulsen learned to put on a brave face, setting aside her own feelings and needs for the people she loved. Maybe she’d already had a history of that sort of self-sacrifice by then.
Regardless, both the forced loss of her potential musical stardom and the choice — however motivated — to give up acting present the character of Donna Paulsen in a new light. As capable and confident as she may seem on the outside, and as much as she may push others to go for their hearts’ desires, Donna is used to putting her own dreams aside and going with the safest choices. While that characterization may make her seem like she isn’t so strong or self-sufficient after all, it actually paints the picture of a character who is so much more than she’s ever been given credit for. She has had to make some difficult decisions; and even in spite of not going for her first or second choice, she’s made the most of her life and has become the absolute best at what she does. She’s never truly given up on anything. Rather, whenever life has thrown a roadblock in her way, Donna has simply created for herself a new and better path.
Putting the most often-quoted descriptions of Donna Paulsen’s character aside, it’s arguably her selflessness and her outward display of strength in the face of the most dire circumstances that make her a force to be reckoned with. How many times has she put herself on the line for the firm, even though she’s “just” a secretary? And even during her triumphant — if embarrassingly brief (come on, SUITS, we need more) — return to acting, Donna still took the time to give Louis Litt the chance to live his Shakespearean dreams. Donna once told Harvey, “when I need something, you give it to me. It’s not just a one way street,” but neither Harvey nor Donna’s creators seem to have heeded that warning. Luckily, this character has learned how to survive without needing much of anything from anyone.
Donna’s strength was, perhaps, tested the most when she made two rare mistakes, both of which involved paperwork. (Again, come on, SUITS. Both times Donna had a major storyline, it was because of something involving paperwork and fraud? Are we really meant to believe she doesn’t learn from her mistakes?) In both cases, Donna faced very big consequences but approached them with the same outward confidence as always. Whether simply an act or not — I’m going with yes, especially since we have already learned that Donna “embodies” any character she plays — Donna’s unwavering belief in the ability of the people she loved to save her, as well as her refusal to break, is exactly what being a “strong female character” is all about. One need not have physical strength or superpowers to be a superhero; sometimes, it just takes a certain mixture of intelligence and emotional fortitude.
During the season two arc focused on her misplacement and subsequent burial of important documents in the Coastal Motors case, Donna shrugged off Allison Holt’s pre-interview intimidation, cracking jokes and later storming off after the “witch hunt” turned to asking whether or not she had buried the paperwork for Harvey. (She did but not at the time it was originally assumed — and not because Harvey had asked but because she cared enough to protect him.) When she was fired as the result of her mistake, Donna accepted the move with a sort of barely controlled emotion that, under the circumstances, was nothing short of superhuman. Years later, when she faced possible prison time for committing fraud in order to gain access to documents in the Liberty Rail case, Donna downplayed the situation in order to keep Louis calm.
Because that’s what Donna Paulsen does.
Or, at least, that’s what we’ve seen from Donna Paulsen across five full seasons, and those sixth season episodes aired to date, of SUITS. She’s had her moments of vulnerability; but they’re so few and far between that they run the risk of being forgotten, even though these moments are far too precious for that. One should never forget or explain away, for example, Donna’s heartfelt outburst in “Intent?” “Because I was ashamed! I know that it sounds stupid. But you, and Mike, and everyone pull these rabbits out of your hats all the time; and I just sit outside, and I answer the phones. And then I got those documents and people said I saved the day. And the next thing I knew, you were on my doorstep, coming at me like I was some sort of criminal. And I panicked. And I lied…I’m sorry, Harvey.”
We need more of those scenes where we learn how Donna truly feels; it’s time to hear her voice. When Donna walked away from Harvey in order to protect her own heart, it was probably one of the hardest things she had to do…but there wasn’t much shown in the way of seeing her work through it. Sure, viewers were treated to epic drama in the form of Harvey’s panic attacks and trips to therapy…But how did Donna feel? Aside from a few arguments with Harvey, including the time she deservedly put him in his place with the “what makes you think if I were to leave Louis that I would ever come back to you” line, there wasn’t a lot of development in terms of how that situation affected her. My guess is she was hurting just as badly as Harvey was — if not worse — seeing as how she was the one who had actually been rejected. Rafferty did an impressive job of physically expressing Donna’s feelings when given the chance…but why was the narrative made such a mystery?
Despite walking away from Harvey’s desk in order to protect her own heart, good old selfless Donna came back when Mike Ross was on trial. Because Harvey needed her more than ever, and that’s just what Donna does.
When SUITS actually lets the heart of Donna show, Sarah Rafferty nails it — every single time. It’s a precious gift to get to see her shine, but it’s almost always in the context of her doing what she does best: fixing things for other people, most often Harvey. When is the story going to focus on Donna? What makes her tick, aside from striving to seem perfect in every way? And where are her imperfections? When and how does she fail?That’s what I need to know. The skeleton of a fascinating character is already in place; now, Donna just needs flesh and bones, heart and soul.
Harvey Specter has, after all of these years and all of his missteps, started to let his walls come down and reveal who he really is. Donna Paulsen was always more than “just” a secretary and, at one point, seemed destined for the same development guaranteed to all of SUITS’ main players. Even in the middle of Mike Ross’ prison woes, it’s possible to show the inner workings of Donna’s mind. It’s possible to see how she feels about all of this.
That, not playing Louis Litt’s house hunter, is what writing The Book of Donna should be all about. Here’s hoping that, once SUITS gets around to solving Mike’s latest problem, Donna’s the next person in line for a story. And as much as I’d like to see her relationship with Harvey grow? Let’s not make the only focus that Donna gets revolve around a man, please. She’s worth more than playing resident fixer or even someone’s (very) significant other. Donna Paulsen deserves better. Sarah Rafferty deserves better. SUITS viewers, on the whole, deserve better for this character.
SUITS airs Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on USA Network.