With only four new SUITS episodes left, one can’t help but look back on the series’ nine seasons; in doing so, it’s impossible not to get emotional. While some characters, like our beloved Donna Paulsen, may have never been given enough material to reach their full potential, there remains one whose development and growth have exceeded expectations. If you’ve been reading our recaps for any amount of time outside of the Paula debacle—or just, you know paid attention to the title—you’ve already guessed where this is going: Harvey Specter. Played to perfection by Gabriel Macht and written so well that his one major step backward was almost a personal affront, Harvey is the type of character whose story managed to stand out in an otherwise balanced ensemble.
…and we simply can’t say goodbye to SUITS without taking a moment to pay tribute to The Best Closer In The City.
In the beginning, there was trope and toxicity. In the middle of Harvey Specter’s first negotiation, he was all self-assured, smirking, and outright disrespectful to the already-upset businessman he was asked to close. But Harvey knew he’d win, so he didn’t care; and he was more than happy to rub it in: “So, I’d say the ball’s in your court; but the truth is, your balls are in my fist. And I apologize if that image is too pansy for you but I’m comfortable enough with my manhood to put it out there.”
Harvey didn’t care when he hired Mike Ross, who had never been to law school—much less Harvard. It didn’t matter whether or not he put everyone around him in jeopardy. The rules were the rules for everybody but Harvey Specter, just like other rich, white male on the planet.
And forget about ever admitting to having any kind of feelings or sense of respect for anyone at all. Time after time, he treated his rival, Louis Litt, like something he’d stepped in; but he wasn’t above pretending to care about the underdog when it meant getting a win.
In a review I wrote of season three’s “Yesterday’s Gone,” I recapped just how low Harvey was willing to stoop with Louis Litt and detailed the character’s complete lack of knowledge of what friendship really looked like: “The ultimate way to temporarily settle the Louis problem, as always, came about when Harvey went to Louis as a ‘friend.’ So, yeah, that happened. Again. Because Harvey has been such a good friend to Louis over the years. If we revisit the whole ethics discussion, I suppose that, in the Harvey Specter book this was perfectly acceptable. For pretty much any other code of ethics, it wasn’t.”
Harvey was the guy who needed no one—”I work better alone, anyway,” he proudly declared when trying to avoid finding himself an associate in the first place—and had no desire for any kind of relationship, romantic or otherwise.
Harvey was the epitome of toxic masculinity: self-centered, obsessed with winning, emotionally stunted, and more than happy to bully others in order to prove his dominance.
But the character was more complicated than that on-the-surface glance. Because with folks like Mike Ross and Donna Paulsen, the more we saw Harvey’s story unfold, the more it became 100% obvious that he did know what friendship and love were. Harvey was just reluctant to believe in either because he had learned the hard way what happens when you open yourself to someone too much.
Talk to many SUITS viewers, and they’ll tell you that they loved the mock trial element of the second season’s “Sucker Punch.” The “do you love Harvey Specter” moment was iconic Darvey shipper gold; but what often gets overlooked in memorizing every loaded look during that sequence is Harvey’s time being questioned by none other than Jessica Pearson.
Jessica gave witnesses one of the earliest glimpses of Harvey’s true nature, which he had tried for far too long to deny. As he looked distinctly uncomfortable and resigned—yet, importantly, never denied a thing—Jessica directly told the partners (and SUITS viewers) everything they needed to know about Harvey Specter but weren’t yet ready to believe: “You pretend like you don’t care, but you do. You care about the people you work with; you care about the people you work for; and you care about every one of your clients. But you refuse to let people know.”
Case in point: “The Other Time” and Harvey’s refusal, for at least 12 years after, to admit that it meant something to him. It was so much easier to keep Donna as his secretary, at arm’s length, than it was to give in to any kind of feelings. Even when he confessed, in the “present” day, that Donna’s relationship with Stephen Huntley bothered him, Harvey rushed to explain that he wasn’t looking to be together or anything. Oh, no. Nothing to see here.
Why couldn’t Harvey show anyone that he cared? “Because caring makes you,” Jessica began, and Harvey finished, “weak. If you think they care, they’ll walk all over you.”
But it was Harvey who, during the Coastal Motors fallout, walked all over one Donna Paulsen. Donna had been fired for shredding a document to protect Harvey. Rather than thank Donna for trying to save him (even if it was the absolute wrong way), or at least having the balls to be there when Jessica fired her, Harvey silently watched Donna leave after the fact—and stayed far, far away from her until there was something he needed.
Forget about anything remotely involving pretending to care…unless, of course, you count interrupting the “do you love Harvey Specter” moment as caring for Donna. Even if we do (we do), it may fall under the category of “too little, too late.”
What a difference a couple of seasons would make, as SUITS’ late-season-four arc saw Harvey going to great lengths to protect Donna when she, once again, was at risk after breaking the law to save him.
This time, Harvey was plenty capable of showing the world just how much Donna meant to him; and he explicitly stated that he cared about her, that she was “different.” Gone were the days of standing by, the picture of suppressed emotions, as his “just secretary” stepped into the firm’s elevator, possibly for the last time. Now, it was all action, confiding in Mike, and showing the world what—or rather who—was the one thing he couldn’t live without.
As much as the Liberty Rail fiasco showed a change in Harvey, he still had a lot of room left to grow. When Donna admitted to Harvey that she was “terrified,” he told her he didn’t have time to do the comfort thing. Then again, he also dropped a line of shipper gold: “Donna, the thought of you going to prison makes me want to drop to my knees.”
And then, of course, there was the “Intent” scene. After a heart-to-heart, filled with lines like, “I told you I’d never let anything happen to you, and I won’t ever” and “Anyone else ever loses faith in me, it doesn’t matter. With you, it’s different,” Harvey excused himself from a situation that was, quite frankly, about to erupt. When Donna asked why, Harvey was the most honest and emotional yet: “You know I love you, Donna.”
…but he left. Harvey wasn’t ready to handle what both he and Donna were feeling; but he wasn’t willing to risk those feelings for a quick, one-night bang either. Unfortunately, the one thing he was willing to lose Donna over was his own fear of intimacy. Pressed in “Not Just A Pretty Face” to answer exactly how he loved Donna, Harvey backtracked, claiming he didn’t mean it “that” way and was just trying to comfort a friend.
Donna left—which, of course, was simultaneously the best and worst thing to happen to Harvey Specter, ever. Losing the one person he allowed himself to genuinely love devastated Harvey, causing panic attacks. But it forced him to open up in ways he never had, to admit his weaknesses and seek counseling.
Turning points and backstory. Even though Harvey’s therapist would later take gross advantage of a former patient’s new-found vulnerability, their sessions were everything. Harvey finally told the full story of what had happened with his mother: how as a child, he’d caught her with a man and was asked to keep it a secret, how he knew something was wrong but lied to his dad anyway because the mother he loved asked him to, and how, ultimately, all of that bottled-up guilt and anger came out in the worst possible way. After catching Lily with Bobby, he swore he’d tell his father right away; instead, he tried to spare Gordon Specter’s feelings by not telling him, only to lose control at family dinner and reveal Lily’s infidelity in the worst possible way.
Harvey abandoned his younger brother, Marcus, right when he needed him most; and he’d been the one to betray his mother’s secret after years of being disloyal to his father for her.
Caring makes you weak, after all. Just like, as we learned immediately before the therapy arc, it was caring about Marcus that caused Harvey to accept a deal from Charles Forstman; and it was Forstman’s exploitation of that weakness that showed the future Best Closer In The City how brutal he, too, would have to be in business.
Discussing the effect losing Donna had on Harvey would be incomplete without discussing the effect gaining (and then temporarily losing) Mike Ross had on him.
In SUITS’ fifth season, while Harvey was trying to work through his “abandonment issues,” as Jessica rightly called them, it was time for the big secret to come out. Mike Ross was finally prosecuted for fraud after years of (SUITS seasons?) getting away with it.
Mr. Unshakeable Confidence was finally shaken.
Suddenly, Harvey didn’t trust himself enough to know that he and Mike could win; so, in order to protect someone he loved, he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and turn himself in—a huge change for someone who was once about winning, not caring. In a direct contradiction to her loss of faith at the end of the previous season, Donna begged Harvey to “believe that the two of you are worthy of being found innocent…because I think you’re worthy, and I don’t want to lose you.”
Not only did Donna not want to see Harvey behind bars, but she also returned as his secretary, after constantly saying she never would. Despite having been so outwardly certain that she one day would work for him again, Harvey was so shocked that he could barely get out “you mean you’re coming back to me” above a whisper.
As the mask continued to slip, though, one thing remained true: Harvey was still incapable of letting go completely. He could punch Tanner in the face or throw Louis through a table; he could throw a glass at Mike or say any number of nasty things to the people around him when he was frustrated; Harvey could even admit that he was afraid of losing the most important trial of his career…but he just had to keep holding back from actually breaking down in tears.
Even dropping Mike off for his prison sentence, Harvey resorted to the old buddy humor; but as we haven’t said enough but really ought to say at least once, it was clear from Macht’s understated performance that Harvey was not as settled inside as he pretended to be on the outside.
The best of it. That brings us to Harvey Specter’s finest moment: his reconciliation with his mother in “The Painting.” Here, yet again, SUITS viewers were more backstory: Harvey’s reluctance to go to his father’s funeral, his hyper-controlled anguish at the ceremony itself, and his explosion the second he saw Lily’s boyfriend.
Back then, it was more rage and storming off. By SUITS’ sixth season, after his post-Mike, post-but-pre-but-current-Donna life, Harvey was ready to try again. While the visit nearly ended the way the previous one had, he now strong enough—and perhaps, even humbled enough by recent losses—to give reconciliation a second chance in a single visit.
And with his own mother, Harvey was actually able to let the tears flow; miraculously, he even let himself be vulnerable enough to accept physical comfort from her, something he’d never really seemed capable of doing before. (And no, meaningless sex with every chick he could “close” with those looks doesn’t count.)
Plenty has already been said about “The Painting” and its impact on Harvey’s development; in the greater picture, Harvey’s failed attempt at rewriting the moment speaks of the kind of backtracking that was, perhaps, inevitable.
Two steps back and a rocky path forward again…until…magic. Losing his mentor at a pivotal time in his emotional development set Harvey back. When Jessica left, he was able to accept comfort from Donna; and he even allowed her to hold his hand at work, where he was always “on.” But, as SUITS history tells us, Harvey somehow decided he was in love with his therapist—not Donna.
I can’t relive that.
Suffice it to say, it made sense for Harvey to try a grown-up relationship with someone other than Donna before entering the last relationship he’d ever have. The rest of the Paula disaster, however, did not; and for an otherwise well-written character, Harvey’s seventh-season story was terrible.
Luckily, Harvey came to his senses before it was too late; and the rest, of course, is Darvey history.
Comparing the open, loving Harvey Specter of SUITS’ final season to the Harvey we met in the pilot can, on the surface, seem like the old “night and day” contrast. Gone are the days of hiding behind bravado and repressed emotions; and the “whatever it takes to win” attitude now has limits.
But as SUITS comes to a close, taking a look back through Harvey’s eyes specifically, one can’t help but notice how the hints that the mask might one day slip were always there. In consistently offering episode after episode to show who Harvey really wanted to be, what the series has presented is not a one-note anti-hero or a person whom viewers are supposed to love in spite of his inner demons; we simply have been asked to know and love a human being with his own problems, who has always wanted to be better. And who, season after season, put in the work to be better.
So, who is Harvey Specter, really? He’s that sentimental asshole, who held on to his mom’s ugly painting and likes to listen to his dad’s music during a rough case; and he’s the young lawyer who lectured Jessica Pearson about honor, only to attempt a dishonorable takeover of his own years later. He’s a character so full of flaws and contradictions that he just feels real.
Harvey has always been the strongest, bravest character on SUITS; but his greatest fear has always been the possibility of more emotional harm. Through his development, he has become a shining example that vulnerability isn’t weakness, that admitting your feelings can be rewarding—not a burden. It may be a long, slow, and sometimes frustrating process, filled with missteps and mistakes; but becoming better than the “best” is possible.
SUITS was never a story about the law; it is, and always has been, the story of a family. That family was built by a man named Harvey Specter, who surrounded himself with the people he cared about, even when he was afraid to admit—even to himself—they were his everything. More than anything, the series told the story of how that family helped Harvey grow up and stop playing the man he’d always played the hardest: himself.