A Look at the Lens: Suits Season 5. Regret, Hurt, and Transition.
Episodic writing naturally lends itself to difficulty with a series carrying on, especially as television has evolved. Serialisation, the idea of a wider plot or point has established itself. Mostly this is due to a satisfying ending, and also the natural desire for writers, directors and audiences to give character development and a ‘point’, for lack of a better word. The serialisation of Sherlock Holmes for example, as written was simply the enjoyment of the mystery. It has been sealed as a timeless classic and some of the best crime literature of all time. and it works because of this older mindset. Mystery, intrigue, the bond is there between companions. And the conclusion; what most every crime story following and adaptations miss too in that sometimes Holmes and Watson lose.
Sometimes serialisation, even cut short can pay off. Rome and Deadwood would be good examples of TV shows who survived suddenly being cut short.
Now; what I find fascinating being drawn into Suits, particularly Season 5 is how the dynamics are given more drama, the suspension of disbelief should be stretched. The idea of taking a womanising, vicarious and almost ‘power fantasy’ duragonist and having him talking to a therapist and losing his unflappable nature on paper sound saccharine. The enjoyment of the show is the humour and fun of the cocky roguish protegee and the smirking mentor.
It works brilliantly. This was very clearly a new direction. Not in a new evolution of another challenger, although Charles Forstman is probably my favourite antagonistic role and the show to its credit does very good work bringing in all recurring characters.
Season 5 has the moment of catastrophe I find easily comparable to breaking bad, or perhaps more accurately television’s introduction of a classic tragedy in its totality, where there is no evasion or escaping much of the cast perishing and the status quo irrevocably dissolved. There is no way out, I like that and television especially rarely takes that route. By the point of To trouble, the first Season 6 episode the writing has navigated these blue collar millionaires into utterly helpless back to basic types, willing to often film at night and film people alone paying off more and more as you realise people working and solving mysteries in the dead of night is actually a rarely covered thing on screen, though I’m sure we can all relate to sleepless nights and late night conversation.
The set up for this started with Season 5. I don’t think it would have worked, without that initial tonal shift. The willingness not to retcon or alter character to the point of unlikability, but give implications that shift context and expose vulnerability.
In terms of performances, this works for three reasons, offered three actors’ opportunities, and they took it in different ways. Gina Torres playing Jessica Pearson is subtly, and very carefully shown to be not only powerful, but personal without the cheapness or repetition of relationship drama. Her tragedy is not romance, sexism, or power struggle, so much as being alone in her role. She must be the authority, and Torres’s Season 5 depiction is far, far more empathetic than an earlier distant figure. We do not think she risks everything. She has lost everything. A former husband, a chance for romance. Reputation and respect and what took decades is gone.
I don’t think I’ve seen a businesswoman in television, in fiction handle that with composure that doesn’t stray into making the character a banner, or reduce her to an inhuman coolness that we do see in a Sherlock Holmes, the typical decision to give a female authority figure no great opportunity to face or wrestle with defeat due to the misplaced perception that such struggle is not inherently sympathetic and human. At worst, at the very worst Jessica lowers her voice and speaks coarsely. She throws one single ball on her desk. Which fits her, Jessica’s cultivated manner is part of Jessica’s nature as noted by her sister, and it balances the dynamic of the three partners. She is the superego, or an analogue to it, if one were to use Freud’s allegory. I will give credit to the earlier episodes for setting the seed here, and a flashback with Quentin Sainz is not only a good continuation; but showing the moment he decides to divorce her is a different hurt to anyone else’s that’s subtler, and I think crueller in challenging someone struggling to hold the life they built together. You never see female anger and unravelling -that’s more Rachel’s arc- but with Jessica seeing her accept, and deepen the smooth façade because now the job really is all she has even when she tries reaching out.
It makes the loss personal in a very deep way, not to do with reputation or money. By the end of the season you realise it had nothing to do with it at all, and why she not only loves Harvey as a mentor, but never stamped out Lewis no matter what he did. I would not go so far as to say she is a mother figure for them; but I like that too. I like that it’s not reductive, and that the characters are ‘people’ for lack of a better term and not easily grouped.
Louis works in this season’s transition cleverly by not changing him. Circumstance changes. I have incredibly mixed feels just…what Litt is. He is antagonistic, never learns his lessons, Rick Hoffman is incredible at being a comedian who elicits the cringing reaction they want; then he easily in a short arc becomes by far the most vicious, vindictive character on the screen, one I honestly loathed as I haven’t loathed many villains. I have rarely ever seen any actor so committed to emotions we’ve actually seen in real life. He clearly doesn’t give a damn how he looks when acting, which gives a human and emotional quality. We see the man’s bare ass and double entendre dialogue, but here we see this man literally foaming at the mouth. The balding, beady eyes and visible teeth can shift into making this character genuinely terrifying, hell, in an alternate universe Hoffman would have been ideal as Walter White as well as Bryan Cranston.
I hated this character putting the screws on people and resorting to blackmail he would later still claim somehow kept him apart from others, that he was party to no crime. But when he gets so personal, so belittling and verbally abusive that Harvey strikes him, and when he roars, lunges, and gets thrown across the room and smashed through a glass table, I didn’t feel the satisfaction I would have expected. Louis looks bloody, hurt. Like a child, or more scary to me, like a man about to cry. His primal upset overtaking his rage and hurt is something else, leading to the third actor and the biggest change.
I like Harvey Specter, enjoying the power fantasy elements you have in a confident negotiator, the clever mentor with a very real and justified sense of invincibility. But I like much, much better how they gave him the chance to put on really impressive lines. He doesn’t throw a tantrum. He doesn’t kick someone’s ass, go on a drug binge as something like House would do. It’s subtler, better than that. The roughness that enters the actor’s voice never really leaves after this point. You see cracks, not so much in the mastery, but the delivery. He grows tired, more willing to apologise after a very long time. Several times, what really sells it is the kind of ‘hidden’ acting we see but the cast doesn’t.
Often people are abusive to him, abandoning him, trying to imprison or extort or abandon him, while the man is addressing panic attacks, the stress of an incredibly mentally taxing job, and the hatred and spite of many of his peers and workmates. We see, at best a little glassiness in the eye. For the first time, we see the man who intentionally is stressed not to be good with people struggle to please, express understanding, and at times be put in really wounding situations. A good example being early on in his season arc, not only having a panic attack and lying about it, shaking and struggling but then verbally attacked by an antagonist. He can’t beat him in his mental state, physically he is shaking, so he is sat with his back turned while his opponent goads him. In a scene with Lewis he is just as shaken, and rather than what we’ve seen before.
The ‘[Y]ou have to believe me, I swear’ is an element of desperation and change in voice we would never have heard before even if ignored, because in the midst of it he is changing to the point of apology while suffering from the reaction to all the times he took what he wanted and the assumption that created. And as it worsens his earlier firm threat is replaced with a “shut the hell up!” that sounds immature as it is desperate, like the child in him is coming out even as his mother is insulted. The arc is learning to try to make, then continue, then address the overreactions and lack of control you, not they have. Because you can control yourself. Hurting someone you don’t want to is hurting yourself. And the show presents that effectively by visually showing that and reaching more people that way. No amount of text compensates for the human expression, as nothing matters to human beings more than reading and wanting out own expressions to be understood by sight or sound.
It would be very easy to wave a want, tie this to prescriptions as they do on The Sopranos. I like how Harvey changes in a satisfying way in that he does only a little. There is good in him. He has character issues. But rather than shifting his entire character, his improvement comes from not only the -realistic- fact that winning is his personality and his job helps out his mental state, but expressing and being a little more forgiving are the most potent changes.
To drive Louis and Mike and let him express his anger shocked me in how quick things resolved, but it made complete sense. Louis is an entirely emotional character, pure id, fickle and greedy and all that hate comes from hurt and pain and self-preservation. In being willing to leave them alone, Harvey is still scheming. The only difference is that he is just a little bit softer in speech, that little tone makes character binding possible, rather than the interesting cycle in previous seasons of the miscommunication that leaves Lewis the embittered but tragic resenter. I won’t say it was played out, but I think either alternate direction or an ambitious creative wanted to take things up and move that already long-term relationship into something with more uncomfortable lows, but finally a spoken respect and affection (and fortunately a means for Lewis not to consider or be the main character turning on his friends).
Aside from the photography getting a little sharper, more scenes at night and likely more money being put in the cinematography, artistically the change I noted most about this season besides the writing was the repetition of a musical piece. Short, but potent. And it was clearly so good, they repeat it after the song was named and the idea reflected within it moved on. It’s called ‘You’re loved, and I’m hated’. I find it transitional. Don’t get me wrong, television soundtracks are workmanlike with a few exceptions and it’s not meant to be the opera. But that piece has a sting beyond the name. Lewis explains that concept, with not just his, but now Harvey’s bitterness and emotional vulnerability clear beyond rivalry.
The tune, tone and more emotive conflict resonates because both characters and the leader they work for are not tied by mysteries, lavish lifestyles, or even secrets, but a furious and furtive hurt beyond cycles of betrayal. It would be easy if they were enemies, if one or the other were smart or possessed of reductive traits like stoic vs emotion or red vs blue oni. They’re not. Both men are jealous, alone, upset, uncontrollable, and on many levels burnt out from making too many olive branches to ignore, and too emotionally invested to destroy each other. It comes back in Harvey rushing Lewis in earlier seasons, where the combination of betrayal and disrespect leads to shouting and petty insults. It even replaces the typical confrontation music. Because aside from probably being noticed as a good tune triggering the audial response, that layering has altered the show fortunately without derailing it.
This isn’t seamless, and it is noticeable when you look at earlier seasons compared to where we end up come To Trouble. I can’t really speak for prison drama, as honestly it doesn’t interest me. But the more I gave it thought, this is a really, really underrated attempt at what shows like Better Call Saul are given credit for. It’s the execution of themes like catharsis, family, mental health but without a saccharine interrogator, this show wonderfully unlike everything else for near a decade forcing political points, and the changes are realistic and rewarding emotionally not temporally.
These people still lose. They damn near lose the firm. But Season 5’s emotional beating, the set up and stakes for all that were laying groundwork. There is more personal investment going into the larger courtroom drama. When you have grandiose characters, realistically you can’t have them winging forever. But they aren’t brought down by something that feels jarring or unlikely. In being willing to point out that simply losing a working relationship with someone you love for 12 years, the mental repercussions would be massive.
Underneath the veneer of an expensive suit is a human being, often a person with a lot of mental scars. And rather than spelling that out, and berating Harvey via another character, the option to let it play out and the character’s resourcefulness having them follow their own new equilibrium keeping their beliefs, but with a little more empathy is a good universal choice. It works for Jessica not just opening up or getting emotional, but her vitriol being more well meant and more desperate. It works for Lewis flashing incredible rage, but just as often actually keeping a well meant and careful relationship with Donna working for him, an utterly different one. It works for Harvey being broken down, but admitting slowly many things to himself, to others. And regret, that and Macht portraying that underpins the big difference in the evolution of the show.
In hindsight, rewatching this definitely stands out because later seasons show the change has stuck. Lewis never sounds as pained again, Harvey’s cockiness never gains the same height, his abrasiveness amplifies noticeably as he becomes more ruthless in just causes. Jessica ceases seeming an abstract figure, more like a boss people know than a person standing on the roof. Like an ugly argument, it hurts, it may be shameful to remember. But the experience itself is something that draws us in, and memorable. Because like all really unpleasant things, it is getting something horrid out. You cannot change and you cannot stem the bleeding without pain and feeling sick.
And the ability to do that, and what you see when you change, how relationships can deepen and there being a very bleak hope is the kind of catharsis no story ever written can do anything but hint at, but all of us want very badly in our darkest places. The additional benefit is that the discomfort sets up what is to come. Mike facing jail, the managing partners finding unity and forgiveness. Jessica especially has fantastic development from here as it frees her to encourage Rachel and have both funny scenes being stoned and noticing the ceiling (probably my favourite joke on the show and a sign of her new versatility is her “I got news for you Lewis, they always know”, and choosing to sit at her first desk (which I’d be happy to write a One Small Scene about if you’re interested).
Regret, and pain, and the struggle to keep quiet when a loved one is screaming at you, or the adaptation to permanent changes in relationships is the heart of the season. Which is a genius choice in a show setting up the meticulous nature of law, desks, the itemised recreational pursuits. It doesn’t stop having romance, court drama and all of that. But it isn’t the same, and shows very well the long nights and something relatable audiences rarely watch.
The reflection of how relationships really are. where there is not a constant feud without consequence. Where we go beyond hating each other and undermining each other. Where what we did and said years ago or when young isn’t just re-evaluated, but shifts who we are even if no one knows and most of our enemies take the time to get more spiteful at us. And the struggle to handle that, succeeding at relationships and our lives isn’t yet another advertisement for ‘health’, a gesture or a prescription. It’s the incredibly tiny pauses, the spoken humility, small confessions to let people in that make all the difference because they are so damned hard to do and most people cannot bear to make them any more than they are to permanently change. The crux of it ends much later, in a lot of heart to hearts, but best expressed in this exchange to show how the transformation worked:
“Do you wanna be alone?”
Just a look at the lens, and a few thoughts.
All the best,