The Privilege Of Mike Ross

For at least two years, I have had a visceral hatred for Mike Ross, one of the two central protagonists of the USA legal drama Suits. The network describes the premise of the show as follows:


SUITS delves into the fast-paced, high-stakes world of a top Manhattan corporate law firm where hotshot associate Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht, “Love & Other Drugs”) makes a risky move by hiring Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams, “Old School”) a brilliant but unmotivated college dropout, as his associate. As he becomes enmeshed in this unfamiliar world, Mike relies heavily on the firm’s best paralegal Rachel (Meghan Markle, “Horrible Bosses”) and Harvey's no-nonsense assistant Donna (Sarah Rafferty, “Brothers & Sisters”) to help him serve justice. With a photographic memory and the street smarts of a hustler, Mike proves to be a legal prodigy despite the absence of bonafide legal credentials.

In short, Suits is about a man pretending to be a lawyer. In the season six finale "Character and Fitness" that aired last week, the show has forever cemented my distaste for the character, and the tone deaf way the show handles the circumstances they've created around him.

At the end of last season, Mike was sentenced to prison after his fraud was discovered. In lieu of waiting for a jury decision, he accepted a plea deal, only for the show to reveal that the jury was planning to vote "not guilty." Though they felt it was clear Mike had committed the crime of which he was accused, they didn't think the prosecutor Anita Gibbs, had proved that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. 

The first half of season six focused entirely on the efforts of those in the orbit of Pearson Specter Litt to get Mike out of jail. After running into one of Harvey's old nemeses, it was determined that jail was too dangerous for Mike, and his friends and colleagues worked night and day to secure his release, eventually committing their own crimes to achieve that goal in his defense. The concluding half of the season tracked Mike's adjustment to life as a felon, his recognition that he excels at and misses practicing law, and his decision to petition the New York bar for admittance despite his record.

In the finale, his petition succeeds.

Though I'm not remotely surprised by this particular plot development, I am very annoyed. The entire arc of the season revolved around helping Mike escape culpability for his actions. After everything that has happened in the past six years, the last thing that Mike Ross deserves is to be rewarded for his fraud. He has lied, and cheated and dragged the reputations and careers of those he loved through the mud, all in service to his own ego and desires. The collateral damage that has ensued in the wake of Mike's actions is unending, ranging from the near collapse of the firm, costing Louis not one, but two relationships, and jeopardizing his fiancée Rachel Zane's chances of being called to the bar. Now, after everything he has done, risked and chanced, Mike has been rewarded with exactly what he wants, with little to none of the labor required of those who achieve it the right way. 

For years Mike was able to earn an unbelievable salary in a career he was legally barred from entering without the proper qualifications. An entire law firm was forced to support his fiction or risk their own demise (an inevitability that has all but come to pass and cost the firm its Managing Partner). Worst of all, when he was eventually caught and imprisoned, his incarceration was framed as a vast injustice rather than the expected penalty for the knowing commission of a crime. In contrast, Anita Gibbs, the prosecutor who made it her mission to charge and try him was framed as a vengeful, jealous woman who lacked integrity out to cut down a good man, rather than as a woman who was literally doing her job. It is one of Suits' greatest transgressions that it tried to position a woman prosecuting a man, for a crime the audience has always known he committed, as the villain. 

Mike's actions cost hundreds of people the much-needed judgments he won for them (a point that was briefly addressed during his trial) and undermined all the good work he insisted he was doing. Even securing his opportunity for a Character and Fitness hearing was marred by the shady and illegal things he did to get it. At what point is it okay to acknowledge that Mike is not a particularly moral person, but simply a self-interested and self-serving one with a baseline conscience?

It's hard too not think about the racial dynamics of the plot, and the sheer fiction being touted not only as good, but morally right but the show's internal ideologies. Men of colour found to be in his position would not be getting the many, many, many allowances Mike is afforded. It's frustrating then that Suits chose to have not one, but two black men come to Mike's defense in his pursuit of admittance to the bar, in addition to two black women, one of whom was more or less driven from the firm she built after Mike's actions very nearly burned it to the ground. Jessica Pearson, namesake of the firm and the single black female partner in the city, threw herself on the sword to protect an ungrateful white man who manipulated her into unwillingly concealing his actions or risking everything she had worked for because he didn't have the decency to actually earn what he wanted.

Four people who would likely have been lost to the evils of the carceral system had they done would he did, were tasked with defending Mike by vouching for his virtue; a defense that would never even have been afforded to them due to the colour of their skin. To have black characters take on this role, (especially in light of the renewed attention to mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on black and brown people who commit minor crimes) is tone deaf at best and offensive at worst. No one would be bending over backwards to ensure that Rachel, Oliver, Julius or Jessica were allowed to benefit from their fraud the way the plot called on them to do for Mike. Mike Ross enjoys in abundance what black and brown people often have snatched from them on a technicality; the benefit of the doubt.

What irks about so much about Mike's story is that he was perfectly capable of getting into and excelling at law school. With his photographic memory and excellent recall, he would have sailed through at the top of his class with very little effort even after he had begun his charade. But as he plainly admitted to Harvey, he'd rather be a small fish in the big pond of New York than a big fish in the small pond of some other city where no one had heard of him or suspected his deception. Over the course of the show's run, Mike was given multiple opportunities to redeem himself (including a short detour to a highly lucrative job at an investment firm) but time after time, he decided that jeopardizing his clients' rights, the firm's reputation and his own freedom was a less immediate concern than securing the high he felt while litigating in court.

Suits' framing of Mike's actions as a cumulative moral good is part of the larger cultural narrative that allows white men to literally get away with murder. While Mike is far from the likes of Walter White or Don Draper, he continues in the tradition of white male characters who continue to pursue their misplaced ambition to the detriment of not just themselves but everyone around them.

I doubt I'll have patience for another season of this nonsense.