Harvey Specter: a study in late modern sociopathy

Over the holidays I stumbled across Suits and found myself weirdly hooked by it. It tells the story of Mike Ross, a gifted stoner whose life has been going nowhere, bumbling into an interview for new associates at a prestigious law firm while trying to escape the police after a drug deal gone wrong. He is taken on by Harvey Specter, the firm’s top lawyer, who has found himself frustrated by his company’s policy of only hiring Harvard Law graduates. Seeing something special in Mike, he contrives to bring him to the firm and helps cover up his lack of a law degree.

Upon arriving at the firm, Mike finds himself mired in awkwardness, as his photographic memory often falls short of indicating what he should do and say when presented with the rules of legal institutions and the cultural norms found in a firm entirely populated by alumni of the law school he claims to have attended. Harvey presses upon him that this is his ‘chance’ and that to take it he must cast off the old friendships which have weighed him down, reconstructing himself for the new life he has stumbled into. It’s this biographical aspect of the show which intrigued me. Nonetheless, it also has a lot of weaknesses:

If Dallas grapples with the question of how to remain contemporary,Suits seems to be on a mission to convince viewers it was made in the 80s, sealed in a time-capsule and only recently excavated.

Even amid the sunny escapist output of the USA network, the series is a baffling anachronism. It proudly resides in an alternate universe where oily, overcompensated attorneys are hailed as heroes. Where their Italian sports cars, designer apparel and addiction to winning at all costs are seen as enviable character traits.


It’s hard to argue with this criticism. I don’t even think the show is good in any straight foward sense. But I found it oddly compelling. My aim here is to explain the reasons for this, which all stem from the figure of Harvey Specter. In contrast to the bumbling charm of Mike, Harvey always knows what to do, always knows what to say and is admired and reviled in equal measure. Harvey Specter is a socipath and, furthermore, he has worked to become this way. He is a man who is “against having emotions, not against using them” and he seeks to help Mike come to share this trait.

I use the term ‘sociopathy’ in the admittedly slightly glib sense employed by Adam Kotsko in his Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. His interest is in a class of characters who have increasingly come to dominate television and film in recent years. Though there are undoubtedly differences between Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Gregory House, Stringer Bell, Dexter et al (a list which seems a little incomplete without Vic Mackey) Kotsko argues that they share an indifference towards the moral order, manifested in a capacity to live outside social norms and yet also instrumentalize those norms to pursue their own agenda. While these characters might also share a degree of psychological complexity relative to their more shallowly characterised forebearers, he suggests that,

It is hard to believe, however, that the exploration of the dark side of the human psyche for its own sake is behind the appeal of these sociopathic characters. What, then, is going on in this trend? My hypothesis is that the sociopaths we watch on TV allow us to indulge in a kind of thought experiment, based on the question: “What if I really and truly did not give a fuck about anyone?” And the answer they provide? “Then I would be powerful and free.” (pg 4)

Kotsko sees sociopathy, understood as a cultural type embodied in such characters, as constituting a form of ‘reverse awkwardness’. In contrast to sociopathy, where lack of social connection engenders a capacity to masterfully manipulate social norms, awkwardness obtains in being drawn in and “rendered powerless by the intensity of their social connection” (pg 5). The appeal of the former rests on the experience of the latter, as our familiarity with the acute force of social pressure yields a vicarious thrill when we are presented with the lives of those immune to such pressure. These are people who always know exactly what to do. They are unbound by social pressure. They masterfully manipulate those interactions, which in reality exist as geysers of awkwardness, in a way which runs so contrary to our everyday experience. Their indifference to the social order translates as power and freedom. This is a figure who “transcends the social, who is not bound by it in any gut-level way and who can therefore use it purely as a tool”. Against the backdrop of a “social order that is breaking down, making impossible demands while failing to deliver on its promises” such characters become immensely compelling (pg 9-10).

The fascination with individuals ‘who make their own rules’ cannot be understood in isolation from the social changes which are rendering ‘the rules’ paradoxically more transparent and yet also opaque. The preoccupation with mastery, the capacity to glide through life while always knowing what to do and say, stems from the broader conditions under which this is becoming ever less possible. I think Margaret Archer’s notion of the ‘reflexive imperative’ is useful here, as a way of understanding how the intensification of social and cultural change renders individual reflexivity (reflecting on one’s self in relation to one’s circumstances) ever more imperative in daily live. As she argues, “action needs to be at least recurrent in kind in order for norms to develop to cover it”. Variety and novelty can fuel awkwardness, much as they can also open up the possibility of a depth of connection and human understanding which might formerly have been crushed by the stultifying weight of tradition and routine. These are two sides of the same coin. The dilemma in everyday life consists in the difficulty of knowing if we are doing things ‘right’, if such a notion even makes sense and how others who are similarly confused respond to what we are doing, whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The sociopath fascinates because they embody a fantasistic solution to this dilemma. However in reality, we are faced with the ‘awkward abyss’,

Threatened by the awkward abyss, we cling to our declining social norms and ask them to be more than they are or can be. We let them rule over us all the more as they fail to serve us, either by providing clear expectations or approximating some form of justice or fairness. (pg 15)

But what would it be like to avoid this? What would it be like to just be? As Kotsko puts it, “if only I didn’t give a fuck about anyone or anything, we think — then I would be powerful and free” (pg 7). But we do, so we are not. Even if we truly did want to be this way, it is an option that is foreclosed by the weight of commitment. Or is it? What intrigues me about Suits is how much of the narrative arc of the two main protagonists revolves around Harvey Specter socialising Mike Ross into sociopathy. In seeking to ‘mentor’ Mike, Harvey is also teaching how he can be emulated by him. What stops this being obnoxious is the gradual revelation of the extent to which Harvey has had to cultivate his sociopathy, much as Mike must now do himself.

When we meet Harvey, he is pure presence. He controls every situation, always ready with a witty retort or a strategic reaction. This also leaves him paradoxically absent. In the first half of the show’s initial season, we see little of Harvey qua person beyond occasional allusions to his longstanding friendship with his boss. In one scene Mike attempts to come over to Harvey’s apartment to share news of a breakthrough on a case. Having sternly ordered him not to come round, he opens the door and we see Harvey in casual clothes for the first time in the show. However the door is immediately closed on Mike (and on us). There’s a sense in which Harvey seems almost unrecognisable as a person, as his preoccupation with his own social mastery leaves his inner life entirely opaque. At one point he boasts to Mike about having Michael Jordan on his speed dial, proving this to an initially sceptical Mike who then turns and asks “who are you?”.

It’s a good question and one which is eventually addressed. As the first season approaches its end, we come to see more of Harvey and how he came to be the person that he is. The meaningful relationship with his boss which was intermittently hinted at (she supported him through law school and their relationship existed prior to this) finds more direct reflection in the figure of his stated mentor, the New York District Attorney. In the first half of the season, we see a Harvey who is already fully formed and self-subsistent. But later we begin to see how he came to be this way. He was not born “the best closer in New York city”. He had to become him. He had to make himself into who he wanted to be. We begin to see something of his inner life. We see that he hates to lose. We even see him lose his temper. He reminds us that sociopaths, in Kotsko’s sense, are people too. They are admired people, as a search through youtube for videos of Harvey will make clear.

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