In a strange twist of art and life imitating each other, the season finale of “Suits” featured Meghan Markle walking down the aisle in a wedding dress.
Awaiting her was not a British prince, but rather the lawyer Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), the romantic interest of Rachel Zane, a character that Markle imbued with a mix of charm, conscientiousness and grace over the show’s seven-year run on USA.
The appearance doubled as the capstone on Markle’s career. She has said she has given up acting to be a full-time royal, which will become official with her marriage to Prince Harry on May 19.
At first glance it seems like a scant acting legacy. But, as Rachel, she was a subtly influential force on a pulpy legal drama that quietly had one of the most diverse casts on television. Debuting in the role of the ingenue, Markle actively repositioned Rachel out of the eye-candy slot, and by the end, her character had become the show’s moral conscience.
With the departure of Rachel and Mike, gone to start a do-gooder firm in Seattle, “Suits” not only loses a fan favorite (Markle) and one of its leads (Adams, who is also leaving the show), it also risks sacrificing the nuanced themes of class, race and corporate outsiders their characters came to represent.
Keeping in line with USA’s original “blue skies” motto, “Suits” never billed itself as a political show. Rather, it built itself around a surreal plot: Mike is a brilliant, scrappy, upstart lawyer at one of New York’s most elite firms who pretends to have graduated at the top of his class at Harvard Law School. Despite this implausible premise, the show’s lasting appeal for me was something equally unbelievable: “Suits” rarely called attention to the prominent roles that its African-American actresses played on the show.
Debuting in 2011 — a full year before “Scandal” — Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), decked out in exquisitely tailored, textured dress suits, appeared as the managing partner at Pearson Hardman, and the African-American mentor of Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht). Over time, she would eventually shepherd Rachel, the firm’s hardworking paralegal, into becoming a lawyer, making them part of a small group of women of color operating in the high echelons of corporate law on TV.
And while “The Good Wife” (another legal drama I watched until the very end), would eventually address the absence of African-Americans in both its fictional Chicago law firm and its real cast in its final two seasons, “Suits” began with Torres and Markle as two of its three female leads. (USA is currently developing a “Suits” spinoff for Torres.)
Rachel’s biography was less integral to the main narrative than Mike’s, but as the biracial daughter of Robert Zane (Wendell Pierce), she had one of the show’s more compelling backstories. Her father is one of the few African- American attorneys to be a named partner in a New York law firm.
But it is through his relationship with Rachel that we witness something even rarer on television: a black father nurturing his daughter’s professional ambitions and her desire to crack both racial and gender glass ceilings.
Speaking at a conference on the gender pay gap in 2014, Markle shared her own story of having to fight for women in the workplace, in this case her own character, Rachel.
According to “ET,” Markle told the audience, “This season every script seemed to begin with ‘Rachel enters wearing a towel,’ and I said, ‘Nope, not doing it anymore. Not doing it.’ And I called the creator, I was like, ‘It’s just gratuitous. We get it, we’ve already seen it once.’ ”
Similarly, while most of the attention regarding her wedding has surrounded what she wears and looks like — specifically what it means for a biracial woman to marry into the British royal family — it is Markle’s penchant for activism that is likely to have the more lasting effect.
In February, when she was asked at a Royal Foundation charity event if she would continue as an activist for women in her new life, she responded, “Right now with so many campaigns like #MeToo and Time’s Up there’s no better time to continue to shine a light on women feeling empowered and people supporting them.”