Shots Fired has been nursing a low-grade case of Law & Order syndrome, the condition in which a character played by a marquee actor spends so much time off-camera you know he’s going to play a major role in the story. In this case, the actor is the estimable Richard Dreyfuss, who has appeared for no more than a combined ten minutes in the first half of the season. Based on Dreyfuss’s résumé alone, it’s pretty obvious his character Arlen Cox isn’t just around to put a genteel face on the ugly business of corporatized incarceration. Rather than keeping Arlen an abstract villain, “Before the Storm” nails him down. He’s the man who shot and killed Joey Campbell as Joey pleaded for his mother.
At least that’s the story told by Cory, the witness currently under federal protection thanks to Ashe and Preston’s intervention. The execution of the Arlen Cox reveal is slightly clumsy: The moment Preston produces the composite sketch of the shooter, generated using Cory’s help, I thought, “That guy looks just like Richard Dreyfuss.” Had I not recognized the star of What About Bob?, The Goodbye Girl, and multiple Stakeouts, perhaps I’d have been on the edge of my seat as Preston goes rogue trying to find a match for the drawing. But since I saw Dreyfuss coming, much of the episode felt perfunctory.
Though the execution could have been sharper, “Before the Storm” finally weaves together the many disparate threads Shots Fired has dangled out since its premiere. Arlen Cox isn’t just a mint julep in human form; he’s the powerful proprietor of a for-profit prison company. His money will be funding Governor Eamons’s education initiative, which likely won’t get off the ground without Cox’s help. Preston’s cozy relationship with the governor has already crumbled, since he took it upon himself to start questioning potential suspects while they’re on the golf course. Once Cox and Eamons find out who Ashe and Preston’s latest suspect is, the pressure to shut down their dual investigation will be greater than ever.
In the ominous final shot, Pastor James gets into a limo with the dangerous Cox, just the latest example of how Shots Fired is getting pretty good with cliffhangers. Hopefully nothing happens to her, because before that final moment, Pastor James gets some terrific scenes that reveal the character’s sincerity and true conviction. She has long been the most complex in a show full of complex characters, a professional agitator and social-media ninja whose motives have been a bit opaque. It hasn’t been clear whether she is merely after fame or if she saw media attention as a means to an end. Based on her confrontation with Governor Eamons, Pastor James is well-intentioned but only knows how to operate as a gadfly. And to let her tell it, that isn’t a bad thing.
The scene between Pastor James and Governor Eamons is the most illuminating one in “Before the Storm.” The pastor wants all records of her involvement in the education initiative scrubbed once she finds out Arlen Cox’s fingerprints are all over the deal. She’s not pacified when the governor explains that without Cox’s money, the state won’t be able to pay for Eamons’s signature legislation, which Eamons says will address the systemic injustices that lead kids like Joey and Jesse astray. They reach an impasse, and Eamons says she just wants the pastor’s help to avert “another Ferguson.” Considering the global attention those demonstrations brought to the issue of anti-black police violence, Pastor James doesn’t think another Ferguson would be the worst thing in the world. In fact, it might be exactly what Gate Station needs.
She has a point, since the additional scrutiny doesn’t seem to have mellowed the local sheriff’s office one bit. In “Before the Storm,” we learn that the Gate County sheriff has been letting his rich friends join in on the civil rights violations, because why should the actual law enforcement professionals have all the fun? Sheriff Platt has been running a program, which Ashe likens to a trip to a wild game reserve, wherein he takes his buddies down to The Houses and lets them play high-stakes cops and robbers. The real-life parallel is the tragic death of Eric C. Harris, who was shot and killed in Tulsa by a volunteer deputy sheriff who claimed he pulled his gun instead of his Taser by accident.
Lieutenant Breeland takes it upon himself to menace a handcuffed Ashe on the side of the road and threatens to slap her with a bunch of bogus charges that would jeopardize her shot at being reunited with her daughter. Yes, Ashe’s daughter is part of this now, because on Shots Fired, there’s always plenty of time for the overly complicated personal lives of Preston and Ashe. “Before the Storm” serves up plenty of red meat for the theoretical Ashton shippers out there, including a scene in which an emotional Ashe lashes out at Preston for choosing “Hillary” — Eamon’s right-hand Sarah Ellis — over Ashe, his “Michelle.” That’s about as rough as dialogue gets, but with each week of Shots Fired comes an episode that moves further away from the show’s worst instincts. Now that Arlen Cox has emerged as a true villain, Shots Fired can properly roll out its end game.