Before Shots Fired aired on Fox, it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where the producers screened the pilot along with “The Fire This Time” to gin up enthusiasm. The decision to show a famously discerning audience the first and then the sixth installment of a ten-part series seemed odd at the time, but it’s easier to understand after watching this episode why the producers would want viewers to see it as quickly as possible. I now have a better understanding of the methodical-to-a-fault storytelling approach, but part of me wishes I’d been able to leapfrog the past four episodes just like the Sundance audience got to do.
“The Fire This Time” finds Gate Station erupting into violence after weeks of rising tensions over the sometimes complementary, sometimes competitive investigations into the deaths of Joey Campbell and Jesse Carr. Whether they take place in a small, unknown town like Ferguson or a familiar global city like Los Angeles, which is coming up on the 25th anniversary of its own uprising against anti-black police violence, riots make any place look hostile and alien. Once the civil unrest begins and a heavily militarized police force descends on Gate Station, it’s clear there’s an emotional impact that would have gotten lost had the show not introduced the community, its denizens, and its unique dynamics before turning the town into a domestic war zone.
That said, the decision to depict Gate Station before, during, and after the riot leaves Shots Fired with the unenviable position of dramatizing the exact moments when the community’s frustration coalesces. “The Fire This Time” has trouble with that part, because its uprising doesn’t feel attached to anything in particular. Almost invariably, riots are incited by some kind of event, either the initial act of police violence or the announcement of a verdict that fails to provide the community a sense of closure. The deaths of Joey and Jesse happened weeks ago and no one has been charged, much less tried and acquitted, so nothing actually happens to set off this dangerous demonstration.
The episode begins with Pastor Janae leading a rally, where she pitches the same idea to the agitated crowd that she mentioned to Governor Eamons. Janae sees riots as a cleansing fire, a disruption so alarming it forces the powers that be to examine the emotions that gave rise to it. She encourages the crowd to emulate Baltimore and Ferguson, actually going so far as to use the word riot, but couching the language in elaborate metaphors. In doing so, the episode suggests that Janae uncorked something she can’t contain. Soon, masked looters are firebombing the local soul food restaurant for no apparent reason — or it feels like no apparent reason because the episode never identifies a tipping point for the riot other than Pastor Janae’s speech. Ideally, the dramatization of a riot would help the audience understand how the community’s relatable anger turns into irrational violence, and this doesn’t quite hit the mark.
What the episode does instead is use the theme of confrontation throughout. While the events leading up to the riot are unclear, the riot scenes are interspersed with conversations, big and small, that illustrate how everyone involved is incredibly stressed and looking for an outlet. Alicia Carr pops up at the sheriff’s station, which is celebrating Breeland’s 20th anniversary on the force. Everyone’s so distracted with the party, they barely notice when Jesse’s mom slips in and confronts Officer Beck directly. Seems like the kind of conversation someone should intervene in, but instead, Alicia pleads with Beck to describe the final moments of her son’s life.
Preston and Ashe start applying pressure in their investigations, newly convinced by Durkin’s suicide that there’s a major cover-up at work. Preston goes after Governor Eamons, betting she’ll shake the trees herself if he tells her the volunteer deputy program she used to woo wealthy donors resulted in a young man’s untimely death. Like Pastor Janae, Preston’s bold play has unintended consequences. Sarah is furious, especially after Preston reveals he found out about the governor’s program by snooping on her laptop during one of their horizontal networking sessions. And when Eamons leans on Sheriff Platt to get his department under control and cooperate fully with the DOJ investigation, Platt makes a show of good faith by placing Beck on suspension until the matter is resolved.
Meanwhile, Ashe goes after Arlen Cox, who admits his service as an auxiliary deputy but insists he was out of town when Joey was killed. That’s about the extent of Ashe’s involvement in Gate Station, since she has to return to D.C. for a custody hearing. Ashe and her ongoing baby-daddy drama has been my least favorite subplot in Shots Fired, but by delving further into it, the show gives Sanaa Lathan her opportunity to shine. Many of the early reviews of this show (again, reviews based on this episode and the pilot) singled out Lathan’s performance as a highlight. While I think Lathan has been solid, the bad-cop routine hasn’t played to her strengths. Now, Ashe is fighting for custody of her daughter, going so far as to seduce Kai’s father and blackmail him with proof of the affair. Lathan plays the desperation beautifully, and her performance fuels the shocking moment when Ashe reveals that what seemed like a genuine moment of vulnerability was actually a premeditated gambit.
Speaking of gambits, as risky as it is for Shots Fired to have Ashe spend nearly an entire episode outside Gate Station, it pays off for another one of the show’s superfluous subplots. The simmering romance between Preston and Ashe hasn’t worked prior to this episode because the writers banged the drum rather than letting the dynamic develop at its own pace. Here, the audience gets to see Preston and Ashe, who have been forced to spend a lot of time together, being forced to separate during an emotionally fraught time. Neither says anything directly, but it’s obvious they miss each other. Their reunion is bound to be intense, especially once Ashe sees what’s happened to Gate Station.