Sometimes, the most powerful thing a television show can do is to let the audience know they aren’t losing their minds. Shots Fired does that in its seventh episode by establishing a growing consensus that Preston and Ashe might not be doing the best job in Gate Station. The people of Gate Station have long been suspicious of their investigation, owing to the perception that the Department of Justice is only making a big deal out of the Jesse Carr case because he was white. (They’re only half-wrong, since it’s more about Officer Beck’s race than Jesse’s, but still.) But now the lack of movement on either case has Preston and Ashe’s superiors feeling anxious, so the DOJ wants to send in a new team to replace them. It isn’t the worst idea.
At the same time, there’s something wistful and utopian about the Shots Fired universe given recent developments in real-life police shootings of unarmed citizens. Former South Carolina officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty to the murder of Walter Scott after initially claiming that Scott reached for a weapon when he shot him eight times in the back. There will be no such justice for the family of Alton Sterling, whose tragic and needless shooting resulted in no federal charges against the officers in question. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has notified police departments nationwide that they needn’t worry about increased oversight, and President Trump has made clear he thinks the problem is that police officers are undeservedly scrutinized.
The DOJ in Shots Fired is a remnant of the Obama administration, which unlike the current administration, believed that a pattern of abusive policing is more likely than a pattern of black men reaching for nonexistent firearms despite such obvious and grave consequences. Have Preston and Ashe mounted a flawless investigation into the murders of Jesse and Joey? They certainly have not, as their agenda includes more sex and sightseeing than the average expat who retired to Panama. But dammit, they care. They are furious about the violence that has erupted in Gate Station, but they are just as furious about the unanswered police violence that has stoked frustration in this community for such a long time. Preston and Ashe’s bumbling doesn’t always make for the best storytelling, but on a week like this, their empathy and good intentions feel like a balm.
I realize that’s a long way of saying that Shots Fired is still a show that works better in theory than in practice. “Content of Their Character” is a weirdly paced episode, even for a show that tends to struggle with pacing in general. The seventh episode of a ten-part murder mystery is bound to emphasize table setting, since the biggest reveals have to be saved for the final push. But it’s still a bit of a slog, and it only serves to set up the show’s latest obvious red herring. After weeks of being the loudest voice in the local Justice for Joey movement, Pastor Janae is now the No. 1 suspect in Joey Campbell’s murder.
The Pastor Janae reveal should be a huge moment, but it doesn’t feel like one despite being executed as a shocking cliffhanger. For one thing, while Janae’s motives have always been a bit sketchy, to go from being Joey’s biggest advocate to a suspect in his murder is a huge leap. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to actually consider Janae as a potential suspect, or be shocked by the desperation and dishonesty of the sheriff’s department. But it’s the kind of cliffhanger that feels more bewildering than thrilling.
It doesn’t help that the notion of Janae as an evil actor wasn’t introduced until this episode. At the beginning of the hour, Preston gets a tip that Pastor Janae encouraged someone to lie to the cops to cover up the murder of another drug dealer she wanted banished from her community; by the end of the episode, she’s being led away in handcuffs. There just isn’t enough connective tissue between those two events. Sheriff Platt says his department was tipped off about the murder weapon, so there’s presumably more explanation forthcoming, but I’m not sure I’m interested in whatever facts supposedly tie Janae to Joey’s murder.
The Janae angle feels like a waste of time because while the police are still evaluating a long list of suspects, the audience has already been directed to one: Arlen Cox. Preston and Ashe haven’t been able to rattle Cox’s cage enough to get him to talk. They try yet again to get answers, but Cox is as smug as ever, convinced his money and influence will insulate him from punishment. As far as I’m concerned, though, Cox is the killer — and if he isn’t, Shots Fired has an even bigger problem. Cox might be too convenient a villain, but he’s convenient because he embodies all of the themes the show explores. He participated in the safari-like tours of the Houses and he runs a massive for-profit corrections company, so he’s been positioned as the show’s Big Bad. The killer may not be Pastor Janae, but if it’s anybody besides Cox, that would be a twist too far.
Shots Fired is a bit lopsided because it focuses on two murder mysteries, but one is a whodunnit while the other is a whydunnit. As we wait to find out who actually killed Joey, we’re also waiting to find out why Officer Beck killed Jesse Carr. In the episode’s other major development, Ashe discovers a video clip on Jesse’s phone that shows the moments immediately before he was killed. (What would be referred to on the nightly news as “graphic cell phone video.”) Beck approaches Jesse’s car and asks him what he’s doing around the Houses, insisting he doesn’t “look right” in the neighborhood. When Jesse talks back, Beck appears to snatch him out of the car, then the video cuts out, giving way to the audio of the gunshots.
The video doesn’t tell the whole story, but it suggests a racially motivated police shooting of an unarmed man, and Preston and Ashe want to see justice served in that case as well. Even if Shots Fired doesn’t wind up being the show it hopes to be, it offers an all-too-rare glimpse into an alternate universe where claims of racially biased policing aren’t treated as an equally weighted debate.