The third hour of Shots Fired distinguishes itself from the first two just by keeping the main thing the main thing. There are still plenty of scenic detours and more intimate character work than seems appropriate this early in the story, but the focus is on Ashe and Preston as they try to make sense of the carnage in Gates County. Instead of cop-drama-style ride-alongs with the pair, this episode sees them on solo paths as Ashe looks into the death of Joey Campbell and Preston hunts down answers on Jesse Carr.
Splitting them up means less prickly dialogue exchanged by the reluctant teammates, but that’s for the best. Honestly, Ashe and Preston don’t have the faintest hint of chemistry or anything resembling a will-they, won’t-they vibe. Maybe it’s a deliberate choice by the producers to avoid the tired trope of “boy cop + girl cop = sex cops,” and if so, more power to them. But Ashe and Preston aren’t even friendly, and between the parallel investigations and their hectic personal lives, they don’t seem to have enough emotional bandwidth to bond on the job. They’re like some kind of reverse Wonder Twins, only at their best when they’re on opposite sides of town.
Ashe’s investigation into the conspiracy surrounding Joey’s death leads her to look into the disappearance of Cory, who went missing just after he was seen talking to Preston about Joey. Cory’s family hasn’t seen him in a few days, and Ashe suspects he went missing because of the information he had about the Joey situation. Ashe catches a break when she notices Cory’s uncle asking the police to help find his son, and she follows him for a while, ultimately stumbling on Cory himself. Turns out Cory is alive and well, and is clearly motivated to stay hidden since his first instinct is to attack Ashe. Most likely, Cory went into hiding after the attempt on his life and mistook Ashe for one of his pursuers.
Meanwhile, Preston uncovers more details about Jesse thanks to his affiliation with the historically white fraternity Jesse was pledging when he was killed. The toxicology report comes back and reveals that while there was no marijuana in Jesse’s system, there was quite a bit of alcohol. Jesse’s parents even confess to putting him into rehab once to curb his alcohol problem. Ashe and Preston start asking around about Jesse’s alcohol abuse and its potential involvement in his confrontation with Joshua Beck, eventually leading back to Jesse’s involvement in the Greek brotherhood of which Preston proudly counts himself a member. After some good-cop prodding from Preston, a sheepish pledge confesses the fraternity had been antagonizing Jesse after he embarrassed the chapter by getting his ass kicked by a black RA.
The tricky thing about Shots Fired is that the standard beats for a procedural crime drama don’t fit within the story the show is telling. “Somebody’s Son” presents the show’s first proper red herring. In a serialized story such as this one, now is the time for Ashe and Preston to stumble upon a theory of the crime that makes sense on its face, but will be a distant, disregarded memory by the time the show concludes. The theory we have now is seemingly that Jesse felt hostility toward a black man in a position of power after getting beaten up by a black guy in front of his frat brothers. That theory, frankly, is kind of stupid.
In the show’s defense, the narrative around Jesse’s death sounds no less goofy than something Olivia Benson and Fin Tutuola would sketch out on a whiteboard in the second act of a Law & Order: SVU. In a different type of show, you hear that kind of thing and think, “Well that’s obviously not what happened, but it’s early yet, so they’ll come up with a better idea.” But Shots Fired doesn’t tell episodic stories, so when Ashe floats an idea like “Maybe Jesse was drunk and lunged at a cop because he was embarrassed about that one time a black guy beat him up,” the whiff of it just kind of hangs in the room. Maybe Ashe is eager to get back home so she can devote more time to her custody battle, but the show makes her seem like her head is not completely in the game.
Shots Fired still feels a bit amorphous, since it splits its time between so many different characters and factions affected by the fallout from the Joshua Beck case. Like American Crime, Shots Fired often feels like a premium cable pitch that had to be ported to network television once Fox picked it up. Maybe with an extra 10 or 12 minutes to play with, the show would feel sharper and more balanced. Instead, it feels like it’s being hindered by its ambition. Between Ashe’s custody drama, Preston and Sarah’s budding romance, and Governor Eamons’s effort to fend off a political foe, there are already way too many things happening, and that’s not even a comprehensive list of the story lines laid out in three episodes’ time. Each arc has yielded at least one lovely scene per episode, but I’m still hoping to see a more focused, more nuanced version of Shots Fired, one that does more with less.