The Get Down
The sixth episode of The Get Down doesn’t end with any kind of conventional cliffhanger. Instead, it plays the long game, leaving us to ponder what will happen when the series returns sometime in 2017. This particular game takes a large amount of time, focus, and commitment to execute, serving to remind us that this episode represents power. After examining myth, dreams, hustle, redemption, and success, the natural progression leans toward this thematic point. And while The Get Down predictably shows that power corrupts, it also hints at the cruel irony that occasionally accompanies it. Power is a Pyrrhic victory, but it’s a victory nonetheless, one well worth suffering for in this life.
Leslie Lesgold has the power to make or break a disco record. She provides a service to DJs who don’t have time to listen to every record and determine its value. Lesgold’s rep as a kingmaker is shared by Carlo Pakoussa, he of the Misty Holloway remix record that figured so prominently in the series premiere. But Pakoussa is far more underground than Lesgold, who gets the “reject” records with discotheque potential from the record company directly. One bad word from her, and you may as well play your record with a projects apartment’s hot radiator. It’s done.
Lesgold has a lot of bad words for Jackie Moreno. Seems Jackie not only hired Leslie back in the day, he slept with her and then fired her. Although he had legitimate reasons for firing her — “You stole,” he says; “Everybody stole,” she retorts — his carnal knowledge was clearly an abuse of power. Making matters worse, Jackie doesn’t even remember Leslie’s ordeal. “What a happy coincidence,” he says, trying to spin his poor memory. “It’s a happy coincidence for me,” Leslie says ominously, “but not for you.”
Jackie is forced to submit to the same treatment he bestowed on countless female employees. Lesgold promises him that she will reconsider banning “Set Me Free” if he does her sexual bidding. But after forcing Jackie to go downtown, Leslie throws him out. “Your record is dead!” she says, wielding her power the way so many men have done in the past and will continue to do in the future. But what’s good for the gander is good for the goose in Leslie Lesgold’s queendom. Jackie finds that nobody will touch “Set Me Free” now that it’s been marked for death by a kingmaker.
At the same time this goes down, Books is keeping his dinner appointment with Mr. Gunns. Arriving at his posh home, Books is greeted by Mr. Gunns’ rebellious, punk-music-loving daughter. She’s the type of girl who, in Jim Crow times, would have happily have gotten Books lynched just for looking at her if it meant getting back at her father. “She likes the shock value,” Mr. Gunns tells Books. Thankfully, this uncomfortable dinner scene is short, segueing into a conversation between Gunns and Books that has a different sort of shock value.
Gunns acts surprised that a ghetto kid like Books would know anything about piano manufacturers, but his original tone of condescension gives way to an informative, mentor-like one. He says that he has four grand pianos, then asks if Books knows how he paid for them. “With hard work and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps?” Books asks, echoing the all-too-familiar bullshit slogan hurled at the impoverished by the wealthy. Mr. Gunns smiles like the Cheshire Cat. “Not exactly,” he says, before launching into the political long con he is running. He earned those pianos by voting to close a school in Books’s neighborhood, blocking a raise for underpaid teachers, and doing a number of other unsavory acts that were paid for by somebody with enough cash to make it worth Gunns’s while.
Gunns’s description reminded me of the line in Trading Places where, after Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy pretentiously explain the business they’re in, Eddie Murphy breaks it down to its true hustler’s essence: “Sounds to me like you guys are a couple of bookies!” Mr. Gunns isn’t the bookie, but he’s fixing the game so the house can win. He’d rather not fix those games, but doing so allows him to live out his own ambitions. Papa Fuerte works the same way, though his chicanery is supposedly in service of elevating his people.
Books decides to merge Papa Fuerte’s example and Gunns’s technique. This is evidenced by the great, tag-filled insider speech he gives to the common men and women of the South Bronx — his people — during Ed Koch’s rally. Just as he did when he confronted Mr. Gunns at his office, the wordsmith channels his book smarts through his street smarts, and the result is doubly effective.
Shao will need to rely purely on his street smarts after confronting Napoleon. The Savage Warlord bursts into tears, telling Shao that he and his gang were hired by Cadillac’s partner, Little Wolf, to shoot up Les Inferno. It was Little Wolf who caused Cadillac to accidentally shoot Napoleon’s partner, and Little Wolf has now set his sights on overthrowing Annie and usurping her empire. Shao reports the news to Annie, who immediately calls a meeting with Cadillac, Little Wolf, and Shao.
After shooting Little Wolf in the leg, Annie gives her gun to Shao to finish the job. This is his true initiation into Annie’s family — the Cadillac-ditching was a mere trial run. Faced with no other alternative, Shao shoots Little Wolf, obtaining the ultimate level of corrupting power: the role of executioner. This decision troubles Shao, but he absorbs it the way he and his fellow ‘hood denizens have always absorbed such traumas. “It’s a rough game we play,” Annie tells him, “but it’s the only game we got.”
The only person having any fun in this timeline is Dizzee. Jaden Smith is wonderfully wonky and weird in this role; he seems otherworldly, and not just because he’s constantly spouting shit about astral planes and other assorted nonsense. There’s a dreamy air of the artist to him, which The Get Down uses to maximum effect during a scene inside an underground gay bar. Not knowing it’s a gay bar, Dizzee is there to meet fellow tagger Thor. The entire place, with its vogue-dancing divas and fluid sexuality, plays like Dizzee’s drug hallucination, though the show chickens out on taking this sexually charged sequence to its logical conclusion.
In a moment of clarity, Dizzee gives “Set Me Free” to the DJ, one Carlo Pakoussa, who spins the record to a rapturous reception. Suddenly, nobody gives a damn about Leslie Lesgold’s opinion. The true consumers of disco — its gay listeners — wield the power. Now, even Roy Asheton is interested in taking a meeting about Jackie Moreno’s pet project. With Jackie and her tío Francisco by her side to offer protection and support, Mylie and her girl group, the Soul Madonnas, sign with Marrakesh Records, home of Misty Holloway.
The last examples of power are presented by the rival factions of the big DJ battle. The Notorious 3 have echo effects and speakers that, to quote Newcleus’s classic “Jam on It,” are “three stories high, with woofers made of steel.” The Get Down Brothers have each other, a DJ, and his wings — and when that group takes off onstage, no amount of fancy hardware can shut them down. As Boo-Boo, Ra-Ra, Dizzee, and Books rap with gusto, Shao uses not only the break from “Set Me Free,” but also the break from “Freedom,” a real song released by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Of all the E. L. Doctorow-inspired mixtures of real and fictional characters and events that The Get Down has employed, this callback to an actual rap classic is the most satisfying. The b-boys start dancing to Shao’s beats, signaling a victory by the Get Down Brothers. Unbeknownst to his student, Grandmaster Flash observes from a rooftop overlooking the battle. The Grandmaster beams with pride at his student, who has graduated with honors and a black belt in the Get Down.
The episode ends with Mylie moving to Manhattan, and Books promising to visit her after his days interning downtown. They look at the Manhattan skyline like so many Bronx, Brooklyn, and Jersey City denizens (like me) did. At the time, Sidney Lumet’s take on The Wiz reflected our feelings toward Manhattan: It was the Emerald City, and we were all trying to escape Kansas to be part of it.
The second half of the season will document Mylene and Books’s Manhattan adventure, which I’m sure will be bumpy. After all, as that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five song goes, “New York, New York, big city of dreams! But everything in New York ain’t always what it seems.” When The Get Down returns, we’ll see if the Grandmaster is right.