The Get Down
“The galaxy was windy that night,” Dizzee narrates at the beginning of “Only From Exile Can We Come Home,” the last episode of The Get Down. And to quote Aretha Franklin, it’s “an evil wind that blows no good.”
Shaolin Fantastic’s door gets kicked in yet again. This time, it’s Cadillac busting in, engaged in the quest to bring Fat Annie’s favorite DJ back home to Mama. Shao knew he was coming, as evidenced by the record spinning on his turntables. As the melodious voice of the Queen of Soul herself blasts from the speakers, carried adrift on the beat of “Rock Steady,” Cadillac recognizes the speakers pumping the music — they’re the ones that got robbed from Les Inferno during the blackout. Cadillac laughs heartily, impressed by the audacity of this fool he may just have to kill later.
In the ensuing chase, rendered in one of Dizzee’s cartoons, the Get Down Brothers outrun Cadillac’s Caddy, sending it careening into a pet store. The last shot of the animated sequence features a cute Persian cat, whose real-life incarnation Cadillac brings back to his Mama instead of Shao. Fat Annie is not happy. She threatens to “take this kitty and shove it so far up your ass, you’ll be burpin’ fur!” Considering what ends up happening to the poor creature, that might have been a less horrific outcome.
“I don’t know what you see in that boy, Mama,” Cadillac says. “You’re obsessed and it’s not healthy.” But, as Shao will point out later in this episode, Cadillac does know what she sees. “Your mother is crazy,” Shao will tell him, and he will not disagree.
Ra-Ra brings his crew to Zulu Nation territory. “Welcome to Little Vietnam,” greets Tanya. “Come in peace, or leave in pieces!” someone yells. “Are we safe here?” asks Books. “The Nation of Zulu is not a gang,” he is told. “It is an organization of individuals in search of success, peace, understanding, and the righteous way of life.” After meeting Afrika Bambaataa, Ra-Ra uses Star Wars as his metaphor for the giant party of unity he wishes to throw to show everyone why the human commanders of the Get Down shouldn’t be replaced by an Evil Empire–like live band. “We’re all Jedi,” he says, “and the music is our Force.”
“The Get Down has no prejudice. If it sounds right, it don’t matter where it comes from,” says Bambaataa. He offers the crew sanctuary while their plans are set in motion. When Fat Annie shows up at the party, the Get Down Brothers will ambush her with music and tell her they’re not making her record. “The Zulus find the truth in any ideology,” says Tanya. “Everybody got a little truth inside, and y’all need all the truth y’all can get.” They also need Dizzee, who is currently missing in action.
Meanwhile, the Cruz family is scattering the ashes of the late Pastor Ramon Cruz. As Mylene breaks down, the song Jackie wrote for her back in “The Beat Says This Is the Way” plays in the background. Called “See You on the Other Side,” it’s as lovely as “Toy Box” was terrible. We’ve heard it before, but this episode uses it for maximum effect. I couldn’t get it, nor some of the imagery accompanying it, out of my head for days. It becomes the unofficial love song of Books and Mylene’s uncertain future. At this moment, however, Books hears about the funeral and rushes into danger to be by Mylene’s side. Danger is waiting for him.
While Cadillac is in the other room delivering condolences and flowers to Mrs. Cruz, Mylene and Books are running down the fire escape. Cadillac and his goons pursue, but thanks to a kind restaurant owner, the lovers escape. As they part, with Mylene going to Jackie’s while Books does his unity rap show, director Ed Bianchi shoots their good-bye with Mylene high atop the subway-entrance stairwell and Books on the bottom yelling up “I love you.” The shot is framed like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet transferred to the cold, 1970s aesthetic of Walter Hill’s The Warriors. It is more achingly NYC-romantic than anything in West Side Story.
Speaking of, the Cruzes hold the patent on aching scenes of romance. As Francisco and Lydia say their good-byes, actors Jimmy Smits and Zabryna Guevara let the weight of the moment play out almost exclusively in their eyes and bodies. There’s a haunting maturity to it. When the cops come to arrest Papa Fuerte for the arson scandal, he points to the empty spaces where buildings once were. “Take a look out there, fellas,” he commands. “Tell me what you see. You see nothing, but I see something beautiful.” When the cop tells him that anything he says can be used against him, Papa Fuerte mutters, “Well, I got a lot to say.” Please give this man an Emmy.
Mylene wakes up amongst a gaggle of drag queens. “Am I dead?” she asks. “You were in a highly hysterical state, dear,” one queen says. “So we medicated you — heavily,” says another. “And you told us all your troubles, about how your tío was your papa. And we’re here to help.” Jackie and his merry band do just that, turning an impromptu songwriting session into a rousing number with everyone contributing lines for Mylene to sing. This is Mylene’s version of the Get Down, and the eclectic mix of people and identities contributing echoes Bambaataa’s words: The Get Down has no prejudice.
As luck would have it, Robert Stigwood is downstairs auditioning for “Gone With the Solar Wind” when he hears Mylene’s singing through the pipes. He joins the party, ditching Scarlett O’Hustle for a new Bronx-based musical for Mylene. This new alliance gives Mylene an extreme amount of leverage against Roy. She demands that he keep Regina and Yolanda as part of her group and she demands a big-ass cut of the profits. When Roy threatens to sue, Mylene puts him on notice:
“I am from the Bronx. My father is dead. My family is destroyed and I am still here. You have no idea what I am capable of.” A star is born.
Meanwhile, Shao finds Dizzee in his paint-splattered love nest with the guy Boo-Boo calls “that pretty white boy, Thor.” “Have you ever looked in his eyes?” Boo-Boo asks. Dizzee rejoins the group in time for the big party/showdown. Fat Annie sends Cadillac, who temporarily interrupts this kickass show with gunfire. But the Zulus and the rest of the kingdoms come together to scare Cadillac into signing a discharge contract, freeing everyone from his label. Cadillac is clearly affected by what happens to him, so much so that he retires from thug life to focus on his record label. “Those kids back there — their music stinks,” he tells Little Wolf. “But they own it.” Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s work in this episode is astonishing.
Lest we forget about her amid all this good news, Lillias White reminds us why her Fat Annie is so terrifying. She has Boo-Boo arrested for running drugs, exposing Shao’s secret to Books and severing their friendship forever. Justice Smith and Shameik Moore play this scene brilliantly and not without heartbreak. The revelation of Shaolin Fantastic’s real name serves as the final nail in the coffin of the myth that fueled the first half of the season; it dissolves in the acidic reality of Shaolin Fantastic’s tragic upbringing. “You ain’t magic, Shaolin Fantastic,” Ezekiel tells him. “You broken, Curtis. I never should have trusted you.” With his new family now gone, Shaolin Fantastic returns to Fat Annie, a sacrifice made to save his beloved Get Down Brothers. When this show started, I assumed that Shao would be dead by its end. This outcome is a fate worse than death.
Ezekiel Figuero ends up getting accepted to Yale. And Mylene obtains her stardom, being whisked off to Hollywood as she once dreamed she would. She and Zeke play a bittersweet final scene where he promises to wait for her. “I’ve waited for you my whole life,” he tells her. “Even when we’re together, still a part of me is waiting for you. You’re worth the wait, my butterscotch queen.”
As the voice of Justice Smith merges with that of Daveed Diggs, The Get Down ends on an ambiguous note. Is what we’re seeing real? Is that Mylene’s group as Elder Books’s backup singers? Does Boo-Boo get out of jail? What was the final consequence of “you cannot imagine what we’ll become,” Dizzee and Thor’s final work of art?
We can’t know for sure. But what I do know is that this show, even at its worst, used its E.L. Doctorow–style mixture of famous figures and fictional ones to create complex characters of color existing against the backdrop of a neighborhood that nurtured, inspired, and even destroyed them. It was unafraid to acknowledge that disco music was a genre filled with the expressions of LGBTQ people, and that rap was once, as a famous rapper stated, “CNN for brown people.” And it did not shy away from giving its female characters major-league success as well as a streak of unrepentant evil. As The Get Down unfolded its own myth, it was hard not to get lost in its creases.