The Get Down
Singer-songwriter Gil Scott-Heron is best known for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” but he also wrote two of the best cautionary tales about addiction ever pressed into wax. These songs had spectacular, head-bopping beats that were the best delivery system for Scott-Heron’s blunt and horrifying truths. His 1974 classic “The Bottle” paints a harrowing portrait of several alcoholics, including the narrator who warns, “If you see somebody lookin’ like a goner, it’s gonna be me.”
Even more harrowing is “Angel Dust,” which chronicles the scourge of that drug in the city in 1978. The song gets sampled in the opening rap by Daveed Diggs’s elder Books, continuing the show’s descent into darkness, made explicit by the episode’s title, “One by One Into the Dark.” In fact, Scott-Heron’s opening passage is practically reenacted in the last few minutes; one of our beloved characters gets a hit from a potentially deadly stash of the drug.
That laced stash comes courtesy of Cadillac, whose fury over his disco defeat at Les Inferno is stoked even more by his ma’s decision to cut a Get Down Brothers record on his label. Cadillac is taking this disco-music shit way too seriously if he’s willing to kill for it. Popeye, the guy Boo-Boo has been getting Shao’s supply from, is paid by Cadillac to alter his usual formula for the next batch Shao has to sell at the 10-51 Club. “They sullied my dance floor,” Cadillac tells Popeye. “I’m putting bodies on theirs.”
This is an episode about contracts — verbal and written. The great film producer Sam Goldwyn allegedly said that a verbal contract “isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” Sometimes written contracts aren’t either. Worthless contract No. 1 comes from Ra-Ra, the negotiator of the Kipling family. He has written a three-page agreement as a means for the Kipling sons to be allowed to perform again. Back in my “Darkness Is Your Candle” recap, I called Ron Cephas Jones’s patriarch of the Kipling family “the coolest dad to ever roam the Earth.” Even after he dropped the hammer on his boys, I still felt that way. It was hard to argue with Winston’s moral high ground as he leveled his punishments in the last episode.
But even if I had been peeved with Mr. Kipling, he would have won me over with Jones’s deft handling of the contract scene. Addressing Ra-Ra and Boo-Boo, Winston asks, “Did I beat your asses last night or did I show rare mercy and restraint?”
“Mercy and restraint!” the duo respond in unison.
“And yet, y’all have the nerve to come into my kitchen and attempt to wheel and deal?”
Winston is simultaneously aggravated and impressed. He has to give Ra-Ra props for his audacity, even if he barely shows it. I’ll say it again: Winston Kipling is the coolest dad to roam the Earth. So I must shake my finger at Ra-Ra’s bogus contract, which states the signees are not doing or selling drugs. We know Boo-Boo is running them and Dizzee is enamored of getting dusted. Winston trusts his sons enough to let them perform again.
Not so trusting is Books’s aunt Wanda. She and her husband Leon have put Books on a strict curfew until he apologizes to Mr. Gunns. Ra-Ra convinces him to do so, despite his misgivings. Gunns speaks to Books about Robert Moses, the city planner-architect of the so-called “white flight” from New York. Moses designed many of the shitty highways you can get stuck on right now here in NYC. (He was also — and Brooklyn Dodger fans will dispute this — a bigger villain than Walter O’Malley vis-à-vis the Dodgers’ exit from Brooklyn.) Mr. Gunns conducts his discussion in front of the giant 1964 World’s Fair globe — yes, the one seen in Men in Black — not too far from Shea Stadium, the now demolished home of Moses’s “replacement” for the beloved Dodgers, the New York Mets.
“Robert Moses had big plans for the city,” Books tells Gunns. “But yo, the ends don’t always justify the means.” This kiss-off negates the verbal contract he had with Papa Fuerte and Mayor Koch, and is in response to Gunns’s demand that Books out Shaolin Fantastic as the guy who pulled the gun on the esteemed, privileged Chips Henderson at the Yale party. “I stay loyal to my people,” Books says. “Unlike you.” Discovering that the coke-snorting bathroom bully Shao beat up had ruined my last name by pairing it with “Chips” made me even happier Shao beat his ass. Unfortunately for Books, his Aunt Wanda hears about his refusal to shuck and jive for Herbert Gunns and throws him out of her house for good.
Books moves in with Shao, and that’s where a furious Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz finds him. “Don’t let him in,” Books tells a confrontational Shao, but he doesn’t have time to heed the warning. Papa Fuerte kicks in the door like Brenda Richie looking for Lionel. He unleashes a torrent of Spanish threats and insults at Shao, the nicest of which is “You’re the devil.” He then lashes Books in English, lamenting that he went to bat for him so Books could “better himself.” Books responds with a mixture of apology and hard truths, revealing that Koch and company “are about to dump your ass and not finance your buildings.”
Papa Fuerte calms down after hearing this. “That’s just politics,” he tells Books. “But you and me, we’re not finished.” After throwing some money on Shao’s floor to cover the broken door, Papa Fuerte leaves. It’s a tour de force scene for the excellent Jimmy Smits as Fuerte, and the writer of this episode, noted music historian and producer Nelson George. His history-filled script is a series high point.
George also concocts an excellent monologue for Eric Bogosian’s Roy Ashton, who addresses Mylene about why he’s dumping her from his label. In a surprise twist, Mylene’s Mom takes her down to see Roy unannounced in the hopes that she’ll get answers to why he’s been avoiding her calls. “If you want something in this life, you have to pursue it. You can’t count on life to pursue you,” says Mama Cruz. “Or on your father to compromise.”
As we learned last time, the silent treatment was Roy’s idea to get Mylene desperate enough to accept and sing “Toy Box,” the filthy disco-orgasm song originally slated for Misty Holloway. In his big speech, which Bogosian renders with his usual brilliance, Roy correctly points out that Mylene is too afraid to defy her father or to be as ruthless as the music business requires. He talks of his own estrangement from the parents who were against him starting his record label. “I started this with a tape recorder and a $50 check from my bar mitzvah,” Roy says. “And my parents still won’t speak to me to this day!”
Mylene agrees to trade singing about Jesus for “Oh God! Oh God! Yes! Yes!” Roy books her debut at the hot new Studio 54 competitor, Rubicon. Shane gets a choreographer to help Mylene and the Soul Madonnas with their sexy dancing. Regina is way too good at the dance moves and Mylene is only so-so. My girl Yolanda is clearly not into it, presumably because she knows if she shakes her ass too salaciously, Winston will beat the Black off it. The choreographer is one huge, raging gay stereotype, but I have to be honest: I loved every single moment of verbal shade he threw.
This episode gets an extra star for George’s scripting of two of the most romantic moments in the series. The first is Mylene and Books’s honest conversation on the fire escape of her apartment. He explains why he couldn’t commit to an unknown, racially subjugated future at Yale. “On the mic, I’m the master of my destiny and I love it,” he tells her. “Like you love to sing.” Mylene tells him about her dirty ditty at Rubicon, and how terrified it makes her. She asks him to attend so that “if I get stuck or mess up, I can find you.” Books agrees, but not before telling her he’d “sell his soul for a token on the subway” just to be with her.
The other romantic moment is tinged with tragedy: Thor is released from prison and, at Dizzee’s animated invite, shows up at 10-51 to see the Get Down Brothers perform. But this is the night Shao’s moving the corrupted angel dust, some of which winds up being consumed by Dizzee. In his dream state, Dizzee hallucinates and Thor asks him “Have you ever been in love?” When he responds, “Yes,” Thor asks “How did it end?” Looking into Thor’s eyes, Dizzee says, “It hasn’t.”
In the real world, however, it may have: An unresponsive Dizzee is rushed to the hospital, perhaps never to be revived.