The Get Down
Despite all the excess chatter, each Get Down episode so far can be distilled down to a one-word theme. The first three episodes were about myth, dreams, and hustle. This episode is about the most elusive topic yet: redemption. The events of Blackout Day led to several wrongs that must be righted, so most of the characters are now seeking redemption, implicitly or explicitly. It will slip through the fingers of the political and the downtrodden alike.
Pointedly, the only person who isn’t seeking redemption is a man of God. Reverend Buggin’ Out sees nothing wrong in putting his daughter out on the harsh streets of the South Bronx, in light of all sorts of embarrassing gossip amongst his congregation. Forgive my harshness when discussing this character, but as a preacher kid who grew up in the church, Giancarlo Esposito’s on-point performance gets under my skin in ways that are the opposite of cathartic. I know this type of guy. Nothing makes him forget what Jesus actually said about sin and forgiveness faster than the fear that his fellow Christians will discover his family is just as flawed and imperfect as theirs.
All Mylene did was sing, in an admittedly revealing dress, but her father treated is as if she went on a date with Satan and came back pregnant. As Mrs. Cruz points out when confronted with the money Francisco told her to sneak into the collection plate, her husband’s hands aren’t exactly clean. His church building was bought with the same money he’s railing against. “Do as I say, not as I do” is not a quote from the Bible, Reverend Buggin’ Out!
But enough about him. The real star of this episode is Mylene. One of The Get Down’s greatest strengths is the equal time it gives to its male and female characters. Shao has his boys and Mylene has her girls, and neither side is given short shrift. The ladies are a lot smarter and more resilient than shows like this usually afford, especially considering the occasional lapses into sexism we’ve already seen from this one. It’s also worth noting that the male story is rooted in mythic symbolism, while the female story is held in a more realistic, yet emotional regard.
It’s not that both sides don’t have dreams; the male side just has more physical tokens of their fantasies. Look at the dual redemptive quests Books and Mylene are sent upon: Both deal with music, but one deals with something one can touch (a cassette tape), and the other deals with something one can feel (Jackie’s song for Mylene). Both also end with harrowing cliffhangers that put their characters in grave danger.
Before we embark on those quests, let’s talk about the show’s most rooted-in-real-life political section yet. The costly damage from the blackout forces current Mayor Abraham Beame to renege on his promise to fund Francisco’s $10 million real-estate vision. And so, Beame sends a lackey into the South Bronx to meet Francisco at an impromptu flea market that suddenly sprung up after hundreds of items fell off trucks the previous night. Papa Fuerte Cruz buys a hot Armani suit and gives money to his constituents. He also gives a tongue-lashing to the mayor’s representative. “Don’t shoot the messenger,” the lackey says. “The messenger CAN be shot!” Francisco replies. Then he severs his ties with the mayor and rescinds his delivery of the South Bronx’s voting block to Beame. Hearing of this political divorce, mayoral hopeful Ed Koch (Frank Wood) sends Herbert Gunns (Michel Gill) uptown to meet with Francisco. Gunns is Francisco’s idol, which shows that Koch has political savvy.
Before Gunns’s arrival, Koch shows up to play up the “bad cop” role. “There’s a guy named Ed Cock who wants to meet with you,” one of Francisco’s workers says, using an amusing play on the former Hizzoner’s name. (Actually, most people used to call him “Mayor Crotch.”) Koch immediately antagonizes Francisco, calling him a poverty pimp and commenting that he has little respect for his “corrupt operation.” Before Francisco can whip Koch’s ass, Mr. Gunns shows up and brokers a deal to finance Francisco’s project if Koch wins big in the election. This deal includes Francisco coming out against graffiti and appearing in public with a respectable young man who will intern in downtown Manhattan.
Papa Fuerte has just the young man for the job, and Mylene seconds his choice. She drags a still-bathed-in-afterglow Books to see her uncle. At first, Books wants no part of this bid for respectability, but Francisco is such a silver-tongued devil (and Jimmy Smits is so damn good at playing him) that he convinces Books to take the deal. Mylene rewards Books with an intense make-out session in the stairwell, which is inconveniently interrupted by Shao.
Shao is still pissed that he had to learn about the Grandmaster Flash mixtape incident from Kool Herc’s Herculoids rather than his own crew. Now banned from spinning, Shao is on a quest to find out who made the bootleg mixtape, and he thinks Books owes him for causing the ban. The mixtape is a nice metaphor for YouTube and other places where today’s folks can get music for free without compensating the artist. “If someone can get their hands on a free mixtape,” Flash lectures to his hustle-protection insurance adjusters, “Then they won’t pay to hear it at the park.”
Shao is also none too pleased with Mylene, either. Their earlier altercation resulted in her labeling him as bad news and him calling her a bitch. Books now has to choose between redeeming himself in his boy’s eyes or doing a favor for his girl. Books chooses Shao. Shao is the kind of asshole friend every guy has, the one who will mess up your shit when he needs something, but you best not mess up his when the favor must be returned. And Books is the kind of follower who befriends that guy.
Mylene curses Books out and accuses him of using her for sex. But she doesn’t need him anyway — she’s got her fellow badass gurls, Yolanda and Regina. It’s up to them to find out what the hell happened to the song Jackie promised Francisco he’d write for Mylene. When Jackie hangs up on Mylene after she calls him at his hotel, Regina says, “We need to go down there and whip his ass!” Books won’t help them, so that’s exactly what they do. Sisters are doin’ it for themselves! And, as we’ll see later, these ladies’ vocal harmonies are as tight as their friendships.
The Get Down divvies up the rest of this episode by bouncing between two quests: Shao’s “To Catch a Bootlegger” and Mylene’s “Jackie, Hey Whatcha Doin’ Now?” Based on a tip he got during a backseat-sex session scored to Musique’s double-entendre disco classic “In the Bush,” Shao knows that the bootlegger will try to record a Kool Herc appearance at 1520 Sedgwick Ave., deep in Herculoid territory.
Remember Shao’s explanation back in the series premiere about how the Bronx was broken up into the kingdoms of Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash? Well, that’s still true here, though the blackout has proven as lucrative for poor, aspiring DJs as it was costly for store owners. “Before the blackout, there were five legit DJs crews,” Shao laments. “Now every n—a with a stolen turntable thinks he’s Disco King Mario.” Regardless of the new blood, Herc and Flash still rule the roost, but their kingdoms are enemies. This is a dangerous mission for Books and Shao.
Luckily for Mylene’s crew, they won’t have to kick Jackie’s ass when she gets to his hotel — he’s already done the job for them. In a panic over his writer’s block, Jackie snorts, smokes, and injects the rest of Francisco’s money, leading him to overdose in the tub. Regina springs into action, reviving Jackie with a creative use of ice. Jackie is still useless, and when he plays the scant few bars of the song he managed to write, Mylene’s eyes fill with tears. Not only has Jackie failed her, he’s failed to redeem himself. Mylene takes him up to Papa Fuerte, who will probably use Jackie’s three Grammys to beat him to death once Jackie plays the cacophonous “song” that $40,000 bought.
Dizzie and his brothers also avoid death-by-beating when they come clean to Winston about how they were the “looters” who destroyed the Kipling salon. (Told you Winston was a cool dad!) Their honesty earns them redemption, but when Ra-Ra suggests they hop over to Sedgwick to assist, Dizzie rightfully protests. “You call yourself a rebel?” Ra-Ra responds. “Well, you can’t be a rebel if you don’t rebel.”
The Kipling boys join Shao and Books at precisely the right moment, though it doesn’t help much. The Get Down Brothers find themselves staring down Kool Herc, deep in enemy territory with nowhere to run.