Can it be that the shortest episode of The Get Down is also its best? Director Michael Dinner and writer Seth Zvi Rosenfeld pull the show’s clashing elements together into a cohesive whole that purrs like a well-oiled machine. Since we’ve already gone through myth, dreams, hustle, and redemption, The Get Down now presents us with the topic of success, not just as a destination but also as a definition. How do you achieve success? What does success mean to you? How can you keep it? And most important, how can you pursue it without sacrificing your identity or your soul?
When we last left Jackie, he was furiously banging on a piano in Papa Fuerte’s social club. Giving up on his cacophonous nightmare of a melody, Jackie decides to face the music. “I got nothing,” he says. “I’m sorry, Mylene.” Papa Fuerte is done with the excuses. “You got nothin’, huh?” he says angrily. “I gave you $40,000 and you’ve got nothin’?” Just as he’s about to wring the failed producer’s neck, Jackie’s salvation enters the club. It’s Reverend Buggin’ Out, making good on his promise to return his brother’s money in person.
The pastor remembers Jackie from Mylene’s church audition. “Were you responsible for the dress?” he asks. When Mylene intervenes, he tells his daughter to shut up. Francisco’s defense of Mylene is met with another pious speech. Unfortunately for the good reverend, this is the episode where several people, as the slang term goes, “are about to get read.”
“If I weren’t a man of God,” begins the pastor, but Francisco shuts him down mid-sentence with a sarcastic giggle. “Man of God?” he asks incredulously. “You forget that you became a man of God in prison?”
“What did he say?!” Yolanda asks. “He said shit’s about to get real!” Regina responds.
Papa Fuerte unleashes a litany of offenses perpetrated by his holier-than-thou brother. In one of his prior arguments with his wife, Mylene’s dad alluded to a shady past by saying, “I do not want my daughter to go where I have been.” But when we find out where he’s been, all we can say is “DAAAAAMN! Reverend Buggin’ Out needs Jesus the way a fish needs water!”
“Preach to me all you want,” Francisco’s scorching speech begins, “but you’re still going to be that little pendejo who got two girls pregnant back in P.R. You ever wonder what happened to those kids you abandoned so you could come here to party in the land of milk and honey and cocaína? And then you get here and you almost kill a man and his little kid with your car! But you forgot that! You blacked out. Who are you to judge ANYONE?”
It’s a delicious takedown, one that leaves the pastor rambling in shock about his sins. But it gives Jackie just enough time to go into hustle-protection mode. As a stalling mechanism, he immediately cops to being a sinner. Then he lies to Mylene’s parents about how he wanted her to sing the gospel for disco audiences all along. Disco lovers go to the club seeking redemption, he argues, and we have to reach the sinners where they are. To do that, he’s writing “a Latin Pentecostal communal Puerto Rican disco hymn record” for Mylene to sing.
Sitting at the piano, Jackie sings a few bars of an existing church hymn. Then he adds some disco elements to make it his own. The social club’s band kicks in with some Latin funk, and Regina and Yolanda play along, singing backup. “Sing to me, Mylene!” he commands, and as she bellows out the lyrics, Jackie pulls an entire recording plan out of his ass. They’ll record at Reverend Buggin’ Out’s church, with a full choir and “that skinny boy” on the piano accompanying his girlfriend. The screen comes alive with Jackie’s vision, which is intercut with the resolution to Shao and Books’ dilemma.
In that other plotline, Kool Herc defuses the situation by addressing Boo-Boo first. “Do mustard and onions mean anything to you?” he asks, before Herc’s mother offers Boo-Boo a hot dog. Pedro, the “king of cassettes” who specializes in bootlegging DJ concerts, accuses Shao and the Get Down Brothers of recording Herc’s show. Pedro pulls out the same recording equipment he planted beforehand, attributing it to Ra-Ra and Shao. “That’s not our equipment!” Ra-Ra yells. But it’s his word against Pedro’s, and Pedro is “like family” to Kool Herc.
Books, ever the wordsmith, uses his verbal skills to rap about why his crew was in Herc territory. With Shao pounding out the beat on his chest, Books tells a story whose rhythm matches neatly with Mylene’s song. In a nod to both cliffhangers’ religious elements, Books calls Pedro a Judas while Shao pulls off Pedro’s jacket. A bunch of bootleg tapes fall to the floor. The Herculoids violently dethrone the King of Cassettes.
“When I came up, there was a time, when we rumbled with knuckles instead of rhymes,” Kool Herc raps. He then challenges Shao to settle their differences with an upcoming DJ battle between the Get Down Brothers and Herc’s crew, the Notorious 3. Shao gets Grandmaster Flash’s blessing to battle, and has his DJing ban temporarily lifted by the sensei, but not before he too gets read. “What do you want?” the Grandmaster asks. Shao’s shaky answer is met with a demand for passion: “There’s no fakin’ that fire, it beats your heart for you!”
“The Notorious 3 — them Herc boys — they got fans, they got experience, they got speakers so fucking loud they break concrete!” Flash explains. “What you got?”
Shao’s got his “wings,” that is, his crew members. As Universal DJ Rule No. 17 states, “In order to fly, a DJ must trust his wings.” Shao has to dig deep to find that trust, especially when Ra-Ra suggests the crew each take turns rapping rhymes written by Books over the beat. He has to dig even deeper — and swallow a bit of pride — when he realizes that the break in Mylene’s just-released record is “the perfect secret weapon” to defeat the Notorious 3. The sequences of the Get Down Brothers formulating their plan of attack are among the show’s most enjoyable this season.
Until now, we’ve been talking about success as a destination. Jackie’s last-minute save results in his life being spared, giving Mylene and her girls a chance to make a record for him to promote. Jackie’s plan also helps Mylene get back in her family’s good graces and under their roof. Dizzee’s graffiti is getting noticed on the regular, and he finds mutual admiration in a fellow tagger named Thor. The Get Down Brothers even have a good shot of unseating the South Bronx champions in a DJ battle.
These are all examples of the destination of success. But in the most powerful instance of a character getting read, The Get Down explores the definition of success. When Books arrives late for his internship, and is summarily (and unfairly) dismissed, his teacher goes off on him. When he says that he feels pressured into working with Papa Fuerte, and would rather rap, the teacher reminds him that he made those internship decisions on his own. She also says he needs to take responsibility for missing his appointment. Books’ continued protests are shut down. “So, fucking decide, Ezekiel!” the teacher yells. Her use of the F-word is effective because it’s so unexpected. “It’s up to you, make the choice!”
“So many of your classmates have a slave mentality,” she continues. “The idea that, if you’re smart and educated, you ain’t down and cool. Or God forbid, you ain’t black. But if you run in the street, and be ignorant, you’re real.” The boyfriend points out that, while there’s nothing wrong with him being a handyman, he might not have become one had his mother taught him piano like Books’, or made him read a book a week. “Right now, you got a comfort zone,” he says. “But your mama didn’t raise you for comfort. She raised you to be a man. To blaze your own trail without anybody with you.”
This scene choked me up because it highlighted a particular struggle that many poor kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods often experienced, myself included. It wasn’t written as some respectability politics nonsense. Books isn’t told to “pull up his pants.” Both the teacher and the boyfriend warn that opportunities shouldn’t be ignored simply to keep up appearances. Inspired, Books uses perseverance and his skills as a wordsmith to force Mr. Gunns to reconsider him. He knows success can be represented both by rapping and by gaming the mainstream system to help his people in the South Bronx.
For now, though, Books has a DJ battle to win. And his DJ has a date with Annie’s henchmen. He’ll be bringing the Les Inferno shooter Napoleon with him.