The Get Down
“My aunt was right. Leon was right. Mylene was right. I’m a drug dealer.”
Books utters these words to Shao on the rooftop of Shao’s building. Shao tries to reassure him that Dizzee will recover from his near-fatal dusting incident. “He’s tough,” he says. But Books is troubled by more than that. He correctly pegs that the 10-51 Club exists primarily to sell Annie’s product. Accusing Shao of being more committed to drug pushing than D.J. scratching, Books recalls the origin of their friendship. “When I met you, Shao, it was because of a record. Because of music,” he says. “And we did it for free.”
Realizing life’s too short, Books demands that Shao help the Get Down Brothers break their contract with Fat Annie. Faced with this impossible task, Shao lashes out, citing that he has no family besides the Les Inferno crew. “You got me,” Books says. “Family is about love.” Fat Annie is all about business.
So begins the 10th episode of The Get Down, the intriguingly titled “Gamble Everything.” After the series’ best episode, we’re presented with its worst. It’s a heavy-handed and rushed affair, haunted by a visual and aural sense of impending doom that feels laid on with a trowel. Director Ed Bianchi goes for full Baz Luhrmann excess, and while there are pleasures to be had (the first 15 minutes are especially good), the entire thing feels forced and underwritten. Making matters worse, the Zulu Nation comes off more as a deus ex machina than a legitimate entity worthy of the same attention as Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash’s kingdoms in prior episodes.
Despite its shortcomings, this episode has one of the series’ best storylines, a showcase for Skylan Brooks’ Ra-Ra. Last episode, Ra-Ra was given a flier by Tanya, a queen in the Zulu Nation. The Zulu are ruled by the force behind the brilliant Kraftwerk-inspired jam “Planet Rock,” Afrika Bambaataa. Ra-Ra calls the regal Tanya, and is so overwhelmed by her presence on the other side of the phone that he fumbles his words. His opening line is “Hello Ra-Ra, this is Tanya!”
“You’re Tanya?” she asks. After digging himself even deeper into embarrassment, Ra-Ra requests a do-over. “I’ll call you back!” he says anxiously before hanging up the phone. “Did he just hang up on me,” Tanya asks incredulously. When Ra-Ra calls her back, he successfully procures a date, but there’s just one problem: Tanya lives in a ‘hood Ra-Ra has no desire to visit.
“So you scared to be my man?” asks Tanya after Ra-Ra balks at picking her up. I admired the honesty of his response: “I’m not scared, I’m petrified!” But he agrees to meet her in Little Vietnam. Before Tanya accepts the date, she demands that Ra-Ra sing a song. Ra-Ra not only sings to her, he sings Earth Wind and Fire’s Philip Bailey falsetto classic “Reasons,” a song so high that it’s killed more than one brother trying to impress a lady. But Ra-Ra nails his bars and the date’s on.
“The force is strong with this one,” Ra-Ra says to himself after hanging up the phone.
The force is also strong in the Zulu Nation, whose denizens are not about to let a Get Down Brother into their ‘hood. The Nation is fiercely anti-drug and Shao’s reputation has been tainted by the 10-51 debacle. Tanya sneaks him into the party instead and Ra-Ra gets a jolt of inspiration that he can’t wait to share with his crew. “Bambaataa’s a king, and gangsters are scared of him,” he tells Shao, providing a way for Shao to maneuver his way out of Fat Annie’s contract. It’s a better idea than Shao’s actual method, which involves pistol-whipping his benefactor unconscious when she reveals she’s ditching the DJ role on the novelty rap record. Fat Annie’s replacing Shaolin Fantastic with “a muthafuckin’ six-piece band.” That mistake will play out in the finale.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Kipling kids appear briefly. Jaden Smith, Tremaine Brown Jr. and Skylan Brooks have done a great job portraying the brotherly mix of camaraderie, rivalry and love. Boo-Boo’s unconditional acceptance of his weird-ass older brother is a comfort to all us weird-ass older brothers out there. He shares a nice, quiet moment with his recuperating brother, Dizzee, but it’s Yolanda who sets this episode’s problematic main plot in motion.
After backing out of the Soul Madonnas’ appearance at RubyCon due to her discomfort with the raunchy choreography, Yolanda snitches on her girls. When Mrs. Kipling hears about Mylene’s debut, she calls Mrs. Cruz. Unbeknownst to Mrs. K., Lydia and her hubby, Reverend Buggin’ Out, are having a full-on argument about his swollen ego. Now that Mylene’s a star, the church wants to broadcast a show from her huge new church— an idea that would put Reverend Buggin’ Out in the same league as his real-life Washington Heights partner in Jesus, Reverend Ike. But Rev. Ike sold trinkets his followers bought to improve their standing with the God of prosperity; Rev. Buggin’ Out only offers the word of God.
When told of Mylene’s plans, her father tells Mrs. Kipling she must be mistaken. A quick search of the house proves he is not. “Where’s Mylene?” he angrily demands. “I set her free, to be who she wants to be, to sing for herself!” says Lydia. “I’m not sitting back while you squeeze the life out of my daughter like you did to me,” she continues. “You’re not going to rise to stardom on my daughter’s back.” Lydia’s defiance is met with a brutal slap across the face, one she immediately reciprocates before being overpowered by her husband.
Lydia’s brutal beating is intercut with scenes from inside RubyCon, the sin-filled den of disco iniquity where Mylene is about to make her debut. According to its Joel Grey-in-Cabaret-style host, “Hell must be empty because all the devils are here!” I’ve put up with a lot of way-too-on-the-nose bullshit on this show, usually with bemused glee, but positioning this club as facilitating Reverend Buggin’ Out’s descent into Hell was a bridge too far for me. Eventually, he’ll show up at RubyCon, but before he does, Robert Stigwood and Roy Ashton do. They are met by a heavily- accented female greeter who says what I hope they tell me before I enter Hell.
“For blowjob or pharmaceuticals, just ring bell,” she says, handing the duo one of those old-school servant bells.
While I contemplated whether it was one ring for blow and two rings to be blown, Mylene, Books and Regina arrive at the RubyCon in their limo. Shane ushers the ladies into their dressing room to change. While they’re in there, the first of our unexpected guests arrives. It’s Misty Holloway, scorned lover, disco diva and still-bangin’ 30-year old who’s about to lose her acting debut to Mylene Cruz. And she came to slay.
After singing a killer version of the O’Jays classic “Backstabbers,” Misty pulls a few knives of her own. Mylene hears Misty throwing major shade and she panics. Books coaxes her out of her dressing room with what has become their mantra: “If you don’t believe, how am I gonna believe?” Mylene and Regina go on stage, and in the middle of their number, Mylene spots her father. She freaks out, but Books is there to encourage her to continue.
RubyCon is the first stop on Reverend Buggin’ Out’s hellish night. After seeing a sexualized Mylene singing about the stuff the Bible mentions only in Song of Solomon, the Good Reverend tries to drag her from the club. Someone rings the bell for ass beatings, and the bouncers gleefully dispense one to the crazed religious zealot screaming for his daughter. Before taking his whuppin’, I wish Giancarlo Esposito’s Pastor Ramon Cruz had yelled out “Lord help me! My daughter’s song sounds like something they dug out of Rihanna’s garbage can!” Because the supposedly dirty “Toy Box” is not only barely PG-13, it doesn’t live up to the hype we’ve been hearing about for three episodes. Granted, Herizen F. Guardiola sings the hell out of it, but unlike the usually consistent musical choices on this show, “Toy Box” evaporates the minute after you hear it.
Reverend Buggin’ Out’s second stop is to his brother Papa Fuerte’s house. Now drunk and as battered as his wife, he spots Lydia kissing her true love in the window. The Cruz brothers have a showdown, where Lydia reveals that Mylene is not his daughter: Papa Fuerte is a Papa in more than name only. Realizing that Mylene is his niece and not his progeny, Pastor Cruz makes his final stop at his huge new church. After recording a delusional, though not inaccurate, sermon on cassette, he blows his brains out. Fresh off her successful night at RubyCon, Mylene arrives to find his body.