If we have to shuffle the first two episodes in the second half of The Get Down’s first season (and isn’t that a mouthful?) under the same header, then maybe that header should be “In Triplicate.”
It’s been a minute since the gods smiled on us with The Get Down Part 1, set in 1977, and in the interest of honesty, let’s say that little, if anything, has changed. The Get Down Boys continue to live up to their name. Mylene keeps rising higher and higher toward the heavens of superstardom. The adults in her life remain insistent on meddling in her affairs, except for good ol’ coke-addled Jackie Moreno, who encourages Mylene to do Mylene. Eric Bogosian just can’t stop making scumbaggery into an ascendant art form. What differs most in Part 2 is the year: The series has vaulted forward to 1978, and in 1978 it’s the little things that separate both halves of The Get Down’s romantic musical epic. Noticeably, the stakes are raised.
But more than anything, it’s the quality of production that’s evolved. The six premiere episodes of The Get Down, released in August of last year, overwhelmed with excess and sheer, effusive joy; the series knew what it wanted to be, but not necessarily how best to be it, and spun itself in a few circles while figuring its stuff out. The search for identity in each installment mixes with all the high-energy elation of the best block party you’ve ever been invited to, and the effect of the marriage between The Get Down’s purpose as narrative and its interests as entertainment wound up being positively bewildering, often in the best way possible. The next six chapters in the series are considerably more nimble, though, no less excessive but with much tighter organization and structure.
Thus: “In Triplicate,” a demand made of Zeke by Trent—assistant, or underling, to Mr. Gunns— barging into the office where Zeke is banging out his college entrance essay and assailing him with unfair aspersions about his work ethic. “Didn’t I tell you Mr. Gunns wants the building code petitions filed in triplicate? That’s three copies.” Zeke coolly turns him aside: He’s already done it, in triplicate, much as directors Lawrence Trilling (“Unfold Your Own Myth”) and Ed Bianchi (“The Beat Says, This Is the Way”) balance The Get Down’s splintering storylines by way of judicious and disciplined cross-cutting. There’s so much happening in both episodes that this level of methodical storytelling is essential to the episodes’ success, not only as individual segments but also as pieces of the show’s overarching whole.
But the relationship between Trent’s uptight white douchebaggery is even more specific than that. Three is an important number in “Unfold Your Own Myth” as well as in “The Beat Says, This Is the Way,” not to the extent that everything present in both boils down to a triumvirate, but certainly to the extent that The Get Down collects its many sprawling parts under a trio of plot lines after stretching its legs for a good 40 minutes. Notably, “Unfold Your Own Myth” ends by rotating between a trio of intimate betrayals: Zeke gets a little too close to Claudia (Julia Garner), Gunns’ punk rock-loving daughter; Mylene shares a joint in the backseat of a car with Shane, her record label’s A&R dude, after her Tiger Beat photo shoot (from which Zeke is conspicuously absent); and Francisco and Lydia surrender to the tension between them by screwing on her dresser.
So, too, does “The Beat Says, This Is the Way” reach a denouement split into three when Zeke, Shaolin Fantastic and the Kipling brothers each get their comeuppance after besting Cadillac in his own house and winning Annie’s favor, beating the odds to bring in a massive crowd at Les Inferno with only a day’s notice: Mylene corners Shaolin at his crib, Zeke’s aunt and uncle give him the business when he shows up at their apartment, and Ron Cephas Jones scores the line of the episode, and perhaps the line of the series so far, when excoriating his sons for sneaking around behind his back. (“I expected trouble from Dizzee. He come out the womb like Hannibal sacking Rome, but the three of you all at once?”) Maybe this is what success looks like: Trouble, and not the basic schoolyard kind, macho bullshit beefing and posturing, but existential trouble, the kind of trouble you have to put yourself on the cross to atone for, which is exactly what Zeke needs to do to get his future back on track thanks to Shao.
The friendship Zeke has with Shao has always been hazardous, but in “The Beat Says, This Is the Way,” it nearly gets deadly. Shao, attempting to round up the gang for their performance at Les Inferno, drops in on a Yale event for minorities hoping to secure admission into the school, where Zeke is suffering through racist ribbing (and yet more macho bullshit) just to make a good first impression on a pack of crackerjack douchebags. As is required in good television, Shao just causes mayhem, mayhem that ends with him drawing a gun on two pasty Yale alums to cap off a scuffle in the bathroom. The Get Down’s gangster element felt nearly superfluous in Part 1, but in Part 2 we appreciate the influence of Fat Annie and Cadillac for how it informs Shao’s worldview and divides him from Zeke. Shao knows who he is: He’s a man alone, and thus he’s in the same game as Annie and Cadillac. Zeke is hustling to figure himself out, caught with Mylene and Yale at one end of his axis and Shao and hip hop at the other.
There’s a little more nuance to it than that, of course: Mylene and Zeke both merely tolerate the pressures exerted on them by the adults in their lives, and hesitate at the realization that they’re ultimately just pawns in the plans and schemes of others. Mylene is a potential moneymaker for Roy and Ramon and Francisco. Zeke is a good-looking statistic, a way to satisfy Yale’s diversity quota, which is arguably well intended on the surface but inarguably ignorant beneath. (Gunns and his friend, Yale’s dean, both talk a good talk about marching with King, but c’mon: All of us in the audience know what’s really up here.) But peel away the layers and you’re left with a tale of two kids trying to realize their destinies, balked at every turn by people who, whether for good reasons or not, take steps to alter their courses.
Which makes The Get Down sound like a bromidic, arid cliché, devoid of either life or panache. This couldn’t be further from the case. Part 2 retains all the zing of Part 1, and even adds some of its own in the form of animated interstitials that are such a goddamn pleasure to watch you’ll almost wish the whole series had been imagined as a cartoon. But the series’ celebratory vibes are now housed upon a solid foundation of dramaturgy, and perhaps that explains why Part 2’s opening movements burst with such a current of immediacy. The Get Down doesn’t need to prove its vitality—Part 1 accomplished that handily—but that it’s so quick to assert itself in its return to air (so to speak) reminds us loud and clear all the same.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.