Now that’s how you end a season of television.
All credit to The Get Down’s sixth episode, "Raise Your Words, Not Your Voice," which served, by default, as the series’ mid-season finale: It’s a superlative piece of entertainment, and a successful distillation of the narrative’s underlying and overarching themes and subtexts. Staging the block party to end all block parties works in the favor of "Raise Your Words, Not Your Voice" as well as our own. But the party Books, Shao and the Kiplings marshal in "Only from Exile Can We Come Home" makes the one they throw in "Raise Your Words, Not Your Voice" look like the world’s most pathetic political rally (sans the xenophobia). Describing the alliance between the Get Down Boys and the kingdoms of DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa as a "party" is grossly inadequate, even. Kingdoms, after all, have a way of falling. Just ask Rome.
No, what the boys and the three hip hop gods accomplish in "Only from Exile Can We Come Home" is much greater and more meaningful than monarchy, something effectively immortal. The boys know it. Flash knows it. Herc knows it. Bambaataa knows it. Even Cadillac knows it, well enough at least that he decides to lay down his arms and go all-in on his record producing dreams (which, if the fates are kind, will give way to his astronautical dreams; if they do, hope for a spin-off, because watching Yahya Abdul-Mateen II dance on the moon would be nothing short of disco-strutting ecstasy). If The Get Down means to chronicle the birth of rap, and by extension the birth of hip hop as a culture (or, if you prefer, an aesthetic, and yours truly does indeed prefer), then this moment is the moment where hip hop’s identity as a unified and multi-disciplinary art form is truly, fully forged.
It’s a good moment. It might be the best moment the series has wrought to date, which is saying a lot now that we have all of Season One in our rearview. The Get Down has been out on a limb from its very first episode; by its very nature, it’s a gamble, a sprawling period tale built on a high count of interwoven plot lines, set against the backdrop of American turmoil and the rise of an entire genre of music from obscurity to global popularity. (Note the coda on "Only from Exile Can We Come Home": The Sugarhill Gang don’t feature directly in The Get Down’s storytelling, but they’re indirectly the beneficiaries of all the good we see done over the course of its unfolding mythmaking.) Now, with both halves of the season in the can, we get to appreciate and marvel at how well that gamble has paid off. Balancing this much plot isn’t easy, and if there are episodes that handle all that plot better than others, the fact that the show is able to balance it at all is impressive.
Take "Only from Exile Can We Come Home," which, following the leap to the darkest timeline taken in "Gamble Everything," must find resolutions for the following: Mylene’s grief, as well as her ascension to superstardom, as well as her new knowledge of her parentage; Books, Shao, and the Kiplings’ beef with Annie and Cadillac, with New York City, and with New York City’s other reigning rap kingdoms; Books’ personal strife with Wanda and Leon; Francisco’s now very complicated relationship with Mylene and Lydia, plus those troublesome accusations of arson; Cadillac’s feelings toward Annie and toward Shao; Dizzee’s (absolutely wonderful) love story with Thor; and probably about a half a dozen other things worth mentioning, because this show doesn’t give a crap about streamlining or self-editing. (Remember whose name is up there on the proverbial marquee. Baz Luhrmann doesn’t mess around with humble projects.)
That’s a lot, but you wouldn’t know it by the time the end credits start to roll. "Only from Exile Can We Come Home" is long enough—feature-length long, in point of fact—that addressing each of these threads is simple, but that introduces the challenge of harmonizing them. You probably won’t find this surprising, but the harmonies are spot-on. Mylene’s impromptu musical number with Jackie, his drag queen friends and Dee Dee Ramone crosscuts with Dizzee and Thor in the zone, painting on canvases, themselves, and each other in a touchingly trippy expression of their creative powers and their joint affection; Roy’s desperate efforts to persuade Robert Stigwood to hold out for Mylene contrasts with her anguish as she grieves over her father’sher uncle’s Ramon’s violent passing; Cadillac’s decision to abandon Annie for the pursuit of his own dreams compliments the eventual dissolution of Shao’s newfound family vis-à-vis the downfall of the Get Down Boys.
Note that I said "immortal," and not "invincible." There has long been too much pressure built up in the success of the crew for that success to sustain itself; eventually, we all had to know, deep down inside, that after so many fits, starts, and near-misses, the Get Down Boys would be defeated, whether by law, or by life, or by bad choices. That Shao should be both the key to the group’s triumph and also the catalyst for its implosion is bitterly poetic, though perhaps less so than the direction Books and Mylene’s romance takes in the final moments of "Only from Exile Can We Come Home." (At least they’re both winning, though, even if long distance might put a strain on their relationship. What happens to Shao is a fate deserved by no one. It’s bad enough to return to Annie without the uncomfortable connections Shao draws between himself and his spiritual brother, Cadillac, but with those connections drawn, you kinda wonder if he’d be better off just eating a bullet.)
There’s an operatic, soapy quality to the episode’s tone and timbre, a positively melodramatic texture to the height of its highs and the depths of its lows. At times, it verges on corny. But that corniness helps. It’s a spoonful of sugar to help make the darkness go down easier. The Get Down’s first season ends in ambiguity; Francisco and Boo-Boo are both off to jail, yes, and Shao is once again under Annie’s dominion, yes, and yes, unpacking what happens to Dizzee and Thor’s final collaboration, that gorgeous train-side "you cannot imagine what we’ll become" tag, is kind of impossible. Things did, in fact, get a whole lot worse. But there’s a future to hope for, one where Books raps on stage to a crowd of thousands while Mylene, Yolanda, and Regina sing back-up (perhaps?). It’s just uncertain who else exists in that future with them. Until we get a second season of The Get Down, we can only imagine.
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.