Serious question: How often do the teenage cast members of The Get Down actually register as teenage to you all out there in Readerland? Always? Sometimes? Rarely? The Get Down doesn’t exactly disguise or veil its primary and supporting characters’ youth, but they each find themselves in such increasingly adult circumstances from one episode to the next that it’s easy to overlook their greenness.
Not so much in “One by One, Into the Dark” and “Gamble Everything,” at once two of the best and the messiest installments in The Get Down’s episodic progression. (Read Paste’s review of episodes 7 and 8 here.) The sense of the characters’ age is the product of an early scene in the school cafeteria, where Ra-Ra and Books try to find a seat to during lunchtime; it’s one of the most personal and ritualized components of any child’s school day. The scene doesn’t make much hay with the setting, mostly just using it to set up Ra-Ra’s eventual arc into “Gamble Everything” with his crush, Tanya, but the anarchic instability of adolescence stays with us regardless. In the interest of fairness, seeing Winston and Adele Kipling mete out harsh parental justice upon their wayward brood in “The Beat Says, This Is the Way” is probably more meaningful in terms of asserting the kids’ age, but sometimes it’s the simplest details that resonate loudest.
After that, try watching The Get Down without constantly reminding yourself that the Get Down Boys are just that—boys. They’re people-in-process, little men who lack much by way of practical life experience, save for their experiences playing music in clubs run by drug-dealing scumbags. (And make no mistake, Fat Annie and Cadillac are indeed drug-dealing scumbags.) This is a hard-ish pill to swallow; Fat Annie is, after all, making the boys’ dream come true by offering them a record contract on Cadillac’s label, while Cadillac oozes cool to offset his dastardliness. If he threw a party, you’d attend it, even if you knew what a monster he really is. The man knows a good time when he sees one, and when he does not see one, he says inwardly, “No, this shall not be,” and creates one out of ether.
(Aside: The majority of the credit for Cadillac’s magnetism must go to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who can’t stop being charismatic even when he’s being vindictive and/or dangerous. While we’re on the subject, why don’t we also give some love to Lillias White, because listening to her school Shao and Cadillac both on the cyclical nature of music inspires awe, much as her rage inspires fear.)
So what we have with The Get Down is a pack of teens caught in the lion’s drug den and now trapped in a battle for their very souls, which they’re poorly equipped to fight. Maybe Ra-Ra has found their salvation in the Zulu Nation, where they may enjoy the protection of the legendary Afrika Bambaataa from people like Fat Annie and Cadillac. Maybe Books has the right idea by finally casting down Gunns and allying himself with Shao, his best friend, turning away from the future others want for him for the future he wants for himself. If we scoot over to the Ruby Con, maybe Mylene has the right idea to sing and perform for her own satisfaction, rather than to further the ambitions of her father and her uncle. (Of course, the two most prominent puppeteers in Mylene’s and Books’ lives happen to be unscrupulous white men.)
But Mylene and Books are still just a couple of young’ns, and they’re both in way, way over their heads. “One by One, Into the Dark” and ”Gamble Everything” crystallize the idea that these two star-crossed lovers are both canoeing sans paddle. This isn’t to say that The Get Down disagrees with the mandates passed down by the adults in Mylene’s life; it agrees explicitly with Leon and Wanda, as Books chides himself aloud for denying their advice, and implicitly with Mylene’s two male guardians. They might prioritize their interests over her own, but as freeing as it is to see Mylene outshine her idol, Misty Holloway, at the Ruby Con, we understand and even empathize with Ramon’s horror at the sight of his child gyrating on stage (the music’s far too modern and far too cheap for its own good). We understand, too, why Francisco puts the boot to Shao’s front door, steam practically shooting out of his ears, fire practically jetting out of his mouth, as he makes threats in Spanish too obscene for either the closed captioning or Books to translate.
These guys don’t always care about Mylene in the ways that they should, but at the end of the day, they do care. Why wouldn’t they? How could they not? Mylene is just a kid. Books is just a kid, too, but he at least has the benefit of having two balanced adults in his life, much as Ra-Ra and Boo-Boo and Dizzee have Winston and Adele. Mylene, by contrast, has a religious zealot for a father and an amoral political ascendant for an uncle, except flip that the other way around: “Gamble Everything” finally makes plain what The Get Down has hinted at for forever, which is that Mylene is actually Francisco’s daughter and not Ramon’s, a truth Lydia is all too happy to reveal in conversation with both men, her nuclear option for liberating herself from her stifling marriage with Ramon after he beats her. You almost want to feel bad for him. (Maybe to a point, you do. Ramon is a monster, but he’s a pitiable monster, right up until his last moments, before he eats a bullet in his own church.)
The Get Down has rarely felt as bleak as it feels in the conclusion of “Gamble Everything,” but “One by One, Into the Dark” and ”Gamble Everything” are bleak all over. Yes, there is bliss to be found in both: Dizzee’s reunion with Thor, facilitated through another set of exquisite and colorfully wrought animations, genuinely sends us soaring, while the Get Down Boys’ capstone performance in “One by One, Into the Dark” energizes us the way that the series’ musical numbers so often do. But this time the music is tainted. Not that we haven’t seen people pass drugs around during Get Down shows in past episodes, but Cadillac’s plot to get revenge on the boys is many leagues apart from the unsettling but innocuous dope-peddling we’re accustomed to. This time, people get hurt, including Dizzee.
And many more people get hurt after that: Annie, Ramon, Lydia, Francisco, Mylene, Books, and so on down the line. Nobody goes unscathed in the fallout of the 10-51 Club calamity, just as no one will go unscathed in the wake of Ramon’s suicide. In most shows, these events would just be horrible. In The Get Down, they’re something more. Yes, yes: “Won’t someone think of the children?” It sounds like preaching, and to an extent it is. Come on, though, won’t someone think of the children? They have enough on their plates to deal with without having to worry about death, either the fear of death or the realization of death. But death is around the corner everywhere, everyday, whether at the business end of a bullet or an encounter with angel dust, whose specter hangs over “Gamble Everything” and especially “One by One, Into the Dark,” whose title feels like a foreshadowing of just how grim things are about to get. If anything, they’re poised to get a whole lot worse from here on out.
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.