In order to understand Vice Principals and its particular brand of humor, you have to understand that there’s a single character trait within Neil Gamby and Lee Russell that makes them who they are. It’s not their vindictiveness, lack of a filter, or their propensity for blaming everyone else for their problems. It’s not their narcissism, which is there in spades, or their need to make everyone subservient to them. All of those things emanate from a single character trait: their insecurity. They are deeply insecure individuals who wield their power and influence as a way to make themselves feel better. They rarely make decisions that benefit the school or those around them. They are self-serving people, and all because they don’t feel comfortable with themselves, which is really saying something when we’re talking about one guy who consistently wears a bowtie.
What Gamby and Russell lack is any semblance of introspection. For the most part, they’re incapable of seeing their own wrongdoing, instead seeing themselves as victims at every turn. When something goes wrong with one of their outrageous schemes, they never point any fingers at themselves. Instead, they lash out. “That’s why I’m not married to her,” says Gamby when Gayle makes a snide comment about him, refusing to accept any responsibility for his own actions in the dissolution of his marriage. “Nobody gets my sense of humor,” says Russell after he calls his wife a “dusty old queef,” flaunting his own lack of self-awareness. In other words, your mileage when it comes to Vice Principals will likely vary based on how much gratification you get out of seeing two horrible men learn nothing about themselves.
What’s most interesting about this week’s episode, “Slaughter,” is that for the first time ever, Vice Principals is putting one of its reprehensible characters through the first steps of necessary change. What “Slaughter” does so well is take the ludicrous arc of the first season and begin to reckon with the consequences. Last week’s season premiere suggested that both Gamby and Russell were about to go down a similar path, learning nothing from the chaos they caused at North Jackson High. Russell was on his way to being a rather tyrannical Principal, and Gamby was back to his old self by the end of the premiere. “Slaughter” forces Gamby to ask an important question: does he really want to be his old self?
The thing is, change is difficult, and Gamby isn’t exactly the kind of guy willing to do the hard work. At the outset of the episode, Gamby is nowhere close to a personal revelation, instead doubling down on his racist hunt for the person who shot him. He takes his book of suspects, which happens to be filled with nothing but black kids, to Dayshawn, hoping for answers. Dayshawn challenges him, saying that he never once said the person he saw fleeing the scene was black. Gamby’s response is to say that the descriptive words Dayshawn used, including “fast, with greasy black hair,” suggested the shooter had to be black. It’s good insight into Gamby and Russell, as they’re two people who indulge heavily in confirmation bias.
From there, “Slaughter” proceeds to provide Gamby and Russell with two moral challenges, two opportunities for them to change for the better. For Russell, it’s trying to be nicer to his teaching staff when he hears them running him down. They go in on the way he dresses, his bad breath, and his frosted tips; “You’re not Greg Kinnear in the ‘90s” they say, which is just tremendous. For Gamby, he’s confronted with his own deplorable actions from the past. When he explores the possibility that a former student, Robin Shandrell, shot him, he tracks down the student, only to find him struggling to make ends meet while working at a slaughterhouse and taking care of his dying grandpa.
Normally, Gamby wouldn’t think twice about this kid, but when Robin lambasts him for planting drugs in his locker and ruining his life, Neil suddenly starts to take stock of his actions. He feels guilty for planting the evidence, and openly admits it to Russell. It’s in this moment that we witness the first signs of a split between the two former enemies, a split that deepens as the episode rolls on. When Gamby expresses regret about his actions and says Robin also isn’t the shooter, Russell is quick to fire back. “He’s definitely your shooter. Did you see how poor his family was? Poor people always commit crimes. It’s in their DNA.” Where Gamby is starting to challenge his preconceptions, Russell is failing, not realizing that his bargain-bin sushi lunch isn’t enough to get the teachers on his side. Before long he’s throwing raw fish on the table and plotting his revenge.
Sending Gamby and Russell in two different directions could prove fruitful. “Slaughter” isn’t quite as funny or biting as the season premiere, but it does serve as an episode that sets up the conflicts for the rest of the season. Russell’s meeting on the train tracks is the climax. He fires much of his staff and burns their ID badges as a symbol of his dominance. He screams and moans in relief. “I’m back!” he shouts, echoing Gamby’s return to North Jackson High at the end of the season premiere.
Things have changed though. Gamby’s inspired Russell’s vindictiveness, but he’s not sure about the purpose of it anymore. When Gamby leaves the train tracks, he finds Robin and tells him that while he can’t make up for what he did, he can give him readmission to North Jackson High so that he can finish school. It’s a genuinely moving gesture, largely because there’s no sarcasm or selfish behavior underneath it. It’s just Gamby trying to do the right thing, all while Russell is looking to burn everything to the ground. Will Gamby let that happen? Or can he truly change? His gesture toward Robin suggests he can, but when he sees Ms. Snodgrass drive off with her new boyfriend in a fancy car, you can feel the barely dormant resentment sneaking back in.
- Dayshawn’s lucky shoes are the ones covered in Gamby’s blood. Fair enough.
- Russell, jumping as Gamby comes into his office: “Why don’t you announce yourself?” Gamby: “Neil Gamby, I’m here.”
- Gamby is very thankful that Ms. Snodgrass was saying “I love you” to her mother and not her new boyfriend Brian. “Well you’ve known your mom for a long time, so it’s natural.”
- Russell taking his wife’s advice about being nice to people and turning it into “kindness is power” is pretty indicative of who he is. Human interaction is only interesting to him if it benefits him in some way.
- “I guess now I know what Willows stands for. Pussy willows!”
- Gamby is hesitant about admitting planting evidence, wondering if Russell thinks it’s cool. “Cool? I think it’s super fresh.”