Russell is a fragile man who can’t catch a break. Perhaps that’s karma, as the universe offsets all of his toxic nonsense and unrelenting cruelty with moments that make him cower in fear and frustration. No matter the reasons, be they spiritual or just plain bad luck, it’s clear that Russell’s path in the second season is one of moral reckoning and personal downfall. Last week he had to come up against traumatic childhood memories, ones that presumably shaped him into the villainous, insecure man he is. He was powerless against his sisters as they stole his pants in the garage; a moment of vulnerability, one that positioned him as that inadequate kid once again. This week, he tries to make up for that by throwing himself a birthday party. After all, what better way to counter a traumatic experience than by forcing all of your apathetic coworkers to prove their love to you?
Before the party even begins though, Russell’s futile attempt at meaningful human connection begins to go off the rails. When he’s out to dinner with Christine, an ex-boyfriend of hers, Kevin Yoon, approaches her and mentions that he’s in town for a few days and that they should all catch up. They all went to school together, and the years since then have certainly changed them.
It’s not necessarily the presence of an ex-boyfriend that begins to ruin Russell’s upcoming birthday, but rather something Kevin says that drives a wedge between him and Christine. In the car on the way home, Christine mentions that Kevin has a wife and kids, despite the fact that she broke up with him for being gay in college. Both her and Russell remember the graphic rumors about him, but it doesn’t take long for Christine to suspect her husband of being the one to spread them. Russell only has one response: “let’s just drop it. Avril Lavinge!” he shouts before turning on “Here’s To Never Growing Up” and singing at the top of his lungs. As you’d expect, Walton Goggins singing a horrendous Canadian pop song is all sorts of surreal and hilarious.
That’s the moment when the chaos first begins to settle in, and luckily enough, Vice Principals thrives when embracing chaos. Goggins in particular is delightful in this episode, slow-burning Russell’s madness before everything comes crashing down around him. He goes from a man in control, if overly ambitious about his party, to someone who’s perhaps lost his family by episode’s end. “You don’t care who you hurt, as long as Lee Russell gets what he wants,” says Christine. In a single sentence she cuts to the truth about her husband; he is a dissatisfied man who hopes to bring everyone down to his level.
What’s rather interesting about “A Compassionate Man” is that Vice Principals continues to send Gamby and Russell down different paths. It’s difficult to say that Gamby is some sort of truly reformed man—when he invites Robin Shandrell to the party, it’s for purely selfish reasons—but he’s at least trying to move away from his past behavior and become someone better. Gamby is still too focused on himself to truly change though. Doing good things with the narrow goal of making others perceive you as good is no way to become a good person; just ask The Good Place.
Isn’t that what both Gamby and Russell are doing here, just to different degrees? Gamby certainly has more potential to change, and even if his motivation isn’t great, it’s at least directed toward another person and comes from a place of genuine affection. Plus, it doesn’t feel like that’s his only motivation. He does seem to want Robin to succeed, and his heart breaks for Russell when his party goes awry. Then again, he also high fives Ms. Abbott after learning that she drugged Brian’s drink in order to make him collapse and look weak in front of Snodgrass. So, parsing all this out isn’t exactly a science.
Still, the success of “A Compassionate Man” comes from the way the show uses the insecure needs of Russell and Gamby to create comedy. As expected, Russell’s party goes off the rails, which is a hell of a lot of fun to watch happen, and that’s mostly because Russell is throwing himself a party rather than focusing on his guests. He orders Gamby to do a toast and gets exactly what he deserves. When Superintendent Haas makes a joke about how grateful Russell should be because he married a doctor and can live the fancier life he so craves, Goggins produces a gaze that’s both hurt and angry, and that’s the Lee Russell sweet spot.
What’s also remarkable about “A Compassionate Man” is that it might just be the best episode of the season while also serving as a transitional one. It feels like the events here, from Christine confronting Russell in front of everyone to Gamby and Abbott going a step too far with sabotaging Brian, will signal some changes as the series heads into its last few episodes. There’s still no real sense of direction in terms of an overarching plot or what Vice Principals is trying to achieve before it wraps up for good, but considering how the first season built to its climax, there’s plenty of reason to have faith in the show’s vision. And in the meantime, we can sit back and enjoy chaotic, darkly funny episodes like “A Compassionate Man.”
- Gamby: “I gotta do my job and solve this murder?” Nash: “Attempted murder.” Gamby: “Nash, don’t lessen what happened to me.”
- Nash seems to have a pretty good understanding of Abbott: “She seems friggin’ cuckoo beans, but her body’s kinda rockin’. You could do worse. I’d fuck her.”
- Gamby, after Ms. Abbott offers to go fool around because she has a convenient hole in her panties: “Why do you have a hole in your panties?” Abbott: “I was rubbing it with rocks.”
- “If you walk around dressed like the type of person who would take a shit on something, don’t be surprised if somebody accuses you of doing it.”