Season two of Vice Principals has been a marked improvement on the first. The greatness that reared its head every now and then throughout the first season, and especially in its back half, has been front and center in nearly every episode this season. The storytelling feels tighter and more inspired; David Gordon Green’s direction has provided a subtle anchor for the wild creative vision; and on top of that, the cast has found a new level of comfort with these characters. Where the first season was very much a showcase for the comedic viciousness of Danny McBride, Walton Goggins, and Kimberly Hebert Gregory (a sorely missed presence in season two), this season has allowed the ensemble to flourish.
With that in mind, there may be no better string of scenes across the show’s two season, and perhaps in any half-hour comedy this year, than the ones that make up the first half of “Venetian Nights.” The first 15 minutes of this episode are some of most exquisitely paced, incredibly funny, and visually inspired comedy I’ve seen in 2017. Every single beat, every single line, and every single shift of the camera seems to serve a purpose, all building to a ludicrous, manic crescendo that sees Gamby and Russell fighting their way through the entire school as everyone looks on in shock and delight.
It all begins with Superintendent Haas announcing that the HASP scores are in, and that North Jackson High boasted the highest score in the state, much to the shock of the teachers who tried to sabotage Russell. As we know, there are two situations that allow Walton Goggins to shine as Russell: when he’s struggling to remain in control, and when he’s basking in a sweet, manipulative victory.
This time Russell is enjoying his moment. He calls the five teachers who plotted against him up on to the stage, and adorns them with paper gold star necklaces. “These are my Gold Star Teachers,” he says. He says how proud he is of them, and how integral they are to the students’ success. Because of that, he announces that each of them will now be available to the students 24/7, and that their personal emails and phone numbers will be posted for all to see. It’s a notable scene because it’s not Russell being the openly monstrous man we know he can be. It’s more subtle, and suggests that North Jackson High is in for many more years of Russell being a passive aggressive dictator.
Riding high on his victory, Russell then gets a note from Gamby to meet at the train tracks, and the two have their face-to-face showdown that’s been brewing all season, but only threatened to truly come to a head after last week’s late-episode discovery. Gamby hilariously pulls the exact same shtick he did earlier in the season—“So Russell, do you feel bad about shooting me?”—and then tells Russell that he’s going to resign and never come back, otherwise he’ll shoot him.
All of this plotting and scheming contributes to a truly manic pace, and it’s the most fun the show has been all season. Danny McBride, stepping in to direct this single episode, does a wonderful job of putting the scenes together in a way that not only builds the tension, but also makes the cathartic payoff all the more intense. After Gamby gets chastised by the teachers for helping Russell keep his job—the students looking on in amazement as the teachers fling insults and curse words at each other is a great comedic touch—the episode becomes an avalanche of events that lead to the aforementioned fight through the school. Russell doesn’t take Gamby’s threat seriously, and he confidently struts back into school the next day. That sends Gamby to Snodgrass, and he tells her everything, saying that he needs to get the teachers on his side to take down the man he believes tried to kill him.
Then, when Russell fires Gamby, “Venetian Nights” rolls out a scene of delightful chaos. While Russell delivers the morning announcements via live video, Gamby attacks him with a paddle, and that sends them careening through the hallways, cafeteria, and eventually outside, fighting each other with every object they can find. Food is thrown, Gamby throws his foe through a window, and Russell uses a wet floor sign as a giant, snapping mouth. On top of the chaos, McBride uses a number of long shots, following Gamby and Russell as they run down the hallway like Paul Thomas Anderson followed Joaquin Phoenix walking the pier in The Master. We get a sense of Gamby and Russell moving through time and space that adds to the turbulent atmosphere of the scene. It’s this mix of carefully artful and patently absurd that Vice Principals often trades in, and this is the pinnacle of that mix.
Of course, “Venetian Nights” is much more than its incredible first 15 minutes. It’s also the storm before the calm before the storm. In a way, “Venetian Nights” sees Gamby triumph once and for all. He convinces Christine and Mi-Cha to help him blackmail Russell. They give him a diary that his sisters kept, detailing all of young Russell’s depravities. Gamby threatens to read it over the school’s P.A. system during prom night if Russell doesn’t leave North Jackson High once and for all.
It’s a great build to a final scene that sees Gamby finally get one up on Russell. Big Black Delta’s “Roost” builds to an electronic catharsis, and Gamby and Snodgrass kiss in the neon light, evoking the aesthetic of Drive or Only God Forgives. But like those films, revenge is certainly on the horizon, and this can’t be the last we’ve seen of Russell. We already know that McBride and company can construct a surreal, unforgettable season finale. Now we get to see what they do with a series finale, when there’s no limit to what they can put these characters through.
- I nearly died laughing at the bit where Russell can’t seem to comprehend Gamby’s illustrated message to meet him at the train tracks. Russell: “What the fuck is this? A spaceship on a ladder?” Swift: “I think it’s a train.” Russell: “...on a ladder?”
- When all of this is over, I’d be down for a spinoff show that’s just Gamby and Ray travelling around the country and getting to know each other.
- “I’m just training to play basketball. Maybe this will be my new life. I’ll play pickup games for money.”
- Snodgrass has a neat way of summing up Vice Principals when she gives Gamby the pep talk he needs. “I mean, what you’ve done is very fucked up, but I believe you’re a good person and your heart’s in the right place.”
- Next week is the series finale. You’re not going to want to miss it.