Walton Goggins (Photo: Fred Norris)

The penultimate episode of Vice Principals concluded on a note that felt very much like the end of the series. The teachers had finally pushed Russell out of North Jackson High, Snodgrass and Gamby found their way back to each other and shared a kiss, and everything was looking up for the students with prom right around the corner. The first scene of the actual series finale confirms such a reading. North Jackson High is a place of relative calm. Gamby might not be the showman that Russell is, which means his morning announcements are rather robotic, but it’s a small price to pay for some semblance of order and community.

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The school is running smoothly as Gamby and everyone prepares for the final day, and for graduation. Sure, Abbott and Snodgrass are at each other’s throats, but there’s a noticeable lack of conflict elsewhere. At a graduation party for Janelle, who’s about to make the transition to high school, Gamby and Snodgrass settle into a routine of domestic bliss. When Gamby wants to blow up at a kid that Janelle clearly has a crush on—“she’s been liking his Twitters,” says Ray—Snodgrass pulls him back and gets him to calm down. “Wow. He listened,” says Gale, but it’s not a comment with any malice, but rather genuine pleasure at seeing Gamby’s improvement.

Really, that’s been the arc of this season. After Gamby and Russell did reprehensible things last year to remove Belinda Brown from North Jackson High, they’ve been on a path to do better this year. They’ve faltered along the way, but their journey is the heart of the show. It’s the anchor for all the vulgarity and ridiculousness. Without that, you have a show that shocks just for the sake of it. The second season of Vice Principals has been much more than that, using Gamby and Russell to examine how men with narrow, often hurtful perspectives might learn to change and be better to those around them.

Of course, that kind of sweetness and serenity can’t last for long. This is Vice Principals and it has a season to wrap up, and as we know from previous experience, that means some serious stuff is about to go down. The first worrisome sign comes when Gamby learns that Russell has paid $25,000 to have a live tiger in a cage at the graduation so that all the students can take pictures with it. The combination of Russell’s plan and a live tiger is a recipe for disaster, and the episode expertly plays with our expectations of brutality. Chekhov’s tiger has to attack at some point.

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Everything starts to go off the rails when Russell forces himself to figure out who truly shot Gamby. As many of us have suspected, it was Abbott, her jealousy and creepy love for Gamby motivating her. I’m not sure that “The Union Of The Wizard & The Warrior” tops the visual madness of the previous episode, but when Russell shows up at Gamby’s cabin in the woods to tell him the truth, the finale kicks into high gear and doesn’t let up until the end.

What makes the back half of this episode so incredible is that it never shies away from the story it’s telling. The plot may be over-the-top, but Vice Principals plays it straight, and the result is some great tension between the two different tones. This show has always strove to keep its audience off balance. It was there in the first season when it was difficult to accept Gamby and Russell’s horrendous actions while also laughing at all the jokes. It’s been there throughout this season as well, as Gamby and Russell—the former more than the latter, admittedly—have attempted to reform themselves. They’re asking for forgiveness, but not necessarily showing that they deserve it.

That moral uncertainty is, to me, what separates Vice Principals from a lot of other comedies. There’s no easy lesson here, no neat and tidy happy ending that tells us “here’s exactly how you should feel.” Instead, Vice Principals, across two seasons, challenged us to understand what motivates these characters to act the way they do. This isn’t a simple story of Gamby and Russell learning to trust each other, with Abbott as the eventual villain and Snodgrass as the typical romantic pursuit. Instead, this is a contained story about two terrible guys maybe learning to be a little less terrible by the time they’ve been through some shit together.

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Perhaps this is me going completely off a TV critic ledge, but there’s something beautiful in that final scene that’s reminiscent of the “we dug coal together” coda from Justified’s finale. It’s been three months since Abbott was revealed as Gamby’s shooter, which led to all sorts of craziness—when Gamby and Russell try to stop Abbot once and for all, she lets out the tiger Russell purchased, forcing the school’s graduation to go completely off the rails—and everyone is settling into their new roles nicely. Gamby is now the principal at an elementary school; Janelle is arriving for her first day at North Jackson High, where Nash is the principal; and Russell has found his true calling, working in a retail store where he can boss around bratty kids.

Then, in the mall’s food court, Gamby and Russell share a look. Russell is eating with his coworkers, and Gamby is enjoying lunch with Snodgrass, but they momentarily lock eyes with each other. There’s a nod and a smile that conveys their bond. It’s more “we did some fucked up shit together” than “we dug coal together,” but there’s that sense that they’ve made each other better. They had to go through what they did—the lies, the betrayals, the arson—in order to become (slightly) better people.

I think there’s an honesty in that slight arc that’s both challenging and rewarding. Vice Principals is uncomfortable not only because it’s asking us to laugh at horrific actions, but it’s also suggesting that we’re all capable of some sort of violence (emotional or physical) when we’re gunning for something that we want. The show understands that Gamby and Russell are victims of their narrow perspective. They are stubborn men who can’t see the real harm they are doing, and what Vice Principals is asking is, what if that’s us? What harmful character traits within ourselves are we failing to see?

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Answering those questions is uncomfortable, and that’s the murky waters Vice Principals loves to splash around in. What this show managed to do across 18 episodes is not only tell a compelling, ludicrous story about how pursuing power for the sake of it is a morally empty thing to do, but also ask us to look in the mirror and examine our cruelty, our own ability to throw others under the bus if it means we get something in return. In its own weird way, Vice Principals is a map for navigating the messiness of human nature and the feeling that we’re all growing increasingly divided from one another. In essence, a show that understands that while nobody’s perfect, if you’re working towards being somebody better, you’re on the right track.

Stray observations

  • First things first: earlier today I chatted with Danny McBride about everything Vice Principals. From crafting a show with a specific amount of episodes, to the brilliance of Walton Goggins and Edi Patterson, we dug into just what made this show so great. Give it a read, won’t you?

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  • Russell’s apology to Dr. Brown comes with a surprising amount of honesty: “It makes sense. I have a record of fucking people over.”
  • “That crab ain’t going to make you feel better.”
  • “Tiger comes, tiger goes, I still get my 25 large.”
  • I shivered in fear when Abbott started humming while walking Gamby away from Russell’s presumably dead body.

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  • Gamby: “You shot Russell!” Abbott: “Yes, I know. I fucking hated him, duh!”
  • “Those are not my panties. Those are little boys underwear.”
  • The whole brief scene where Gamby is trapped in the pit and he’s arguing with Russell to get him out is fantastic. Even as they’re both on the verge of death, they’re still bickering.

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  • Random cafeteria worker after Abbott locks herself in the tiger cage: “Fuck this shit, I’m going home.” Good to know there’s one person here who knows how ridiculous this all is.
  • “We’re going to use the side doors because out those doors the carnivorous creature roams.”
  • Russell, after getting attacked by the tiger, sums up Vice Principals: “I know what we did was wrong, but I liked it. It was fun.”

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