Dale Dickey (left), Danny McBride, Walton Goggins (Photo: Fred Norris)

Praise be to the weird team of Danny McBride, John Carcieri, Adam Countee, and director David Gordon Green for always finding ways to move Vice Principals forward, even when it looks like it’s about to take a few steps back. Last week’s episode, “The King,” was certainly funny, but it felt weirdly isolated from the overall arc of the season. The show started out hot this season, immediately picking up with Neil Gamby’s hunt for his shooter, and giving us a hint of the dictatorial stylings of Lee Russell as Principal, which made the meandering nature of “The King” all the more disappointing.

“Think Change” isn’t exactly a return to the “who shot Gamby?” plot either, but it’s a much more successful, funny, scathing episode of TV. As the episode gets underway, Gamby is searching for the drama teacher, Seychelles (thanks for the spelling IMDB), trying to round him up for Russell’s latest bit of cruelty masked as motivation: a team building boot camp. Russell’s hired the Sweat Dogs to whip his teachers into shape, a process he trusts because “they’ve even done it for Japanese corporations.” It’s indeed a boot camp, with hulking men and women shouting at every single teacher until they nearly break. “We’ve identified the weak one: the man in the infinity scarf,” they say about Seychelles.

These little bits of cruelty have been piling up for some time, and becoming more commonplace now that Russell is in charge of the school. For perhaps the first time though, Vice Principals takes the time to jump into why Russell is the way he is. Is that cruelty just part of his DNA, or does it come from someplace else? What’s driving that nastiness? “Think Change” starts to dig into those questions, and the catalyst for that exploration is somewhat surprising: Russell’s father passes away. It’s surprising because we haven’t really heard anything about his family before, and on top of that, something bad finally happens to Russell. It puts him in a reflective, slightly anxious mood, and that’s a strange sight to see.

It isn’t long before we get the first insight into why this is so hard for Russell. When he goes out to the woods to confide in Gamby, he tells a not so unusual story about fatherly neglect, but there’s one term in there that’s key. He calls his father a “man’s man,” and then talks about how he never felt loved compared to his sister’s, both of whom turned out to be tomboys. Not being able to live up to that very specific brand of masculinity clearly had its effect on Russell. You could argue that it’s affected his choice in wardrobe, the way he treats his wife and mother-in-law, and of course, how he rules North Jackson High School with an iron fist.

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Sending Russell away for an episode allows the show to not only dig into Russell’s personal life a little bit more, it also provides a moment of comparison between the two storylines. While Russell goes back home to attend his father’s funeral, Gamby stands in as the Principal for a single day, a period of time that Russell underlines emphatically quite a few times. In this splitting up of duties, and having Gamby step into Russell’s sacred position, “Think Change” is able to explore the harmful consequences of performative masculinity in different ways.

While those consequences are present in both stories this week, they’re most effectively deployed in Russell’s trip back home. The funeral puts us into Russell’s shoes, are for the first time ever we see him as a victim. Underneath all the snide comments and need for control over everyone around him is a little kid whose father didn’t love as much as his two sisters. His mother says so, his sisters remind him of it, and it’s never left Russell’s mind. He’s a fundamentally broken person, unsure of himself in every way. When he fights with his sisters over a model airplane, in the most childish way possible, it’s not only hilarious, it’s painful to watch because of how acutely it depicts a particular kind of cruelty, one that’s meant to cut a person down and leave them no room to get back up.

And now, Russell is doing the same thing to his teachers. He’s bringing in the Sweat Dogs to do exactly what his father and his sisters did to him. The Sweat Dogs are there to break the teachers down so that Russell can mold them in his own way. It takes a reformed Gamby to stop it from happening; he stepped up for Robin Shandrell earlier, and now he’s stepping up for his colleagues. “Seriously, don’t tell Russell,” he says after sending the Sweat Dogs away, but his frightened demeanor doesn’t change the fact that Gamby is becoming a different person, one who cares about the people around him. That just might put him on a collision course with Russell, who’s coming back from the funeral with an understanding that he can use kindness as a weapon to achieve his goals.

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Stray observations

  • “It’s not brainwashing, we call it Think Change.” “You, my friend, are fucking cool.”
  • Gamby may not understand the pain Russell is feeling, but as he says, “I still really, really pity you.”
  • Russell to Christine: “I’ll meet you in the car.” Russell to his mother-in-law: “Take my bags to the car, Mi-Cha.”
  • Gamby’s performative masculinity needs a little work if he’s going to be as nasty as Russell: “Come come, women, now.”

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