I’m not really sure where Vice Principals stands in the TV rankings right now. It seems like it’s off most people’s radar, but it shouldn’t be. Vice Principals is finally delivering an arc worthy of McBride and Hill’s predecessor Eastbound and Down. In a lot of ways, Vice Principals will never live up to the subtle genius of Eastbound, but there’s still something to say for the way they’ve been slowly setting up an apocalyptic showdown between Neal Gamby and Lee Russell.
In a lot of ways, this episode serves as the origin story of Lee Russell while simultaneously depicting the coming-of-age moment of Neal Gamby. For those watching this show simply to laugh, you will be severely disappointed: in many ways Vice Principals is not committed to their jokes-per-minute count. Instead the show is dedicated to seeing their story play out through the lives of two villains at different points in their villainy. Neal Gamby is desperately trying to become a reformed man, having seen the light through the many women (and Ray) in his life. Belinda Brown showed him how to be patient, Amanda Snodgrass taught him how to love, his daughter taught him how to care, and Ray showed him everything else. It should be noted that Ray wouldn’t be in his life if it wasn’t for ex-wife, so let’s chalk this up to a woman as well.
After this episode it’s clear that Lee Russell’s relationship to women is the opposite. He views women as nothing but an obstacle. As mean as he is to his wife, he’s even more cruel to his mother in law. The teachers he fired, the way he treated Belinda Brown, and now, his relationship with his sisters. Lee says he is horrible because his sisters were horrible to him. This relationship has shaped his entire view on women, and although some might say that Lee respects his mother, the purpose of this episode is to disprove that.
Russell finds out his father has passed away, and that means Gamby will fill in as principal in his absence. Gamby is excited about the added responsibility, but it’s not like Russell hands him the keys to anything but absolute garbage. At one point, Russell acknowledges that it’s good to be king, but as I’ve alluded to in previous reviews, the Foot Fist Way line, “king of the dumbest kingdom,” permeates throughout this show. It’s time for Gamby to play king to the dumbest kingdom that is North Jackson High. In order to increase moral, Lee invites a group of Crossfit meatheads who call themselves Sweat Dogs (led by Scott Caan), who have the opposite effect. All of the teachers are near the point of rebellion as the Sweat Dogs are pushing too much out of them, and it’s becoming clear to Gamby that Russell cares little for cohesion and more for spectacle. And watching a bunch of peon teachers kill themselves in workouts is pure spectacle.
Gamby struggles to maintain respect throughout the episode, and often crumbles when confronted by the Sweat Dogs or Russell. It’s not until he sits in on an after-school workout does he decide to act. Rallying the teachers to his cause, he kicks the Sweat Dogs out and immediately wins the respect of the entire faculty. In this moment, Gamby has identified himself as an antithesis to Russell. Though he wishes to keep the peace, it’s clear that this will not last. Gamby has embraced the moment, and has emerged as a man reborn, following his own heart and moral code over the orders of a superior. This act hasn’t just caught the eye of Snodgrass, but expect the rest of the faculty to default to Gamby over Russell when he returns.
The origin of Lee Russell is simple: his older sisters are evil. As his mother says, their father was aware of how horrible they were to him, but he liked the girls more because they didn’t lie like Russell. Russell’s mother is going to the heart of his character. The idea that Russell is justified for being the sneak, coward, and manipulator he is, is immediately thrown out the window with his mother’s plea: “be good.” Some may say that Lee feigns respect for his mother, and when he speaks at his father’s funeral, he paints his sisters in a good light. But it’s all a ruse, because… with him it always is. Every single model plane he built with his father, he cathartically destroys. This is not just to represent the idea of self-destruction, or denying his nephews things that are rightfully his. This is to represent the Lee of the past: the weak-willed man who the world passed by. The man his father expected him to be. That man is dead. What lies in the rubble of broken plastic is the same villain that burned Belinda Brown’s house to the ground and most definitely shot Neal Gamby in the shoulder in order to become king of the dumbest kingdom. Hail, Russell.
Season 2, Episode 4 (S02E04)
Vice Principals airs Sundays at 9PM on HBO
Arman is a Seattle-based writer who often lives in LA and wants to be in New York. He has worked on Billy on The Street and Black-ish. He also loves sandwiches.
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Arman Mohazzabfar | Contributor