Vice Principals Season Finale Recap: Checkmate

Walton Goggins as Russell, Danny McBride as Gamby. Photo: Fred Norris/HBO
Vice Principals
Episode Title
End of the Line
Editor’s Rating

After teasing viewers with a more mature Neal Gamby (Danny McBride), the team behind Vice Principals brought back the show's truly dark edge, reuniting Gamby and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) in their quest to destroy Principal Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). Last week's penultimate episode reached truly grim territory: Brown's kids left town, and then Gamby pushed her off the sobriety wagon. In one of the most uncomfortable scenes I've seen on any show this year, a drunk Brown climbed on top of a cop car and urinated before falling to the ground. And Russell got it all on the record.

"End of the Line" picks up right where that episode left off. Gamby feels bad; Russell is ecstatic. As they destroy the evidence of their plan to ruin Brown, Russell says, "This is how leaders are made." The idea that dumb sociopaths like Russell think that the only way to climb the ladder is to literally destroy the person above you has been one of the more interesting, but underdeveloped, themes of the season. Some men are taught not just to beat those in their way, but to do whatever it takes to do so, and the most interesting element of Vice Principals has always been the difference in the way Gamby and Russell do that — the former being a naïve dreamer and the latter a total lunatic. The theme of the show could be "there's a difference between and asshole and a sociopath," although this concept was never developed quite as thoroughly as the first episodes indicated it might have been. Hopefully in season two.

Before then, we get full proof of Russell's lunacy. While he's gleefully shitting his pants from excitement, Gamby is using his happiness to mend his family ties. He buys Janelle a new horse, but she really wants another motorbike. In one of the episode's funnier bits, he cites Einstein's definition of insanity as "the definition of being a dumb ass." He tells her that he's definitely going to be principal, bringing the show's dual family dynamics to light: Gamby wants the job to bring his family together; Russell wants it to piss off his mother-in-law.

It's time for the moment of truth as Gamby, Russell, and Brown head into the woods, which is a normal thing to do only in the world of this show. She apologizes for the night before, and Gamby hesitates at saying his scripted line: "End of the line, bitch." Russell says it for him and shoves the video from the night before in her face. It's "the last nail in your coffin, our boot to your ass." He even admits that they burned her house down and she reacts accordingly — by attacking him. She kicks at Russell for a while before landing a few punches on Gamby's dumb face. To stop her, Russell threatens to upload the video. If she resigns, it'll stay a secret.

The next day, it looks like that's what happened. She isn't in the lot and no one has heard from her. The superintendent calls for Gamby and Russell, and they reveal to the rest of the teachers that Brown is gone, probably forever. Almost immediately, Gamby runs a power trip on Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King). She doesn't understand why he's being a dick, which makes no sense given his past behavior, and Gamby talks about being her mentor, supervisor, and boss. This subplot has been one of the weaker elements of the season: Amanda is a horribly underwritten character, her emotion and romantic interest totally inconsistent. Even in this finale, she feels like a little boy's sketch more than a real person, inexplicably trying to protect Gamby and cutting him slack that no one else would.

Anyway, Gamby and Russell are made co-principals while the school district sorts out the future. Will season two be about them battling for power against one another? As they celebrate in slow motion, the episode raises an even more urgent question: Could this season actually be about these two assholes getting everything they ever wanted? Of course not. The other shoe has to drop.

In the episode's funniest sight gag, Gamby family throws him a surprise congratulatory party and he panics, throwing his bag across the room. The title is official: Principal Neal Gamby. Even Gale (Busy Phillips) congratulates him, and Gamby reveals that he bought Janelle a bike. We also see Russell looking at his picture on the site already.

The next morning, Gamby and Russell raise a flag on "a new age for North Jackson High" before they prowl the halls to "Who Dat" by J. Cole. Everyone loves them. They even get the sign of true glory: chocolate-chip pancakes. It's a lot of relatively fun delayed gratification, since we know the season can't end with these two jerks on top of the world.

Before the cliffhanger, Gamby goes to meet with Snodgrass. She's happy for him and he apologizes for overreacting because he was jealous. McBride has a line about trying to be better, and I'll be a lot more interested in season two if it focuses on that idea — an asshole trying to be a better man. Gamby sweet-talks Snodgrass like only a principal can (read: her budgets will be approved) and kisses her.

Boom. Emergency! Gamby's and Russell's cars are on fire. As he calls for help, both vehicles explode. It looks like Brown is not the principal to fuck with, especially when a masked figure strolls up to Gamby and shoots him in the shoulder and stomach. Although the season ends with him lying in a pool of blood, it's pretty safe to say that he'll live. Will a brush with death make Neal Gamby a better man in the second season? Or will this just make him madder and dumber? Only time will tell.

Final Notes:

  • Vice Principals is only a two-season, 18-episode venture, and the creators have already outlined the entire arc of the show. So don't worry that this is a cliffhanger that has no predetermined follow-through.
  • Is Walton Goggins too good an actor for this show? The star of Justified and The Hateful Eight is always a phenomenal actor, but he was so intense here. Look at that scene on the train tracks, where his aggression is downright frightening. The problem was that Russell (and to a lesser extent, Gamby) crossed over from an antihero to just an asshole, and I think that's why Vice Principals never quite took off. It also didn't help that the show often fell in a gap between the broad parody of "men behaving badly" and Gamby's family dramedy. And don't get me started on the flat romance.
  • What do you want to see next year? Should Brown come back and get vengeance? Or should the story focus on Gamby versus Russell? How can the show improve in its back nine? Or have we seen everything these Vice Principals can do?