Vice Principals Recap: The Gamby Way

Vice Principals

Season 2 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: HBO

This time last season, Neal Gamby and Lee Russell were burning down a house. To some, the sequence represented the worst of the show, as, through sheer bombast, Vice Principals was celebrating the ransacking and subsequent arson of a black woman’s home. This second season — under the direction of David Gordon Green, taking over from series co-creator Jody Hill, who directed the first season — has stripped away a lot of that illusion, leaving behind a show that’s much obviously darker and even more uncomfortable to watch. There’s a fire in this episode, too, but it’s impossible to interpret as a triumph.

“Slaughter” reminds us straight off the bat that our supposed heroes are in fact no such things. Since returning to North Jackson High, Gamby has terrorized students in his search for his shooter, and it’s gotten to the point that his main ally, security officer Willows (Marcuis Harris) tells him he’s had enough. It’s made even worse because Gamby’s search is based in racial profiling, which he admits to with no compunction when Dayshawn (Sheaun McKinney) points out that all of his main suspects are black pupils. Gamby cites Dayshawn’s description of the shooter’s hair as an excuse (“black hair”), which Dayshawn is quick to clarify was not a comment meant to signify race: “[The hair was] like your boy from Smoke Signals. You ever seen Smoke Signals?” As they flip through the suspect binder that Russell gave Gamby in the last episode, they land upon a hairdo that matches that description: the long, black locks of Robin Shandrell (Conner McVicker), a goth kid whom Gamby kicked out of school the previous year.

Gamby and Vice-Principal Nash (Dale Dickey) track Robin first to the slaughterhouse where he works — he’s cut his hair, as it turns out — and then to his home, where it’s revealed that Gamby planted marijuana in Robin’s locker to get him expelled. While Robin isn’t happy to see them and clocks Nash for her trouble, he denies having shot Gamby. Soon afterward, Gamby goes to Willows to recruit his help in a bit that recalls every cop show with a straight man and a maverick, but Willows is quick to lay down the law: Gamby has no place going after this kid.

Russell, meanwhile, is also using school time for inappropriate personal ends. After planting his phone in the teacher’s lounge to record their conversations, he discovers that there’s not a one among them who think, well of him. At the suggestion of his wife, Christine (Susan Park), Russell tries to get back into their good graces by bringing in a catered lunch, but the teachers aren’t having it. As far as they’re concerned, he didn’t get the principal’s job on merit — he was just the last man standing. He reacts about as well as you’d expect, throwing the food on the floor before storming out of the room.

In the interest of blowing off some steam from his standoff with the teachers, Russell invites himself along to Gamby’s second crack at Robin. The operation is a neat metaphor for the duo’s flaws on the whole, i.e. the use of absurdly excessive force to solve a problem that’s completely imaginary (Gamby brings bolt cutters to get through the flimsy window netting of Robin’s room as Russell creates a distraction), as well as changes of heart that come slightly too late. Upon breaking in, Gamby discovers that Robin is caring for his ailing grandfather, and the tenderness Robin demonstrates leads Gamby to second-guess not just his allegation of attempted murder but the framing and expulsion as well. His guilt spurs him to offer Robin readmission, though, as Robin points out, “You still did what you did.”

Over the last few episodes, we’ve seen Gamby begin to realize that his actions have consequences. He’s (slowly) attempting to change for the better, but his main obstacle is Lee Russell. Russell is the worst enabler of Gamby’s bullish, destructive behavior — as well as using it to compound his own misdeeds — and shows no sign of letting up now. Post break-in, as they drink wine by the school football field, Gamby goes on a ramble about his tenure as vice-principal leading up to the shooting (“You break the law, I fuck you raw. That’s a Gamby promise”) before finally confessing that he’d set up Robin for expulsion. Russell’s reaction is shock … and delight. As he praises Gamby’s willingness to get his hands dirty, calling it “super fresh,” he starts seeing his path ahead with the teachers.

The next day, he gathers the staff by the railroad tracks in the woods — except for Snodgrass (Georgia King), at Gamby’s request — and fires them all. Ms. LeBlanc (Robin Bartlett) attempts to quote Euripides, but Russell cuts her off, taking each and every staff badge and setting them aflame in a bucket. (Notably, the Euripides in question is, “When one with honeyed words but evil mind persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.”) He leaves one “kill” for Gamby: Snodgrass’s former beau Bill Hayden (Mike O’Gorman). Gamby protests, citing that he isn’t pursuing Snodgrass anymore, but Lee eggs him on. So, reluctantly, Gamby does the honors, as Lee crows in self-satisfaction: “Ice-cold killer, Gamby! Fucking brutal! Just like you!”

The scene goes a long way toward establishing how much Gamby has changed, and it’s also a refresher on his codependent and toxic relationship with Russell. They need each other to affirm their bad choices through participation. But Gamby is losing his appetite for blood, and he looks more than a little unhappy upon hearing Russell say they’re exactly alike.

Gamby is still, however, a bit of a selfish idiot, as evidenced by the laser-cut block he gifts to Dayshawn in an attempt to repay the “blood debt” for finding his body after the shooting. Both of their likenesses are carved into the glass, along with the words “2 Heroes,” which is excessive at worst and silly at best. But the bonding moment is short-lived. As they speak, a slick convertible drives up behind the school buses, and who should run to it but Amanda Snodgrass. The driver is her new beau — and yes, that is Fisher Stevens.

Vice Principals Recap: The Gamby Way