Vice Principals Recap: King for a Day

Vice Principals

Think Change
Season 2 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: HBO

This week’s episode mostly serves to establish two things: Russell will never change, and against all odds, Gamby would actually make a good principal. Neither fact is particularly surprising. It’s become clearer and clearer that, for all that Vice Principals is an indictment of present-day American masculinity, Gamby is set to play out the story’s hero arc. And to balance that out, the curtain’s been pulled back further and further on Lee’s sociopathic streak.

In his continuing efforts to bend North Jackson to his will, Lee has enlisted a group of trainers called “Sweat Dogs” to put the teachers through a series of physical exercises every day after school. Nobody’s happy about it, particularly given the fact that Russell has made the teachers rework their curriculum plans. But working them hard is a part of his grand scheme: He’s going to break the teachers down and then rebuild them to his liking. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on where you stand), it’s a plan that immediately runs into a hitch. When Russell’s father passes away, he’s forced to leave the school in Gamby’s hands for a day so that he can attend the funeral service.

This is the first time that we’ve really gotten any sense of Russell’s family. Christine (Susan Park) and Mi-cha (June Kyoto Lu) offer us some insight into his personal life, but his upbringing has been a mystery. As it turns out, he’s avoided talking about it for good reason: His father was a military man, and showered affection on his sisters (Breeda Wool and Emily Johnson), who were tomboyish and tough in a way that we know Russell isn’t. Even Russell’s mother (Nancy Linehan Charles) outright admits that his father never loved him as much, explaining that he didn’t like the way Lee lied and cheated to try to get ahead of his sisters, even if it was as a direct result of the way they bullied him. Even as adults, they tease him mercilessly, pantsing him and leaving him half-naked in the garage where they’ve stored all of their father’s belongings.

Back at school, Gamby isn’t faring much better. As soon as Ms. Swift (Ashley Spillers) starts listing his responsibilities for the day, he waves her away, already overwhelmed by the sheer number of things he has to do. He stumbles through the morning announcements as well, though that humiliation is easy to watch in comparison to the way he almost immediately submits to the Sweat Dogs’ regime of terror. The Sweat Dogs, led by none other than Scott Caan, are a pack of alpha dogs that bark, and bark, and bark. In other words, they’re the kind of adult jocks that wannabe-cool-kid Gamby is immediately desperate to please.

In accordance, the teachers take their grievances over his head. Superintendent Haas (Brian Howe, chowing down on a stick of celery and a jar of peanut butter in one of the show’s best throwaway gags) gets involved, demanding to know what’s going on as this extra training isn’t in the school budget. The ensuing argument between Russell and Gamby is yet another showcase of their fundamental differences: Russell tells Gamby to lie and tell Haas that the Sweat Dogs are working gratis, and takes it one step further by telling Gamby his unwillingness to bend the rules is why he can’t hack it as principal.

Russell is only right insomuch as Gamby’s failures stem from a refusal to change. His slow redemption now is based in his realization of the fact. Robin Shandrell’s readmission was the first step on the path, and the second is Gamby’s stand against the Sweat Dogs. As he watches yet another after-school session in which the trainers berate the teachers for their shortcomings, he finally snaps and kicks them out. The accomplishments that he lists to defend the teachers are menial — third place in the state drama competition, raising money through a pottery fundraiser — but they’re telling as to where Gamby’s values lie. He cares about North Jackson and the teachers can see that. (Remember last season, when he tried to give up on sabotaging Belinda because he could see she was good for the school?)

Lee, however, is categorically incapable of change. There’s a single moment in which he seems to have seen the error of his ways, but the bait-and-switch ultimately affirms him as the villain of the series. He wrests the microphone away from his sisters at his father’s funeral after telling his wife that he’s going to expose them as the bullies that they are, but ultimately delivers a heartfelt eulogy. Afterward, he tells his mother that he’s changed and embraces his sisters, promising not to make any trouble about the belongings their father left behind. But the illusion of peace is short-lived. As Lee drives away from the house, it’s revealed that, just moments prior, he’d taken out his anger by smashing up everything in the garage.

Vice Principals was built as one big story, but the further we get into season two, the more it feels like its two parts were built in parallel. Once again, the show seems like a three-person act snuck onto TV as a two-hander. It’s just that this time the third side to the triangle isn’t Belinda Brown — it’s Christine Russell (Susan Park).

Up until now, Lee’s wife has mostly been relegated to the background, but this season — and this episode in particular — has seen Christine take on more and more weight in the narrative. She’s shown herself to be aware of her husband’s deviousness to a degree that nobody else is; she spends most of the episode trying to talk him down from lashing out because of his family frustrations, and it’s not the first time we’ve seen her soothe his temper. The biggest difference here is that she’s connected to Russell personally instead of professionally, and serves as his moral anchor (as much as she can, anyway) as opposed to being the target of his unscrupulousness. It’s a gambit that mirrors the way David Gordon Green has delved into the characters’ psyches instead of simply showcasing their behavior: The call is coming from inside the house.

Vice Principals Recap: King for a Day