When it comes to Vice Principals, you have to trust the process. In season one, you had to trust that a story with white, racist, misogynist male protagonists would give way to something more than regressive politics. In this season, you have to trust that Gamby’s hero arc — the way he’s been made sympathetic as he redeems his bad behavior and seems primed to take over as principal — won’t end in a dramatic cop-out. So far, Vice Principals has been much more incisive than that, so as more and more narrative weight shifts to rooting for Gamby, I’m willing to put myself in Danny McBride and Jody Hill’s hands.
“The Most Popular Boy” puts Gamby front and center as Russell’s life continues to crumble. Lee is now practicing “honesty checks” with Christine after their marriage counselor recommends unconditional honesty, but as was foreshadowed by his behavior at his father’s funeral, any changes in his behavior are purely surface-level. He offers to cook dinner, but the meal is ruined as soon as Christine discovers the take-out containers in the trash. When she asks him about them, he makes up lie after lie to try to cover for himself, and she leaves the room once again in tears. With trouble escalating at home, Russell puts all of his eggs in his school basket. This isn’t a gambit that quite pays off, given how he’s been alienating the teachers all season, so he appeals to Gamby instead.
Against all odds, Neal Gamby has become the most popular boy in school. The teachers laugh at his jokes during the staff meeting (while icing out Russell), they let him sit at the teacher’s table during lunch, and they even invite him to payday drinks. It’s a newfound role that he takes on in typical Gamby fashion: He goes all in, taking Abbott with him to the mall in order to shop for an updated “cool” wardrobe. (Dayshawn suggests a change in hairstyle, too, telling Gamby that he looks like “a very low-level mobster,” but the idea doesn’t take.) He debuts his new look (which Ray describes as “sort of a Max Headroom thing”) at the Liptrapp household, where he tells his daughter that he won’t be able to make it to her art awards ceremony because he needs to go to payday drinks in order to boost his popularity — and, of course, his shot at becoming principal. Ray expresses his doubt, quoting Hume (“patriotism and popularity are the beaten route to power and tyranny”), but it naturally flies over Gamby’s head. “See?” he says, “I knew Ray would understand.”
For all that he’s protective of his newfound popularity, Gamby still folds when Russell asks to come with him to payday drinks. A part of that has to do with Russell’s outright confession that he’s jealous of Gamby’s newfound social status, and another part of that is character development. Can you imagine season-one Gamby relenting in the same situation? But, as always, Gamby’s growth is two steps forward, one step back, so when the teachers ask him why he brought Russell out with them, he tells them — at Abbott’s prompting — that it was to make him the butt of the joke. Snodgrass is horrified, but the other teachers are more than happy to accept the sacrificial lamb.
As she takes a more prominent place in the spotlight this season, Abbott has easily become one of the best parts of the show. Tonight’s episode sees her as Gamby’s Lady Macbeth, and grants her a few truly hysterical moments during payday drinks: She makes the sign of the cross while emerging from the bathroom in an insanely strappy outfit, and then confesses that she can get “pretty sad and weird” (who among us?) before declaring to the room that she and Gamby are dating. It’s to Edi Patterson’s credit that her performance is always a joy, and it’s a subversion of the “crazy girlfriend” trope just as much as Vice Principals itself is a subversion of what it first appeared to be.
It’s also by Abbott’s influence that Gamby discovers that the teachers have stopped teaching in an effort to get Russell fired. If the students fail the upcoming standardized tests, Russell’s ass will be on the line. They’re all too happy to see the students fail if it means getting rid of him. Meanwhile, Gamby’s unease is compounded by the discovery that Christine has left Russell; when Russell invites him back to his house for another round of drinks, he finds the place empty.
The next day is a crack operation. In a classic case of “doing bad in order to do good,” Gamby tells Russell what the teachers have planned before taking the submitted tests and enlisting Snodgrass and Nash to doctor the results. They submit the tests just under the wire and, by the grace of God, manage to pass. As they celebrate in the parking lot, Russell clings to Gamby, telling him, “You’re all I’ve got.”
It’s an oddly vulnerable moment in a season that’s seen Russell’s façade crack more and more. The question is whether or not this is genuine. In some cases, I’m inclined to believe it is — his distress while cleaning poop off his wedding portrait, for instance — but every time there’s someone else in the frame, it’s hard not to wonder if his contrition isn’t just performative. Either way, there’s a reckoning coming. Gamby seems destined to become principal, and the fact that the question of who shot him has been relegated to B-plot status suggests that a shoe is about to drop. There are only three more episodes left, and “The Most Popular Boy” is conventional to the point that it almost feels like a trap. But, as always, trust the process.