Vice Principals Recap: Prom Night

Vice Principals

Venetian Nights
Season 2 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: HBO

If you like stories with happy endings, put on a set of blinders and pretend this is the last episode of Vice Principals. “Venetian Nights” plays almost like a dream: The prince, confronted by a great evil, tries to defeat it, only to be cast out from his own kingdom. But then, with the help of the townsfolk who also resent the evil’s reign, he returns to cast it out for good and get the girl. It’s a nice ending, except for the fact that the story isn’t quite over. And if the rest of the show is anything to go by, I can’t imagine that it’s gonna be pretty.

Then again, if you like stories with happy endings, you probably wouldn’t be watching Vice Principals to begin with.

The only surprise bigger than the full shooter’s kit in Russell’s trunk is how quickly he gives up on trying to convince Gamby otherwise. When Gamby calls him out to the train tracks to confront him (“Do you feel bad about shooting me? So am I.”), he denies it, but Gamby is resolute: Russell is to resign posthaste, and if he doesn’t, Gamby will shoot him. Russell leaves school carrying the giant painting that used to hang in his office, but it’s a fake-out. Far from being gone, he shows up the next morning with a new painting. (Just putting it out into the universe that I’ll take either of them, if they’re still just lying around in an HBO storage unit somewhere.)

In other words, he called Gamby’s bluff. He knows Gamby won’t shoot him — he’s too much of a goody two-shoes (relative to this universe, anyway). As he spirals into panic, Gamby appeals to everyone to help him take Russell down, but his chickens are coming home to roost. He tells Willows and Nash that Russell is his shooter, but they laugh him off. He tells Snodgrass everything that he and Russell did to Belinda (“We basically destroyed her entire life” — hey, at least he’s self-aware), and although she doesn’t outright condemn him, she walks away looking horrified. As the last nail in his coffin, Abbott tells the other teachers that he’s still friendly with Russell. As soon as they realize that he’s responsible for their punishment for sabotaging the standardized tests — they’ve all been named “gold-star teachers” with 24/7 office hours, as well as being made prom chaperones — they turn their backs on him.

Friendless, Gamby rushes into the principal’s office, pistol in hand, but he can’t pull the trigger. Russell may be the kind of man willing to shoot another just to get a job, but Gamby decidedly isn’t. As Russell himself says, Gamby is softhearted. And now, he’s fired.

But softhearted though he may be, Gamby isn’t one to go down without a fight. Toting the “GET IT” paddle, he crashes Russell’s morning announcements, starting a fight that’s broadcast to the entire school. He handily kicks Russell’s ass, chasing him all the way through the building before being apprehended by Willows and Nash and escorted out. Luckily for him, it’s enough to set the wheels of change in motion, as Amanda visits him later that night, telling him that, while everything he did to Belinda was “very fucked up,” she still believes he’s a good person. To wit, he confesses that the reason he’d ghosted on her after the shooting was because he’d been ashamed of his part in what happened to Belinda. Reconciled, they agree to take Russell down together.

The lynchpin of their plan is Christine, who takes them to a storage unit where Russell has stored binders upon binders of material and, more important, his sister’s childhood diary. Armed with this blackmail fodder, he and Amanda gather the teachers (minus Abbott, who leaves as soon as she realizes that Gamby is behind it), the cafeteria staff, and the “bad kids” (headed by Robin) to get to work on toppling Russell.

The parts come together like clockwork. Dayshawn sneaks Gamby into prom disguised as one of the cafeteria staff. Robin and his friends corner Russell and lock him in a storage room. Inside awaits Gamby with a letter of resignation prepped for Russell to sign, as well as the recommendations of the gold-star teachers to back him up once the principal’s job is left vacant. When he threatens to read the diary over the intercom system (including an entry where Russell’s sister describes him tying a cat into a sack and then drowning it), Russell capitulates.

For the third time in one episode — first when he sees Russell leaving with the painting, second when he tells his family of his new plan, and once more now — Gamby says, “It’s over.” Returning to the prom-night festivities, he takes Amanda’s hand, and the two of them take to the dance floor as the episode comes to an end. Abbott watches, crushed, as they dance. Russell sits defeated on the curb outside the school.

Still, there are small reminders that this story isn’t quite as easy to wrap up as we might like to think. Gamby copped to what he did to Belinda, but only to Amanda. (There’s a shot earlier in the episode that’s particularly striking: As Russell leaves school carrying his painting, he passes the portraits of previous principals, including Belinda, whose specter still hangs over the entire show.) Meanwhile, where the present plot is concerned, Russell never actually confessed to shooting Gamby. The list of crimes left unaccounted for goes on, and this show isn’t one just to turn a blind eye to what’s left hanging. There are multiple callbacks in this episode alone — Gamby’s confrontation spiel, for instance, which he first used on Belinda — not to mention the fact that this isn’t the series finale.

With all that taken into consideration, there’s an ice cube’s chance in hell that Gamby got the wrong guy despite how all the evidence points to Russell. This seems like much too neat a conclusion for a show that has otherwise been so incisive about the American psyche, and put so much narrative weight on a friendship that has seemingly dissolved. Still, it’s a sign of how much Vice Principals depends on a big-picture view that it’s willing to deal such a dramatic card right before the finale. This is a show that rewards patience above all else, and with that in mind, I’ll see you all next week to see how it all pays off!

Vice Principals Recap: Prom Night