The cold open of this week’s Vice Principals is cold indeed. As we discover through a brief flashback, Amanda Snodgrass had gone to the hospital right after the shooting and, on the verge of tears, asked to see Gamby once he was awake. But when the doctors relayed her request, all she got was a Mariah Carey–level I don’t know her, i.e., “Mr. Gamby says he doesn’t have a girlfriend.”
Now, the main love story of Vice Principals is arguably the one between Neal Gamby and Lee Russell. They’ve been balancing a will-they, won’t-they dynamic for a season and change, not to mention how often they’re stuck in situations where they’re forced to talk about each other like high-school crushes navigating a rough patch. This is all to say that, until now, Snodgrass has gotten the short end of the stick. She doesn’t get that much characterization beyond her relationship to Gamby. This episode doesn’t quite fix that problem because Snodgrass is still a means to an end, but it’s so effective that it almost doesn’t matter. The dominoes that were set up throughout the show’s first season are finally starting to fall.
“The King” follows three different arcs: Gamby’s attempts to get Amanda back; Russell’s attempts to get control over the teachers; and Vice-Principal Nash’s attempts to get control over the students. Let’s start with Gamby. After his crisis of faith in last week’s episode, and despite Russell’s constant encouragement toward the dark side, he’s showing some signs of maturing. He’s keeping tabs on Robin as he comes back to school, even going so far as to give him lunch money, and he’s still doing his best to bond with his daughter, Janelle, though this mostly amounts to showing her all the booby traps he’s set up around his new house to dispatch any hypothetical attackers. It’s one of the better “Gamby plan” montages we’ve seen, as trap after unpredictable trap goes off, tearing dummies and watermelons to pieces as Gamby proclaims, “Safety above all else.”
But all that said, he hasn’t made that much progress in becoming a better person. The idea that Snodgrass may have moved on continues to eat away at Gamby until he takes the kind of drastic action that’s been his trademark for the last season and change. He starts by running Bill Hayden off the road, then pressing him for details about Amanda’s new boyfriend, Brian. Bill gives him a few details: It turns out that Brian is an acclaimed author as well as a writing teacher. Gamby, naturally, goes straight to Brian’s class. It’s immediately clear that’s something’s up with this guy, as his students are predominantly female and all look at him the way Indiana Jones’s students looked at him in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But that’s no excuse for Gamby’s behavior, as he confronts Brian by pretending to be a detective and even goes so far as to threaten him with a gun.
It’s an outsize measure, not dissimilar to the step Nash finally takes in order to get the students to take her seriously. Since her introduction in the season premiere, the students of North Jackson have mercilessly teased her looks and her demeanor, calling her “Mr. Nash” and constantly ignoring her orders, causing Gamby to note that she doesn’t have things in hand as far as discipline is concerned. When she finally takes matters into her own hands, it’s via the Gamby method: Upon coming across her primary tormentors smoking behind the school, she goes straight for the jugular and chokes them out.
A headlock is nothing in comparison to the way that Russell lashes out. He’s hired a whole new crop of teachers to replace the ones he fired, but there’s still dissent among the masses. As he leads the new teachers around the school, he comes across a caricature of himself stuck in the trophy case, proclaiming him “King Ding-a-Ling,” with an accordingly tiny penis. In an effort to figure out which teacher is behind the cartoon, he appoints Gamby as the substitute history teacher, effectively planting him as a narc. It’s a move that Gamby takes as an insult, but as soon as he starts to complain, Russell makes it clear that he won’t accept any insubordination. It’s another straw on the camel’s back that’s been the tension between Gamby and Russell, including Russell’s increasing insistence that Gamby ditch his old Warriors-branded school clothing in what is maybe the most obvious representation of his constant manipulation.
Still, the gambit succeeds. Gamby fingers Milner (Christopher Thornton), the science teacher, as the culprit behind the caricature. There’s a moral quandary to his payback as Milner is wheelchair-bound (“I can’t destroy a handicap the way I would a normal person,” Russell says), but it doesn’t last long. He corners Milner in the bathroom, shutting off the lights before bursting into his stall and beating the crap out of him and attempting to break his fingers. It’s a horrifying scene in a show that’s been full of dirty deeds, and even more so as it’s synced with the presentation of one of Gamby’s students. His class has been studying the Reconstruction Era — the years following the Civil War and the long-term effect that it had on the Southern states — and needless to say, it feels uncomfortably prescient. As the student notes, the South’s refusal to accept the outcome of the war led to a cycle of conflict that benefited no one. “They did all they could to defy the unstoppable tide of change,” she reads, “but it was too late.”
That story doesn’t read too differently from the drama playing out in North Jackson High School: Gamby, Nash, and Russell’s actions aren’t benefiting anybody. If anything, they’re only making things worse in their attempts to change what can’t be changed. It’s an intrinsically dark tone to strike, and telling as to the long-term game that McBride & Co. were playing when they set Vice Principals up as a two-season arc. These people are destroying each other and themselves in an attempt to take back legitimacy that they never really earned, and it’s a cycle that’s digging them further and further into the ground. Sound at all familiar?