As it turns out, the big payoff at the end of Vice Principals isn’t the reveal of the shooter, getting the girl, or exacting revenge, though we do get all three of those things.
Despite the more cutting material that the show shucks in order to accomplish this conclusion — for a long while, it felt like it was going to be a near-surgical dismantling of modern America — I couldn’t be happier. The show, like its protagonist, is ultimately softhearted, and manages to pull it off by doubling down on love. The love between Gamby and Russell.
The earnest tone is set from the start, as Gamby uses his position as acting principal to give Robin a shout-out on the morning address, telling him that he’s proud of him. It’s a sweet moment and an unusually harmless cold open, though that complacency doesn’t last long. Gamby’s last encounter with Russell has left him a little rattled, something that’s not helped by how keen the staff are to harp on him now that he’s gone. Dayshawn is the only one who seems to have any idea of how much it’s affecting Gamby, as he notes, “You’re sad as fuck that Mr. Russell is gone. Y’all had feelings for each other.”
As you may have gathered (and congrats to those of you who figured this out early), Russell is not, in fact, Gamby’s shooter. In typical Russell fashion, it’s only now that he’s been ousted that he tries to figure out who set him up. He goes to Belinda Brown to appeal for help, but she’s not having it. She has a whole new life as the principal of a private girls’ school, and quickly kicks him off campus. Although it may not be the comeuppance that she deserves to bring down upon Russell and Gamby’s heads, the scene is a neat button on the biggest story line that’s been left hanging open, and a fitting good-bye for a character who’s always been more mature than the fools around her.
With no one to back him up, Russell sets up his own conspiracy board (a geometric miracle in comparison to Gamby’s red-string diorama), and comes up with … Jen Abbott. By the time he drives to Gamby’s house to tell him, Abbott is already there. Wearing a wedding dress, she tells Gamby that the way he’d strung her along over the last year had really messed with her head, and that the only way to fix it would be if they got married. Gamby refuses, and when Lee rolls up to tell Gamby what he’s figured out, Abbott pulls out a pistol and shoots Russell in the head.
It’s a shocking moment given how relatively low the stakes usually are (this is a school show, for Chrissakes), dramatically upping the bar for just how crazy the rest of the finale will be. If there was any doubt that this season was going to go full Brian De Palma, it’s gone now. The show vaults straight from horrific to surreal as Gamby and Russell, who was just grazed, head to the school to stop Abbott from wreaking further havoc at graduation.
The insanity doesn’t stop there. The graduation centerpiece is a caged tiger, and after failing to kill Snodgrass, Abbott sets it loose, declaring, “If I can’t have a beautiful life, at least I’ll have a beautiful death.” The tiger, however, has other plans, heading straight past Abbott and mauling its trainer.
This is exactly the kind of crisis needed to finally get Gamby all the way into principal mode. Flanked by Lee and Nash — who now has gone full mini-Gamby with a blazer on top of her shirt-and-sweater vest ensemble — he bursts into the gymnasium and proceeds to begin evacuating the school. Naturally, there’s a hitch. Abbott manages to set off the fire alarms, raising the gate that was keeping the tiger contained in the cafeteria. Russell, saying that he’s learned that “the truth will set a man free,” tries to calm the tiger down himself, but the cat isn’t convinced and leaps on him almost immediately.
Of course, it’s Gamby who heads back into the school to save him. He finds Lee bleeding out on the floor, and the scene that follows is truly affecting, not to mention easily the show’s best.
The relationship between Gamby and Russell is the backbone of the entire show, and it’s only ever been threatened by how easily the writing and visuals lean into homoerotic gags and gay panic instead of trying to parse anything more meaningful out of their interactions. It’d be easy to end the show like that, and Gamby almost tries to do so. But, as with everything else in Vice Principals, it’s been a long con. As Gamby holds Lee, they reminisce about the year. “This is the favorite year of my whole life,” Lee says. “I know what we did was wrong, but I liked it. It was fun.” As the two men start to get teary-eyed, Lee drops the bomb that we’ve been waiting for all along: “I love you, Gamby.” Despite his macho posturing (“You’re my friend, too, man”), Gamby finally manages to get the words out, too.
When the tiger returns, Lee tells Gamby to run, but they’ve come too far for that. In accordance with the Twin Peaks–esque fever dream that opened the season, he’s confronted his Warriors mask demons, and now he’s about to confront the tiger. He roars the thing into submission. Words can’t really do the scene justice: Danny McBride is easily one of the best actors working today, and it’s entirely down to him that it feels earned instead of completely silly.
Three months later, Nash (with two female vice-principals by her side) is principal at North Jackson, where Janelle is starting her first day of high school. Gamby is now the principal of Forest Hills Middle School (any Eastbound & Down fans will be happy to see Steve Little as his second-in-command), Lee is the manager of all regional Apricot Lane boutiques, and Amanda has published a book, The Union of the Wizard & the Warrior. It’s essentially a fantasy version of Gamby and Russell’s friendship — the cover illustration is the two of them to a tee.
After her reading, she and Gamby get lunch in the mall cafeteria, and who should be sitting across the way but Lee Russell. The two men share a long look, not unlike the glances they’d share behind Brown’s back, but there’s infinitely more weight to it now. The show started with them flipping each other off behind Bill Murray’s back, and it’s ended with them exchanging glances like Batman and Alfred at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. They’ve found some kind of peace through each other, despite having been such insecure, hateful, destructive people, coming to the acknowledgment of a kind of love that’s generally not addressed on TV. Relationships are generally divided into the platonic or romantic; it’s rare to see anything in the middle, let alone between two men. And yet here we are, with Gamby and Russell of all people at the end of it all.
Maybe it’s too hopeful or too forgiving an ending, but it’s a fantasy I’m willing to indulge in, and if you’ve stuck with the show this long, I think you will be, too. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch it all again.