SEASON 1, EPISODE 4
WRITTEN BY DANNY MCBRIDE, JOHN CARRIER & JEFF FRADLEY
DIRECTED BY JODY HILL
“Sports, unhealthy? Well, you might wanna take that up with the cereal Wheaties, because I think they would disagree.”
The fourth episode of Vice Principals is the first to make the case that the show might be more than the sum of what its parts have suggested so far. The accusations leveled against it — casual racism and misogyny, in particularly poor taste as our current political climate proves just how far we haven’t (but should have) progressed — are valid concerns, but the episode offers up a glimpse of hope to say that Jody Hill and Danny McBride have something up their sleeve that is more than just the “incompetent, angry white man with a sob story usurps competent black woman with no screen time” narrative. This happens by way of focus; Gamby, Russell, and Brown form the core of the show, but this is the first episode that really gives Brown her own time to shine.
The episode opens on the sight of what’s left of Belinda’s house as she and her children look through the wreckage for anything that might be salvageable. Her two sons seem to be taking the loss relatively well, making jokes as they pick through burnt pieces of their house, whereas Brown is — as I would be — deeply stressed out, especially when the police investigator tells her he thinks it might be arson. They continue to make light of the situation, making up songs about the incident that make it clear how they feel about the move as a whole: they want to go back to Philadelphia. They continue to sing and rap about the fire as they lounge around the motel they’re staying in, much to the chagrin of their mother. (There’s also a particularly potent shot in which she tries to break up a playful fight between her sons and the camera cuts to a white family going into the room next door looking vaguely horrified.) When she finds out that they’ve been skipping class, she confronts them, asking them if they were responsible for the house burning down. They don’t take her seriously, leading to her grounding them to the hotel room.
The scenes between Belinda and her children are easily the most realistic and heartfelt moments of the show thus far, given a run for their money only by the scenes between Gamby and his daughter in the pilot episode. They’re reminiscent of the most painful parts of Eastbound & Down, i.e. the parts where Kenny is forced to confront his real life as opposed to his delusions of grandeur, and figure out how to do right by April and his son, though in this case the delusions of grandeur really only belong to the vice principals. They’re also revealing of Belinda’s character. The way she speaks around her sons is different from the way she speaks at school, i.e. there’s a certain extent to which she changes herself in order to fit in with the world of Lee Russell and Neal Gamby despite being in a position of power, and while her personal life is in as much chaos as those of her vice principals, she still has unconditional support from her sons. Neither Russell nor Gamby can quite claim that from their respective families.
She also tries to bring that kind of unity to the school. It’s Spirit Week for North Jackson and Percival High Schools as they head into their homecoming game. Percival has beaten North Jackson for the last eight years in a row, and makes it clear what they think is going to happen at the next game by leaving two mannequins in a pile of shit in front of the school, in addition to a lot of graffiti. Gamby suggests that they top Percival’s antics, a notion that Belinda immediately shoots down, saying that sports “divides us in a very unhealthy way.”
Gamby shows the new school secretary around (“Are you ready?” “Sure! I think so.” “Don’t be braggadocious, it’s not attractive.”), introducing her to the students in ISS (one of whom is there for possession of liquid LSD), and to the cafeteria staff as well, whom he introduces by saying that they know what he likes for breakfast, and all of whom fail to come up with an answer when he prompts them for one. He also swings by the gymnasium to check up on the preparations for Spirit Week, headed up by Ms. Snodgrass. It’s another in a string of scenes in which Gamby is bluntly obvious about how much he likes her and in which Ms. Snodgrass continues to politely rebuff his advances, and is followed up — in classic Gamby fashion — by a broom closet tryst between Neal and Ms. Abbott. Despite having just taken advantage of her, he makes continued efforts to break their affair off (none of which she picks up on), managing to end the discussion only by telling her that he loves her.
Russell and Gamby’s malice-based partnership continues as they meet up to discuss next steps in unseating Brown. Russell tells Gamby that he’s installed spyware on some of Brown’s cups, a claim I wouldn’t have taken seriously except for the part where he says that it’s allowed him to see her searching through jobs on LinkedIn. He also tells Gamby that Spirit Week is a perfect smokescreen for them, as they’ll be able to do whatever they want to shake Brown and blame it on Percival. They make good on this by participating in Percival’s trashing the school that night and writing Belinda-specific graffiti all over the halls. They also make a moral split very clear: getting rid of Belinda is a goal Russell doesn’t mind trashing North Jackson in order to achieve, but Gamby isn’t willing to do it at the price of his beloved school.
The next morning, when she sees what’s been done, Belinda has Gamby drive the trio to Percival in order to address the situation. (Worth noting: the music that plays over their drive is the same synth-pop that has heretofore been reserved for Gamby’s hero sequences.) At Percival, they run into its two vice principals — mirrors of Gamby and Russell — and its principal, Cavanagh. She’s introduced pumping breast milk, and afterward takes them into the gymnasium where Percival’s Spirit Week pep rally is taking place. It’s a grotesque affair, a full-blown caricature of American high school sports culture, made worse by the fact that the North Jackson mascot is a Native American stereotype that the Percival students have taken it upon themselves to fashion into a piñata and destroy in the middle of the gym. Needless to say, Cavanagh doesn’t cop to Belinda’s suggestion that they crack down on Spirit Week proceedings, calling her emotionally unstable under the thinnest pretext of concern. It gets to Gamby, who yells at Ms. Snodgrass and the North Jackson cheerleading team at how inadequate the decorations for their pep rally are, and he sees that it’s gotten to Brown as well. When he gets into his car to pick up Janelle (who has been learning how to do an oil change from Ray, who turns out to be a Percival alum), he sees Belinda in her car in the spot next to him, weeping at the wheel. It’s the breakdown that Gamby and Russell have been working for, but there’s nothing victorious in it.
Upon Belinda’s return to the hotel, her sons immediately cotton onto the fact that something’s wrong. She apologizes to them for not having had a say in the matter, telling them that she needed a fresh start somewhere their father wasn’t. They tell her that it’s alright, that they can just move back to Philly, but even what little we’ve seen of Brown is enough for us to know that she’s not going to run.
The North Jackson pep rally is going lackluster at best, with Russell and Gamby gloating over how out of it Brown looks, and when Brown interrupts a cheerleader in order to take the mic, they assume it’s going to be for a meltdown. Instead, it’s for the kind of speech that every student wishes their principal would give at an assembly, and the gymnasium erupts in cheers. Russell looks devastated, but Gamby — no matter what he thinks of Brown — is impressed by the amount of school spirit she’s managed to drum up.
It’s a turning point that sets the stage for a different plot course than what was suggested at the beginning of the season. The marketing for Vice Principals made it look like it’d be a struggle between Russell and Gamby; the pilot made it look like it’d be a struggle between the vice principals and Brown, but this episode makes it look like it could be a case of Gamby and Brown vs. Russell. The point is that Brown has emerged as a clear protagonist; I can only hope that the show won’t sideline her or make Gamby’s (probable) change of heart occur out of anything except his recognition of his own failings rather than her needing him to be an effective principal.
Either way, it’s already been established that Gamby isn’t willing to sacrifice the school in order to get rid of Brown. When Russell tells him that they have to throw the game, it’s not something he can get on board with, especially not when Russell strongly suggests that he intends on doing so by dosing the football players with the liquid LSD that had been confiscated from one of the students in ISS. (“If we dose them with some of Barry Weiss’ LSD, we win.” “Are you talking about dosing the team? Are you out of your fucking mind? We could go to jail for 20 years for that!” […] “I’ll think of something. You know, if it’s a couple of hits of acid or whatever, I mean, not that, but you know—“ “No. I can tell that the plan for you is still to do the acid.”)
Synth accompanies Belinda once again as she confronts her rival principal at the homecoming game with a neat verbal takedown that is just as mean as Cavanagh’s comments to her at Percival’s pep rally. Gamby, meanwhile, pursues Russell, who he finds has already put the LSD in the team’s water cooler. He sums up the central plot twist in a single line (“We’ll take down Belinda Brown, but not at the expense of North Jackson High […] it’s not about us, it’s about the school.”), and their argument over how to proceed gets physical when Gamby tries to take the water cooler and — you guessed it — they end up spilling the acid all over themselves.
The entire final sequence of the show is a delight, as Russell and Gamby attempt to maneuver through the crowds to find some cover, all the while trying to pretend that they’re not as messed up as they actually are. Both Goggins and McBride are terrific at playing utterly disoriented, and both have fantastic pieces to play against. Lee has a demon, which he looks at first in horror before deciding on a catty eyeroll instead, and then his mirror vice principal at Percival, whom he kisses on the mouth before turning his fingers into a gun and shooting his head off; Gamby has Ms. Snodgrass, whose eyes expand to the size of dinner plates, and then sees a spirit leading them under the bleachers. The both of them then levitate a pair of students into oblivion before watching the rest of the game from under the bleachers. North Jackson wins in a moment that feels almost as good as the highs of Friday Night Lights, as Brown is lifted up by a triumphant crowd. Gamby is delighted, though less so when he realizes what this means for Brown’s tenure as principal; Russell is once again devastated. As the crowd celebrates on the field:
Gamby: How long do we have to stay down here for?
Russell: This is our home now.
Insult of the Week: “I need to fucking annihilate you, and your candy-ass school, and tonight, I’m gonna bury you.” Get it, Belinda.