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Vice Principals: “A Trusty Steed”

SEASON 1, EPISODE 2
WRITTEN BY DANNY MCBRIDE & JOHN CARCIERI
DIRECTED BY JODY HILL

“What we’re doing is serious business. But that don’t mean it can’t be fun, too.”

This week’s episode of Vice Principals is the one that sets the bar for how demented the rest of the season might turn out to be. The catalyst is Lee Russell, bringing along a darkness in a leading character that, heretofore in Jody Hill and Danny McBride’s oeuvre, has been reserved for clear antagonists. Neal Gamby is dangerous in that his emotions easily get the better of him, but despite his blustery behavior, he’s capable of feeling guilt. Lee Russell doesn’t have a remorseful bone in his body.

The seeds of this revelation are planted early on, as Gamby and Russell rendezvous in the woods behind the school to discuss how to take down Dr. Brown. Russell produces a binder from his Louis Vuitton rip-off messenger bag containing “personal data, government documents, [and] financial papers,” (which is later revealed to contain everything from news clippings to a print-out of Belinda’s Facebook page) confessing shortly afterwards that he has a similar binder on everyone at North Jackson High. The most troubling information that he’s found is that Belinda has fired every other vice principal she’s ever worked with, raising the stakes for Lee and Neal as they work through an alliance that is still testy at best. Considering how poorly Neal’s attempt at coercing the school board went, Lee tells him they’ll be doing things his way, this round. (Dayshawn spots them coming out of the woods afterwards, Gamby gesturing for Russell to put more of a distance between them, and is understandably bemused.)

The threat of being fired becomes tangible when Brown brings in an evaluator, Blythe Sason (Danny Boushebel, looking like a cross between Steven Seagal and Jason Mantzoukas). She also tasks Gamby with bringing in biscuits for the staff in the morning, a request Gamby complies with after only one complaint once he sees Sason start taking notes. He uses his driver’s ed duties as a shortcut (“I know driving doesn’t come natural for women, but I am impressed with your abilities”), and has the students take him to Bojangles’ to pick up the biscuits. 

Unfortunately, Belinda’s second task for him is much less pleasant: Sason’s discovered that the school secretary, Mrs. Libby (Celia Weston), is less than good at her job, and wants Gamby to fire her by the end of the day. It’s not an encounter that goes well, especially not with Sason sitting in. It’s sad on two fronts: Neal is brutal in laying out what Brown’s told him about Mrs. Libby’s performance without naming Brown, herself; the second, the things Neal says to try to comfort her are, in part, a reflection of his own dependence on his role at the school, as he tells her that, in time, “You won’t feel as much of a … a person has nothing [without the school].” The coda — Mrs. Libby asking if Neal would like his office door open or closed even after crying at him and knocking over everything on his desk — is a hysterical ending note, a perfect example of the contrast between the manners expected of the show’s characters and their increasingly insane circumstances.

The cut kicks Lee’s plan into high gear. He and Gamby take the driver’s ed car to Brown’s house to go through her trash, though they make a stop at Lee’s place, first. (“Is this where she lives? What a shithole.” “This is my house, motherfucker! It’s a mid-century sea ranch!”) It’s the first glimpse we get of Lee’s home life, and what we see is an instant indicator of why he feels the need to assert control over the school: he has close to none at home. He goes in to retrieve his bag, and he is chased out by his mother-in-law, who continues to scream at him (in Korean — mostly “get back here” and “you son of a bitch,” for those of you who’re wondering) from the door even as they drive away.

Both Russell and Gamby are capable of a fair deal of mayhem, but what they’re capable of together is the kicker. (It’s the first scene that’s really reminded me of how insane Eastbound & Down could get — remember this?) They enable each other into being worse and worse, it’s just that Gamby isn’t aware of what’s happening until too late. Russell, on the other hand, knows just how to take advantage of Neal. After they break into Brown’s house after finding nothing in the trash, he eggs Neal into trashing the place, using his bitterness at being passed over to goad him into breaking a mug emblazoned with the words “World’s Best Principal” and escalating from there. It’s like watching someone feed a child too much candy and then turn them loose — Neal’s continued chant as they wreck the house is just, “Watch this!” Russell cheers on Neal’s destructive impulses, and partakes in them as well, both of them screaming as they tear the house to shreds. The sequence isn’t played for humor — the show knows just how terrible its characters are being. (Granted, there’s one second that got me to laugh: the two of them slam chairs into a wall hard enough to get them to stick there, and for a split second, Neal’s shown brushing the seat with a clothes brush.)

The scene comes to a head when we see Neal stabbing a pillow with Psycho-like fervor. More importantly, however, we see Russell in the background, perfectly calm and composed, smiling as he watches Neal and then produces a lighter to set fire to the house.  The flames snap Gamby out of his bloodlust immediately, and there’s genuine horror in his expression where Russell is still utterly serene. Gamby spends the rest of the day in shellshock, though it’s nothing compared to Brown’s reaction when she receives the call that her house has burned down.

His paranoia follows him to his daughter’s horseriding competition, where he bails on a conversation with Gale and Ray (still painfully earnest — “I got you a [pop]corn, Neal.” “I’m not hungry, I didn’t ask for that, no thank you, Ray”), who tell him that Janelle’s interest in horses has been fading as she becomes interested in Ray’s profession, motocross. When he thinks he sees Sason across the field, he abruptly leaves to follow him to the parking lot, kicking the door of his car only to realize, when the man gets out, that it’s not Sason at all. (Worth a note: he is credited on IMDB as “Not Blythe.”)

As Lee has been dodging his calls, Neal drives directly to his house and is greeted by his wife (Claudia Park), who takes Neal’s immediately greeting her in a stereotypical Asian accent much more gracefully than I ever would have, and invites him in. Lee is understandably unhappy at finding Gamby in his home, and blows off Gamby’s protests that he’d thought teaming up had just meant making her look bad, and “school-related shit.” He tells Gamby that he’d thought he was a loser until seeing him let loose in that house, and it’s immediately obvious that the idea of Lee’s approval and respect is enough to mitigate Neal’s guilt about what happened, and compromise his morals — whatever they’re worth — going forward. Lee makes a further point about his tactics by sharing how he deals with his mother-in-law (who told him he “ate pubic hair with pepper paste — now, that’s about the meanest thing you can say about somebody in Korea,” not something I can verify, though the pepper paste part is hysterically specific): he hocks a loogie into his mother-in-law’s tea, and watches with Gamby as she proceeds to drink it. He also reveals that he’d looted Brown’s house while they were wrecking it, giving Gamby a diamond-studded brooch as his share of the spoils. Gamby refuses but, when Russell prompts him again, ends up taking it with him, using it to pay off his daughter’s horse’s stable fees. His dramatic exit is unfortunately foiled by the fact that he’s running his errands, once again, with his driver’s ed students, who make what is less of a five-point turn and more of a fifteen-point turn before managing to leave the stables. (In the meanwhile, the incidental music remains reminiscent of Glee in that it’s largely from the drum corps, a nice touch that helps keep everything in its high school context while the events unfolding onscreen get wilder and wilder.)

The next day, both Russell and Gamby are called to the principal’s office. It’s a summons that leaves the two of them looking like students caught red-handed as they sit waiting for Dr. Brown, but her reason for calling them in isn’t to confront them about the fire. As it turns out, Sason has judged both of them to be excellent vice principals, and Brown has called them to ask for their support. They don’t even wait to be excused to gloat. Belinda asks them to pray with her, and when she closes her eyes, Russell and Gamby pull faces at each other across the table.

Like the pilot, the second episode ends with an impeccable music cue. This time: Shawn Lee’s “School House Funk,” which boasts a touch of “The Ecstasy of Gold” about it. It’s an appropriate up for the ante considering the escalation we’ve seen. Lee Russell is capable of a lot more than arson. The fire was nothing to him, a fact that’s made clear by what he tells Gamby: “What we’re doing is serious business. But that don’t mean it can’t be fun, too.” The episode has also set a delicate balance, i.e. though they’re co-billed, Walton Goggins’ performance threatens to supersede Danny McBride’s. The Hateful Eight proved he’s got the chops to play leading man (to the point that I thought that he ought to have had top billing), and he’s magnetic in Vice Principals

Insult of the Week:

  • For its simplicity: “I think you’re stupid, and your face is ridiculous to me. Fuck your face. Fuck your butt.”

Grade: A

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Tintin enthusiast. NYC via the midwest.

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