The VICE PRINCIPALS S2 Recap: “Tiger Town”

Neil Gamby emerges from his bullet-induced exile to find some nightmarish developments (and decorations) at North Jackson High.

Vice Principals is one of our favorite shows here at Birth.Movies.Death. This year, Phil Nobile Jr. and I will be tag-teaming recaps of the show, much as we did last year with True Detective's (debatably regrettable) second season. What follows is the actual conversation we had in the wake of last night's premiere. Enjoy.

Scott: Phil, I’d like to kick off our coverage of Vice Principals S2 with a painful admission: we, as a site, did not do enough to cover this show during its first season. You and I were both head over heels for it and discussed it behind the scenes every Monday, but - for whatever reason - it seems like it never occurred to us to take the conversation to the front page. I am filled with regret.

Phil: We’re only one man. Half of the man is you, and half is me, and together we’re a fucking Voltron of awesome, but still: one man, mathematically.

Scott: Fair enough. With that mea culpa out of the way, here’s an observation I’d like to make: before last night’s season premiere, I went back and watched the bulk of the first season finale. I know exactly what this show is and how immoral its characters are, but over the past year I’d sorta forgotten just how savage its leads could be. My memories of Gamby (Danny McBride) and Russell (Walton Goggins)’s hijinks were a bit more rose-colored than the reality of the situation, a stark contrast I really felt while rewatching the scene where the two of them confront Belinda Brown (Kimberly Gregory) on the traintracks. That scene is vicious, and served as a good reminder that these two aren’t just flawed antiheroes, but actual monsters. Especially Russell. I mean, Jesus.

Phil: I have the advantage of having seen the second episode, and I will just say that this theme you bring up - of being monsters and the ways in which the characters acknowledge that monstrosity - flowers in two very different directions next week. So yes, we are absolutely getting back into that exploration this year. But yeah: like last season, and like Observe and Report, Eastbound and Down, all the way back to The Foot Fist Way, this company’s penchant for mining deeply terrible people for comedy is back in full swing and, dare I say, most welcome? I’ve missed this.   

Scott: So have I. This crew (which is to say: Danny McBride, director David Gordon Green, creator Jody Hill) tends to traffic in a very specific type, and I don’t honestly know what it says about me that I respond so strongly to these nightmare-humans.

Phil: I do.

Scott: I gave you that one! But, really, I’m assuming it’s just the misanthropy, which is something I’ve long identified with, but there’s also something breathtaking about seeing behavior this awful played for laughs. That they can make some of this material funny is legit miraculous. The people who made this show tend to work with some fairly dark material, and Vice Principals is on the darker end of that spectrum.

Phil: Mostly the misanthropy, though. Same.

Scott:  Anyway, season two picks up a few months after season one ends. Gamby, gunned down in the school parking lot at the end of season one, has spent the interim recuperating at his ex-wife Gale’s house (and being about as gracious about it as you’d expect). Russell, meanwhile, has fully taken control of the school, turning it into a merchandised nightmare where the students have begun pushing back at authority in Gamby’s absence. Those are the basics, but there’s so much to unpack even within that basic description. For instance: I love the ongoing gag about Shea Whigham’s Ray (new husband to Gamby’s ex) being endlessly patient with Gamby’s bullshit.

Phil: Gamby’s treatment of his ex-wife Gale (Busy Philipps) bordered on predictable, but the 180 he’s done on Ray bowled me over. Even if it’s half just to piss off Gale some more.

Scott: I also love that Russell has somehow found the budget to move into a gigantic McMansion and turn the school into a tacky nightmare, and I loved Gamby’s Rust Cohle-like obsession with finding out who shot him. There’s not much I didn’t love in this episode, honestly.

Phil: I love how cinematic these guys are in presenting these buffoons. There’s an unfortunate digital wash to a lot of what we saw last night, but that opening dream sequence was a promising start. They said this year is going to pull from De Palma’s playbook, and I am here for it.

That first cut to Russell in his BMW, and the ensuing phone call to his gaudy home, tells us so much. My man is misappropriating the shit out some school funds, both at home and at work. I predict this will be biting him in the ass in a big way shortly.

Scott: After we’ve caught up with our favorite monsters, there’s a scene where Russell takes Gamby out to a local pond, where he eats Gamby’s painkillers and finally provokes him out of his wheelchair. The scene culminates in a moment where Russell is laying on top of Gamby, thrusting his hips and shouting at him to take back control of his faculties. It’s an obvious visual gag, but I couldn’t help but wonder - yet again - what the show might be trying to tell us about Russell’s sexuality. I have concerns that Russell’s monstrousness might ultimately be revealed as a symptom of Russell keeping himself in the closet. I’ll put up with a lot of bad behavior from this show, but I feel like that development would be a bridge too far. You got any thoughts on this?

Phil: Well, here’s the tightrope act. They’ve been playing his metrosexuality for laughs for so long that it’s almost offensive if he’s not gay at this point. I don’t know if their long game will be so much about making his closeted status a motivator for his behavior, but I’ll say I do trust these guys to be inclusive about who can and can’t be total sociopathic fuckers, and they seem pretty fearless about waving everyone into their ball pit of terrible.

Scott: Well said! Moving right along: the bulk of this episode - besides establishing what everyone’s been up to since the first season finale - was devoted to Gamby plotting his revenge against Belinda Brown, who he’s convinced is responsible for the shooting that left him “without legs” (note: as we learned, Gamby’s legs work just fine). At no point have I suspected Brown as the likely culprit here, but Gamby’s convinced. Later we'll learn that, no, it wasn’t her...but she insists it had to be Russell. I’m not buying that theory, either (and also, if we wanna get really technical: the masked figure seen in the first season finale appears to be slightly taller than Gamby, which rules out virtually everyone in the cast; I’m not quite sure what to make of that). Do you have an operating theory as to who shot him?

Phil: I don’t want to guess because I suspect they’re not going to play fair on that front. That binder Russell assembled of possible suspects is THICC, and is definitely full of faces we haven’t seen before. Frankly, I’m looking forward to them expanding the cast like that. Vice Principal Nash (Dale Dickey) was a lot of fun.   

Scott: I found it curious that VP Nash was introduced as being a total ballbreaker, smashing those two “dopers” into a row of lockers, only to be shown as ineffectual later in the episode. Seemed like the show was establishing her as Gamby’s equal, only to undermine that later on, when it became necessary for Gamby to step up to the plate.

Phil: I think the way she deferred to him at first meeting will set the tone for the season. She’s going to be his little troll minion. It was a false note in the cafeteria, but she’s going to be the one who buys his bullshit tough leader routine, and having that kind of blindly loyal underling works well for this kind of blustery character (see Stevie on Eastbound and Down).

Scott: On a somewhat related note, let’s move on to Gamby’s stunning “Welcome Back” celebration at the school (having the school choir sing Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” felt like the perfect choice, precisely the sort of well-meaning but wholly meaningless spectacle a dipshit like Russell might arrange). I found it curious that Gamby seemed so initially reluctant to be back. Given everything we know about the character, I’d have thought he’d be all fired up (as fired up as he gets much later in the episode) to be back at North Jackson, sticking his foot in students’ asses.

Phil: Well, it feels like Gamby’s Dark Knight Rises moment. He’s broken, his confidence is gone, he is not feeling it. But then when he accuses Russell of shooting him, and sees Russell’s genuine hurt, on top of the gesture of compiling suspects, he gets reinvested in the hunt for the shooter. He’s born again because of Russell’s love. For real.

Scott: I can’t yet tell if Russell’s being genuine or not. There’s a scene later in the episode - and we’ll get there soon enough - where he appeals to Gamby as his “only friend”. The words sound great, but all I kept thinking about was how Russell spent so much of the scene not outright denying the thing he was being accused of. 

But let’s loop back around to that. Once Gamby returned to North Jackson, it was time for him to track down Belinda Brown and get his revenge, something we see him plotting early in the episode. Gamby tracks Brown down via the school’s perpetually put-upon secretary, and once he’s got her cornered he bungles the attack...but doing so gives Brown just enough time to convince Gamby that she’s not the one who shot him. In fact, he walks away from the encounter convinced that Russell’s to blame. Any thoughts on this sequence?

Phil: It felt like when a sequel has a cameo from an original cast member and they basically do a walk-on and vanish from the rest of the movie. Since they shot both seasons at the same time, there’s no reason for that to be the case here, but I found myself wondering if she’s out of the picture for good. I did immediately start making a list of people I want to get tattooed on my back eating shit.

The scene also had that wonderful flavor of McBride where the cool thing in his head (“as you can see I have no weapons; do you feel bad about shooting me?”) collides with reality (“Please answer with a yes or no.”). The Gamby in Gamby’s head juxtaposed with the Gamby the world sees will always be deeply funny and truthful to me.

Scott: Now we arrive back at the scene I mentioned earlier, with Gamby confronting Russell out in the woods. Again, my big takeaway from this scene wasn’t Russell’s insistence that he’s Gamby’s only friend or the big-ass binder full of potential suspects he put together, but the fact that it took him so long to say the words “I didn’t shoot you.” For the record, I don’t think Russell shot Gamby, but I thought this was an interesting choice. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I imagine it was written that way specifically, to keep us on our toes about Russell (not that we need it; dude’s already proven himself to be the most evil character on this show, many times over).

Phil: You’re not wrong, but I think he has what he believes to be genuine love for Gamby. How that ultimately manifests is going to be, I think, wildly unpredictable.

Scott: Before we wrap this up, I’ve got a question, and it pertains to something you mentioned above: word on the street is that this season’s going to take its cues from Brian De Palma. I’m curious how you think that might manifest itself here. What do you think that’ll look like in the Vice Principals Universe?

Phil: This is where Jacob Knight should be here instead of me. Plot twists, long takes, split screens, deeply stylish presentation? I didn’t see it here (the finale shooting was closer, honestly) but it’s the kind of thing where I can see the show just sort of giving itself over to signature sequences here and there.

Scott: We definitely need to pull Jacob into one of these at some point, perhaps once things get really gnarly. In the meantime, I think I can speak for the both of us when I say we are thrilled to have this show back on the air, and look forward to dissecting it every week. This feels a lot like the right show at the right time for me.