“The Union of the Wizard and the Warrior”
More than once I’ve called Vice Principals “A tragedy of seeing other people as human beings, one decision too late,” or, as ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER might put it, “NEAL GAMBY IS CONSTANTLY FUCKING PEOPLE OVER THEN FEELING BAD ABOUT IT AND IT’S GONNA FUCK HIM OVER IN THE END”. I wasn’t sure how accurate this was, but it seemed a possibility for the ending of the show, that all the bad things Neal Gamby had done would eventually come back to destroy him, no matter how much he’d done his best to make up for them.
But in the end, Vice Principals wasn’t a tragedy. The exquisite series finale clarified at last what this show was: A show about the redemptive and transformative power of male friendship.
The topic of how the patriarchy teaches boys and men to suppress and cauterize their real emotions, and the toxic effect this has on them, is an idea that’s been explored by thinkers of all types, including some who couldn’t be more wildly different in their backgrounds and approaches to the topic than bell hooks and Bill Burr:
The wounded child inside many males is a boy who, when he first spoke his truths, was silenced by paternal sadism, by a patriarchal world that did not want him to claim his true feelings.
Emotional neglect lays the groundwork for the emotional numbing that helps boys feel better about being cut off. Eruptions of rage in boys are most often deemed normal, explained by the age-old justification for adolescent patriarchal misbehavior, “Boys will be boys.” Patriarchy both creates the rage in boys and then contains it for later use, making it a resource to exploit later on as boys become men.
When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced.
[It’s] the reason why guys drop at 55 out of fuckin’ nowhere… it’s literally from five decades of just suppressing the urge to, like, hug a puppy, admit a baby’s cute, say you want a cookie… you just gotta keep pushing it down.
(I’ll let you figure out on your own who said which quotes.)
Vice Principals is, in the end, a show about two men who are, in different ways, living, breathing embodiments of toxic masculinity, and how their unlikely friendship, built on exactly the kind of depth of emotional bonding the two have lacked previously, changes them into healthier, better people.
The show announces its intentions in its opening scene. Lee Russell has tracked down Belinda Brown at her new school and plans to enlist her help. This could go any number of ways; I largely expected Russell would try to burn down Gamby’s life, so I thought we’d see him tip Brown to some kind of evidence to press charges against Gamby. But the real story is that Lee Russell has changed, and is looking for help to clear his name in the shooting. And he does it by totally owning up to what a terrible person he’s been, but in the process also admits that he has no one left to turn to. In hindsight, it seems obvious, but it’s now clear to me that Neal Gamby is almost certainly Lee Russell’s first real male friend (possibly first real friend of any kind) and just how much Russell genuinely values and needs that. It’s also clear how much that friendship has changed him: Lee Russell isn’t just doing this to clear his own name; he’s doing it because he needs to protect Gamby if the shooter is still at large.
When Brown won’t help him (I mean, and why should she?), Russell goes to work on his own, putting that organized-like-a-sociopath mind to work, building his own Pepe Silvia board, and reviewing the evidence over and over, until it hits him. Gamby said he found the shooter’s mask in the trunk of Russell’s (ex-wife’s) car; only one person had access to that car and had motive to frame Russell.
And just as Lee Russell is putting together the answer and racing over to tell Gamby, Gamby arrives at home with Jen Abbott on his doorstep in a wedding dress.
What follows is some of the most phenomenally tense TV of the year, as Gamby tries to handle the situation as best as he can. Unfortunately, he’s underestimated what Abbott is capable of. (Honestly, though, “My ex-girlfriend on my doorstep in a wedding dress” isn’t someone you should take your eye off of, especially when you know they’re mentally unstable and capable of harming someone.) As he consents to letting Abbott inside his house– after an exchange about how she’s not going to poop but it’s fine with Gamby if she does; this show never forgets it’s a comedy– Russell shows up to warn him that Abbott shot him– just in time for her to walk out and OH FUCK SHE SHOT RUSSELL IN THE HEAD OH FUCK OH FUCK OH FUCK
Gamby proves an incredible thinker under pressure, and after Abbott announces her murder-suicide plans, he talks her into walking into the forest, and nearly succeeds at leading her into one of his death traps. She just catches on, though, and dodges it in time; Gamby flees and she shoots after him. Gamby falls into one of his own pit traps, but Abbott is out of bullets when she catches him. She takes off to school to kill Snodgrass, and just as it sounds like hope is lost, Russell is alive after all. He tracks down Gamby after a game of Marco Polo, and, crucially, will only let him out of the pit once he apologizes for not believing in their friendship.
That friendship is important to Neal Gamby, too, as we see in the couple of scenes of calm before the storm. Though graduation prep is going smoothly and the teachers have recommended him for the permanent job of principal, he isn’t happy. He misses Lee Russell. He’s sad about his apparent betrayal. Even Dayshaun has noticed: “Y’all had feelings for each other, it’s got to go somewhere, right?” (And, hearkening back to our talk about toxic masculinity, it’s no coincidence Dayshaun is able to say that they are, in fact, feelings, and Gamby isn’t.)
The Russell and Gamby dynamic duo is in full effect from here on out, as the two’s hilariously over-the-top sensibilities collide in the best way on the chase to school. When they spot Abbott’s car, Russell has the idea that they need to make sure she can’t leave. Gamby decides to ram his car full speed into hers. Russell: “Shit, I just meant slash her tires or something.” But it also speaks to why their pairing works: Russell’s meticulousness and sense of the big idea combined with Gamby’s sense of action and responsibility make them an effective duo at accomplishing their goals. And after an entire year at North Jackson High as friends, and of a lot of opportunities to reflect on how toxic their previous behaviors have been, those goals are finally altruistic and noble instead of selfish and destructive.
We also get the awesome fight between Abbott and Snodgrass, another great piece of action work from a show that’s increasingly stacked them as it’s gone on. Even though Snodgrass apparently knocks Abbott out, she emerges once again to let Chekov’s Tiger out of its cage. She’s ready to dramatically let it eat her, which would really be better for everyone involved at this point, but instead it bypasses her and eats its trainer (who, let’s not forget, was using a cattle prod on the tiger to get it riled up for some good photographs with the graduates). Snodgrass locks Abbott in the tiger’s cage; everyone else escapes behind a gate they close and finishes the evacuation, except Willows, Dayshaun, and Russell.
And then Abbott manages to reach the fire alarm from the cage, tripping the gate back open. (Seriously, stop taking your eyes off this woman.) And instead of letting Willows shoot the tiger, Lee Russell, obviously suffering from blood loss at this point, decides he can communicate with it spiritually. Lee Russell gets mauled by the tiger. Willows and Dayshaun freak the hell out and run (justifiably).
And Gamby goes back in.
Real friendship isn’t just about good times. Indeed, it’s often about the bad times; about who feels the sense of obligation to be there for you when you’re at your lowest. Russell may or may not be dying, but it doesn’t matter, Gamby is gonna check on him, and he’s sure as hell not gonna let him die alone. He’ll even– after much prodding from Russell, but nonetheless– admit he loves him. It’s the crucial scene of the series: Neal Gamby has finally broken through the last barrier of toxic masculinity. Over the course of season two, he’s become someone been able to admit his failings, the ways in which he’s done wrong, and even the emotional reasons for them. Now, though, he can finally admit that platonic love can exist between two grown men.
The tiger comes back. Russell tells Gamby to save himself. Gamby stands up to the tiger, roaring in its face, causing it to cower. Neal Gamby, once and always, the true apex predator of North Jackson High.
As the paramedics lift Russell into the ambulance, he appears to stop breathing. One paramedic has to open his eye manually. Gamby and Snodgrass look on, fearing the worst. (Even as she’s in the back of a police car, Abbott is gleeful about the possible death of Lee Russell, a force of pure malevolence to the end.)
Three months later
Russell did not die. He’s now regional manager for Apricot Lane boutiques, and though his character has changed, his personality hasn’t. His hilariously bitchy nature is perfect in the position. (“Now cover me. I’m gonna have a smoke.”) Gamby has left North Jackson High to take the principal job at a local middle school. I had speculated beforehand that the episode’s title, “The Union of the Wizard and Warrior,” was in reference to a book written by Snodgrass, and I was right. (And, of course, it’s based on the adventures of Gamby and Russell.) She’s giving a reading at a local bookstore. Gamby and Snodgrass are eating at the mall food court, when Gamby catches Russell’s eye across the court as he eats with his co-workers. They share a few knowing, goofy, almost flirtatious looks, as the Kinks’ “Living on a Thin Line” begins playing and takes us out through the credits. It’s hilarious, but it’s also moving; the fact that it doesn’t come across as absolutely ridiculous is testament to both the commitment of the performers and the work everyone involved has done in building the relationship between Gamby and Russell, bringing them from tragedy to triumph.
Whether or not Gamby and Russell deserved to be redeemed is another question. But in the words of a few other great fictional characters, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Their friendship, and the ways in which they changed each other, did redeem them in the end, did bring out their best qualities and burn off their worst ones. Not since Rust Cohle and Martin Hart has the power of genuine male friendship been depicted so well on television. (I mean, how many shows even try, really?)
For the worries I had along the way that the show was occasionally losing the plot, the finale was outstanding and made it snap into focus in a way that makes me excited to see the entire show all over again. Another triumph from the Hill/Green/McBride crew. Bravo.
- Not coincidentally, the finale of the first season of True Detective may have been the last time on television we saw two unlikely male friends save each other’s lives.
- “Living on a Thin Line” is a great choice for the final shot. “All the wars that were won and lost / Somehow don’t seem to matter very much anymore” very much describes the looks between Gamby and Russell, reflecting on their last year.
- I chose the header photo from another website because I didn’t want to take my own screen grab. I tried to pick one that wouldn’t spoil too much if people saw it on the front page; I hope I succeeded.
- Our only glimpse of Gamby’s morning announcements, on the last day of school, is about what you’d expect. It manages to be both hilarious– Gamby has no camera presence whatsoever– and touching– Gamby’s shout-out to Robin Shandrell, who has lived up to his end of the bargain and finished his last period with straight A’s. It’s not undercut by snark or the pettiness of high school kids; the class genuinely applauds him, and it’s shown as a genuine moment of triumph, a real victory, a small note of grace in this world. It’s Namond Brice giving the speech at the conference.
- “God damn it, Swift, every time you come around something annoying happens.”
- Shout-out to Brad Beyer’s dangerous intensity as the tiger handler. Just one more idiotic thing Lee Russell spent the school’s money on. It’s certain there will be tiger trouble as soon as we meet this guy, right?
- Of course Gamby’s triumphant moment this episode is leading an orderly and disciplined school evacuation. He’s an administrator through and through.
- Of course, being Neal Gamby, he can’t get everyone in line, and after a parent starts talking back to him, he breaks the news about the evacuation in the most tone-deaf manner imaginable: “Okay, this isn’t a question-and-answer thing right now, because this is a serious situation, but if you must know: A woman that I had secret sexual relations with pretty much the whole entire school year tried to murder me. She shot me at the end of last semester and returned to finish me off here, and– and also tried to kill my very, very dear friend, Lee Russell, and my new girlfriend, Amanda Snodgrass. Hey, baby. And the woman also let out the tiger that many of you were taking pictures with and he ate a person.”
- Unlike the Neal Gamby who started this series, though, I believe him when he says it’s going to be okay. And he delivers another ridiculously hilarious line to close the announcement: “Without further ado, as Acting Principal of North Jackson High, it is with great honor that I begin the evacuation of this graduation.”
- Hilarious moment in the epilogue: Having experienced two mascot-related tragedies in one calendar year, with two different mascots, the new North Jackson mascot is an obvious attempt at the least threatening choice possible. Welcome, North Jackson High Shamrocks. (Time will tell if this ends up being a “Stop listening to your radio and start listening to your heart” situation.)
- Nash is principal of North Jackson High now. Gamby tells Janelle she’s in good hands. I wish we’d gotten to see a little more of Nash; this moment might have landed better.
- After the year we just saw Neal Gamby have, his stern laying down of the law to his new vice principal comes across less as dick-swinging and more as “There is no way I am ever going through that shit again.”
- And you know I’m going to point out Steve Little as the new vice principal! Eastbound and Down reunion!
- If you missed it, make sure you check out the cover art on Snodgrass’ book.
- Also, is the title a shoutout to Wizards & Warriors? Who cares if it’s intended– I’m counting it.
- Lee Russell appears to now be missing two fingers.
- I’ll do my best Neal Gamby to close: It’s been a complete fucking honor to write these reviews, to serve you in this fashion, even in those times where we didn’t get enough comments, or I was late, or sick, or whatever, it’s in the past, move on, don’t fucking it bring it up now. Now, we’re going to evacuate safely and make sure nobody gets hurt. We’re going to use these side doors, because out those doors, the carnivorous creature roams.