Warning: The following post contains spoilers from Sunday’s Vice Principals series finale.
Attempted murders and tigers and cameos, oh my!
The “unhinged and f—ed up” Vice Principals series finale had a little bit of everything, including finally answering the question, “Who shot Neal Gamby?” Despite all of the prior evidence and common sense pointing toward Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), it was actually Gamby’s (Danny McBride) crazy, spurned lover Jen Abbott (Edi Patterson) who shot and wounded him.
The revelation led to a wild finish, with Abbott in handcuffs, Russell getting attacked by a tiger, and neither vice principal still at North Jackson High. In the end, Russell is divorced and working as regional manager at a women’s clothing store, while Gamby is in a relationship with Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King) and principal at… Forest Hills Middle School.
EW talked to McBride, the HBO comedy’s star and co-creator, about the surprising endings for the lead characters, the big Eastbound & Down cameo, and whether this is really the final semester for Vice Principals.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was Abbott always going to be the shooter? And what was it about that outcome that appealed to you guys?
DANNY MCBRIDE: I’ve never written a mystery anything, so in my head, I was like, “I don’t want to know who did this yet because I’ll signal it in the writing.” And as we started writing, it just wrapped up both these characters’ arcs in a good way. Gamby has done all of these things to get what he wants — some really bad things — but the thing that almost dooms him is not respecting someone else’s feelings. We thought that was an appropriate nemesis to have, which is a nemesis that he didn’t even know that he had. Gamby has been sort of consistent in judging people wrong. He judged Lee wrong, he judged Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) wrong, he judged Snodgrass wrong, and he judged Ray (Shea Whigham) wrong. So I think this sort of weakness of his is bearing fruit and leading to his demise. And with Lee Russell, we spent a lot of time breaking that character down and showing exactly why he is why he is. From an early age, Lee Russell is a pathological liar, and maybe those lies have been told to compensate for things that he feels inadequate about. But ultimately, he’s the boy who cried wolf. He’s lied so much that when he gets accused of this crime, his shitty reputation does him more damage than anything and it puts him in a position where he has no one to turn to and no one who will believe him; he basically loses everything. We felt that this twist of centering it on Abbott gave both of these guys a chance to fall in the mud one more time — and the idea that Gamby takes his friend down, it’s just like these two are the biggest idiots. And of course Gamby is not going to be good at solving a crime, so it’s fitting that he’d gear the whole thing towards his buddy, make his buddy lose his job, and he was wrong the whole time. [Laughs]
The relationship between Gamby and Russell, no matter its status, was always the heart of show, which made for an interesting choice when we didn’t get a final conversation between them, instead just this wistful glance across the food court. Why did you go that route?
I’m not sure what the future for Lee and Gamby holds. It was one of those things where their union was brought together by this job, and whether these guys realized it or not, they both did need each other to dig themselves out of this hole that they had gotten themselves into. But for both of them, it’s obvious that they are very bad for each other; bad things happen when these guys are together. So to some extent, the idea that those guys don’t go over and high-five each other is a sign of their growth, they have moved forward and are trying to put together the rest of their lives. Whether that means those guys don’t talk anymore, I’m not sure.
Is this a happy or sad ending for Lee? He seems to be in a good place, but he lost his wife and job.
Lee Russell isn’t an educator. Lee Russell was enamored with the politics of running a school, the power of it, and holding that power over people. It made him feel strong and like a man, so I think in a weird way, he also has a happy ending, because he’s been able to hold onto that small power and just put it into another industry, which is female fashions. [Laughs]
And why have Neal be principal at a middle school and not North Jackson High? Was there just too much baggage there?
It’s sort of what Snodgrass says when she wraps up that book: “Both of these guys thought they deserved that job and at the end of the day they both had compromised themselves too much to be the rightful inheritor of that position.” And so in the laws of the universe, karmically, those guys lost that job the moment they lit Belinda Brown’s house on fire. So I don’t think it’s a grand victory for him at the end of the day; he got the title he thought he wanted and it doesn’t shift his life too much.
The best part about the middle school reveal is Gamby’s new vice principal being played by your Eastbound & Down costar Steve Little. What was it like to at least briefly reunite with him?
It was amazing to reunite with him. I love Steve Little, he’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever been around. If you’re a fan, it’s kind of nice to imagine Gamby running around with somebody played by Steve Little. You can only imagine what the next school year would be like for those two guys.
Is this definitely the end for Vice Principals? You’ve been pretty adamant that this was always designed as a two-season show, but there also seemed to be a few times where Eastbound & Down appeared finished, only to eventually return.
The way we handled it, which was by doing it all at once, really was just this story of these two men fighting for a job and how their lives unravel in the pursuit of that. So for us, the moment that job was decided upon and that struggle is over, that’s the end of that story. If I were to spin those guys out and find some convoluted way for them to struggle for a new job or something, it just feels a little disingenuous to what we initially set out to do. I love working with all of these people and it’s made that decision very hard because Kimberly, Edi, Georgia, Walton, they’ve all been incredible and become incredible friends through this process. I love playing Gamby. And I love watching Walton play Lee Russell. He’s one of the most incredible actors working today. Whenever my mind goes to, “Should we do any more of those,” it really only happens because I’m watching him. I’ll be thinking, “Goddamn he’s destroying this, I want to see him do more of it.” So I think if we ever were to bring those guys together again, it would have to be done in sort of the way we attacked Vice Principals, something that stands on its own and is its own story. We couldn’t follow this up by doing just another knock-off season.
Between Eastbound and Vice Principals, you’ve found success with short-run HBO comedies, so is this a model you’d like to return to in the future?
Now that TV is letting you bend these boundaries and tell these crazy stories and apply artistry in a way that TV didn’t use to have, you can do more with television than with what you were able to do before. People should also look at filmmakers, like it would be silly if there was a guy who made a movie and then for his whole career just made the same movie over and over and over again. And I feel like that’s a problem with showrunners. If you just get an idea and milk it for 10 years, I’m sure your bank account is incredible, but at the end of the day, I’d get bored doing that. I like the idea of creating new characters and not just being stuck writing jokes for old ones. With Eastbound, we loved working on that show and it was a hard decision to not do it more, but we did that because creatively we wanted to push ourselves, we didn’t want to spend 10 years of our career just telling jokes from a guy wearing a mullet. [Laughs] We wanted to tell some jokes about guys wearing suits in a high school and whatever we decide to do next. We like the idea of being able to explore lots of different worlds as opposed to spinning our wheels in the same one.