The school bell at North Jackson High rang for the last time Sunday as Vice Principals‘ brief-by-design two-season run came to a violent, bloody, riotous conclusion on HBO.
To quickly recap: After being unmasked as Gamby’s (co-creator/star Danny McBride) shooter, Ms. Abbott (the uproariously warped Edi Patterson) went on a gun-toting, fists-flying rampage, wounding both Russell (Walton Goggins) and Snodgrass (Georgia King) before letting loose an actual tiger on school grounds. The mascot ended up feasting on an already-wounded Russell, leaving him partially disfigured.
In the episode’s closing minutes, the action jumped ahead three months and found Gamby (now a middle school principal) and Snodgrass (now a published author) happily joined at the hip, and Russell raising his own special brand of hell as the regional manager for all Apricot Lane boutiques.
Below, McBride breaks down the finale’s biggest twists, explains his decision to wrap the series after just 18 total episodes, and reveals whether this is truly Gamby and Russell’s last hurrah.
TVLINE | Why only two seasons? And were you ever tempted to extend the series into a third season or beyond?
Before the cameras started rolling on the first episode, we had no ambition to ever do anything outside of [these 18 episodes]. But I got along with all these people so well and I had such a good time [making the show] that I have since thought, “What would I do if we continued it?” It might happen someday. But we really set out to kind of do something different with television. We approached [Vice Principals similar to] how feature film directors approach movies; it’d be foolish to make the same feature film over and over again… Ultimately, [the show] was made to be seen as one [nine-hour movie].
TVLINE | I thought for sure Abbott killed Russell when she shot him in the beginning of the episode. Did you ever consider having the bastard actually die?
We never considered having him die. It didn’t seem right to murder Russell. As much of a motherf—– as he is, I think it’s almost a better punishment for him to have to really look at how far he’s fallen and to try to move forward.
TVLINE | Abbott really broke out in this final season. I loved the dynamic between her and Gamby. Did you and Edi instantly click?
The very first time I walked on set with Edi, I felt that same thing I felt when I acted with Steve Little in Eastbound & Down. [She] was just a kindred spirit… somebody who had a crazy f—-d-up sense of humor who is not afraid of anything and willing to kind of go far. She is just a force. I’ve been to a bunch of her improv shows and I’m just her biggest fan. When we wrapped this show I had such a good time working with her that the two of us sat down and wrote a script together [for a film] I’m hoping to direct and she’s going to be the lead. I’m stoked for people to see what she’s capable of.
TVLINE | We never did find out what became of Abbott. I assume she’s just rotting away in jail?
We [debated] how much to wrap up and how much to leave [ambiguous]. At the end of the day, I don’t really trust a story that is completely wrapped up and clean and neat. I like stories that have rough edges and are a little bit messy, because that reflects life. This was ultimately a show about these two men who wanted a job, and when the job gets filled the show is over. I think it’s more powerful to end the story when the author doesn’t just tell you exactly what happens to everyone and the audience is left to sort of imagine what goes down next.
TVLINE | Were there any tigers harmed in the making of this episode?
[Laughs] There were no tigers harmed. I think everybody was pretty disappointed on the set that tigers don’t really growl and do [scary] stuff. This tiger was about as friendly as you could be; he’d just sit there and smile at us. All the viciousness was done in [post-production].
TVLINE | It made sense narratively that Belinda [Kimberly Hebert Gregory] would have a smaller role in Season 2, but that didn’t make me miss her any less. Were you tempted to find ways to maybe shoehorn her into the story just to continue to take advantage of the Russell-Belinda-Gamby chemistry?
The fact that we knew [we were building] to an ending is what separates this show from other shows. It meant that we could double down on the dynamics of the show changing. We didn’t have to maintain a certain formula for the show to succeed. Actions have consequences. When people do stuff, everything doesn’t just go back to [the way it was] in the next episode. People are growing and changing and making terrible choices and good choices and it affects the narrative… Kimberly was incredible to work with, and the [Russell-Belinda-Gamby] dynamic was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. But that was the nature of what this story was. These two guys had to succeed in this vile act that they set out to do or else the rest of the story doesn’t make sense.
TVLINE | Was it your goal in these final episodes to bring some element of redemption to Gamby and Russell?
No. We tried to be very careful not to do some sort of typical redemption [arc]. Even when Gamby had his most heroic moments — like when he’s rallying the teachers and the cafeteria workers and the bad kids to kind of topple Russell — it’s not a heroic moment at all. He had completely the wrong information. Ultimately, these guys are idiots. I think that they have the capacity for change, but I think it would be kind of boring and wouldn’t be as realistic if they just completely changed at the end. So we held off on totally redeeming them because I’m not sure these guys are totally redeemable. I think they probably still have a bit more of a price to pay. You just hope that they’re going to keep trying to go in the right direction.
TVLINE | I never forgave them for burning down Belinda’s house. And it still bugs me that Gamby didn’t intervene there. It almost seemed out of character that he would’ve participated in such a heinous act.
That was our shot across the bow. That was where we really wanted to let audiences know that nothing was going to be off limits. And it added to the idea of just making sure they never knew what was going to happen next. That’s [one of the reasons we] jumped back and forth between strange drama and odd humor; sometimes you’re not even sure what tone you’re going to get. It’s also about the audience knowing that these characters shouldn’t do these [terrible] things, and it’s painful having to watch them do it. I remember it was very hard to film the scene where [Gamby and Russell] finally take down Belinda Brown at the train tracks and show her the video. You could feel it in the scene how f—ed up it felt. You just want to like, “Oh, I wish that he would just stop this now.” But it’s crucial to the show to have that separation, because we’re not asking people to identify with these guys 100 percent and justify the things they do. We’re trying to make people invest in them and be severely disappointed when they don’t make the choices that they should.
TVLINE | In your gut, do you think you’ll ever revisit these characters someday?
I don’t know. I honestly don’t. I’m working on something brand new for HBO. It’s a different story with different characters. But I do like Vice Principals. So maybe a few years from now an idea will sort of click that makes sense. But, for now, that was the tale of Neal Gamby and Lee Russell.