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HBO’s Vice Principals captured something essential about the 2010s

But I’m still not sure what.

Vice Principals
Dale Dickey, Walton Goggins, and Danny McBride star in Vice Principals.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 12 through 18 is “The Union of the Wizard & the Warrior,” the series finale of HBO’s Vice Principals.

The line between depiction and endorsement hangs heavily over almost any fictional tale of people behaving badly. And walking that line often yields stories that make absolutely clear that the bad behavior on display is capital-b Bad, to their detriment.

HBO’s Vice Principals lives on the line. It’s where the show is most comfortable. It wants you to feel triumphant when its two main characters come together to do very bad things, but it also wants you to feel a little queasy about feeling so triumphant. It’s carefully structured to make you constantly fear that it will tilt into the pit of outright approval, before just clearing the gap to make the other side. The series likely couldn’t have defied gravity forever, which makes it all the smarter that it ended after just 18 episodes. (That length of a run was planned by creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride from the start.)

When I talk to people in my life who’ve watched Vice Principals, I find it almost impossible to predict how they’ll feel about it — or even why they like or dislike it, once they reveal their opinion. It’s a nervy show that deliberately plays your own expectations against you, so dedicated to its own vision that it might make you laugh, and then make you want to throw up about five seconds later.

It’s probably a smarter, deeper show than I’m giving it credit for. And I give it a lot of credit for being deeper and smarter than it seems on the surface.

Vice Principals would be hard to stomach in any climate. After airing in 2016 and 2017, it’s easy to read it as an elaborate troll of everything.

Vice Principals
Ladies and gentlemen, the majestic Walton Goggins.

As I’ve written on multiple occasions, there’s something a little eerie about just how thoroughly Vice Principals seems to have digested the Donald Trump era and served it back to us as fiction, even though it was conceived and completed at a time when “President Donald Trump” seemed like a never-gonna-happen punchline. The way the show tapped into white male aggravation in ways both universal and incredibly specific to its two main characters made it uncomfortable to watch, but always endlessly compelling.

The show’s acute ability to unsettle only reached its apex in season two, when Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) found himself finally occupying the chair of high school principal, as he’d always hoped he would, only to realize that wanting to lead and actually leading are very different things. Meanwhile, Neal Gamby (McBride) alternated between serving as Russell’s right-hand man and trying to take him down — even becoming convinced for a time that Russell had been the man who shot him in the season one finale. (Russell, it turned out, was framed by the actual shooter.)

Russell didn’t really want power because he had noble ambitions or detailed thoughts about what he could do with it. Sure, he wanted to make a better school for his students on some level, but he mostly seemed into the idea of being in charge for self-aggrandizing reasons. He wanted to be in charge because he wanted to be in charge. The same was true, just a little bit, of Gamby. Throughout Vice Principals’ run, the most consistent ideal that either of the two characters held was that they should be in charge — not that they had any plan for what they might do once they were.

The series’ final two episodes elevate this question to the level of violent pop opera. In the penultimate installment, “Venetian Nights,” Gamby — who’s now convinced that Russell shot him — blackmails Russell via his sister’s preteen diary (which reveals some of the nasty shit Russell got up to as a kid). Then he boots Russell from the school once and for all after a long, nasty, drawn-out fight, expertly shot and choreographed by McBride (who stepped in for season two director David Gordon Green to helm the episode).

The series finale, “The Union of the Wizard & the Warrior,” pushes this idea even further, with Gamby finally in charge but forced to team up with Russell one last time to take out Ms. Abbott (Edi Patterson) — the woman who loved Gamby, then shot him in a fit of pique, then became his girlfriend again.

The two succeed in their mission, and Gamby is ultimately rewarded with a middle school principalship, not to mention a romantic reunion with the woman he’s been pining for throughout the entire series. But Vice Principals’ central message is perhaps best expressed when Russell tries to calm a genuine wild tiger roaming the halls of the school during graduation. He thinks he’s got it under control, until the tiger bites his hand.

You might think you’re in control. You might even think you know what you’re doing. But the world is always waiting with razor-sharp teeth to bite off one of your appendages. You don’t get to be great just because you say you are. Other people — and sometimes large jungle cats — have a say in the matter as well.

Vice Principals was a show about learning to settle. Maybe?

Vice Principals
Neal Gamby doesn’t just get mad. He gets even.

The thing about Vice Principals is that it’s rich enough that you can interpret it in a bunch of different ways. If you find it a little strange that the show more or less ends with Gamby getting everything he wanted, from a principalship to the girl, well, I can’t deny that this is literally what happens. Or maybe you find the show’s “happy” ending to be something worth celebrating. The larger point is that Vice Principals wants to leave you feeling at least somewhat conflicted about everything that happens.

Some of that is intentional. Some of it is just a function of the time in which it was released, when noxious white guys who think it’s their turn to have power just because that’s the way they believe things should work seem to pop up repeatedly like video game villains, garden-variety baddies to be vanquished on the way to the Big Boss. But some of it is a function of pop culture’s current confusion regarding how to talk about white male privilege or white male pain.

For a long time, those topics were all pop culture seemed to know how to talk about, but now the resulting stories feel false and hollow. Which is why I love that Vice Principals found a way to confront those very topics while simultaneously acknowledging the hollowness many viewers would feel and engaging us in its protagonists’ struggles. Any time you thought you were on solid ground, it opened up underneath you.

I don’t think Vice Principals is meant to be read primarily as a work of sociopolitical critique, or even as a show about white men in general. Importantly, the show is strongly grounded in its very specific portrayals of Russell and Gamby, two people hoping for a greater station than the one they’re already in. It’s universal because who among us hasn’t hoped for more? But it’s also universal because who among us hasn’t encountered an aggrieved white guy who thought he deserved more simply because the society he lived in kept telling him as much? (And, hey, I can count myself among that number, at too many points in my still-pretty-short life.)

McBride and Hill tapped into something real and true about living in America in the 2010s, something dark and dangerous, sure, but also weirdly enthralling and really, really funny. Vice Principals didn’t always care how you reacted to its provocations, so long as you did react, and it was among the boldest things I’ve seen on TV in a long while. If the show had something to say beyond what you brought to it, it held that idea very close to its chest.

Ultimately, that’s what made Vice Principals so valuable. In this era of Trump, but also of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly and Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and on and on and on, we are all trying to figure out new ways to navigate very old wreckage — wreckage that has long been in plain sight but that we sometimes pretended not to see. Vice Principals is one of the only TV shows to date that takes place in that world, where some things are good, some things are bad, and most things are dark and confusing.

Vice Principals’ entire two-season run is available on HBO’s streaming and on-demand platforms.