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Lee Russell Is Our Most Advanced Man-Baby-Jerk Yet

And Walton Goggins is doing remarkable work on ‘Vice Principals’

HBO
HBO

The first episode of Vice Principals introduced us to Neal Gamby, though it didn’t really need to. Neal is emasculated, and overcompensates for it in hilariously petty ways. He’s an authoritarian with little real authority. He’s a tumbleweed of bluster disguising a bruised ego and surprising sensitivity. He’s a Danny McBride character.

The second episode of Vice Principals, created by McBride and his longtime collaborator Jody Hill, introduces us to Lee Russell, Neal’s preening, salmon-panted foil. If the pilot of HBO’s summer comedy served to reassure us that this show shares more with Eastbound & Down than just its creators, then last night’s installment spelled out what it plans to add to that beloved series. Played by Walton Goggins, whose trajectory from That Guy to Character Actor to Proper Lead is finally and rightfully complete, Lee is Vice Principals most original creation — and the first sign it plans to build on the McBride/Apatow/Samberg model of the man-baby-jerk.

When the series begins, Neal and Lee are sworn enemies. Whatever his faults, Neal is constitutionally incapable of hiding his feelings; he wears his emotions, mostly bitterness and anger, on his sleeve (or he would, if his sweater vest had them). Meanwhile, deceit is Lee’s entire ethos. He has every ounce of Neal’s resentment, if not more — but where Neal lashes out at even the most minor of slights, Lee pressure-cooks his fury until it boils over. Neal is impotent rage. Lee is dangerous. He’s a newer model of Neal’s frustration, one that goes to show that just because someone’s pathetic doesn’t mean they’re harmless.

Unsurprisingly, the two respond to the news that they’ve both been passed over for the job of principal of North Jackson High in very different ways. Neal throws a tantrum; Lee … well, we didn’t really know what Lee was up to, because he’s the definition of an unreliable narrator. Vice Principals’ second episode, “A Trusty Steed,” is our first peek behind the curtain. It opens with a succinct demonstration of his duplicitous M.O.: Lee dutifully fetches coffee for the new principal, Belinda — he already knows how she likes it, natch — then drops the act and unleashes a stream of obscenities the second he’s out of earshot. A rendezvous with Neal reveals another perfect detail: the bound dossiers Lee keeps on every school employee, including Belinda. Lee shares Neal’s contempt for virtually all of his coworkers, except he has the self-discipline to channel that contempt into an organized system.

To this, Vice Principals adds an origin story. As much as Lee strives to differentiate himself from Neal, both men are attempting to seize control of their work lives because they so acutely lack control at home. Lee shares his “mid-century C-ranch” with his tyrannical mother-in-law, who constantly berates him in Korean. Just like at school, he makes a show of his surrender — right up until he spits in her tea, using his apparent submission to his advantage. Belinda isn’t the only female authority figure Lee’s trying to unseat.

Lee is, in short, a monster, and that monstrosity comes to the fore in a scene that serves as Vice Principals true kickoff. The pilot may have introduced a motive for Neal and Lee’s unlikely alliance, but the second episode establishes its dynamic. A simple recon mission to Belinda’s house turns into trespassing, then vandalism, then arson. Neal may participate in the destruction, but it’s Lee who eggs him on, daring him to break into the house and taunting him with a WORLD’S BEST PRINCIPAL mug. He’s the mincing Mephistopheles to Neal’s hapless Faust, smooth-talking him past the point of no return before torching all the evidence.

None of this sounds particularly funny, and much of Vice Principals depends on the viewer’s ability to laugh through the horror. Judging by some early criticism, not everyone’s prepared to. Yet Goggins is doing incredible work here as a sociopathic Southern dandy, imbuing Lee’s every word with an oil slick’s worth of calculated charm. After Kenny Powers — and BoJack Horseman, and Ron Burgundy, and all the rest — it may feel like we’ve left no stone of toxic white masculinity unturned. But Lee’s more insidious form of entitlement is a necessary update to Neal’s impulsive blowhard, and one that feels slightly more true to an era when sexism and racism often take the form of implicit bias or anonymous hate. With him, Vice Principals dives even deeper into the aggrieved white man’s heart of darkness than its predecessors. Sometimes, true evil wears a bow tie.

Disclaimer: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.