March 2020 will undoubtedly go down in history as a turning point for mankind. Smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic, on the brink of economic collapse, confined to our homes for an indefinite and maddening period of time—these are all very real, scary, and unprecedented events that we’re living through. And now, for better or for worse, Tiger King is inexplicably linked to all of them. The saga of Joe Exotic will forever occupy a time and space in our cultural lexicon where we didn’t know if the world was ending or what the next day would bring, but we absolutely did know the cost of a black market baby tiger.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m supremely jealous of the kind of life you’re living in the midst of this pandemic. Personally, I would give just about anything to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-myself just so I could re-watch it all for the first time. For those of you who are blissfully unaware, Tiger King is an exposé into the secret, vindictive, manipulative, and unnecessarily sexual world of private big cat ownership in rural America which culminates in a murder for hire trial. None of those words should naturally occur in the same sentence, and yet here we are.
The creators of Tiger King spend the first three episodes introducing you to this fantastical, immoral, meth-filled world in a way that makes you squirm but not feel outrightly bad for observing, and then uses the final four to dismantle it before your very eyes, injecting everything that you found entertaining mere hours before with a kind of misery that I think you can only truly experience if you live in Oklahoma or Florida. The cast of characters is diverse in the sense that they range from ethically ambiguous to straight-up f*cking criminal. Initially I had wanted to chart all of their moral alignments, but that’s not all that impactful when the majority of them are sitting on the evil access.
Trying to remember the night I started watching Tiger King is like trying to remember a particularly vivid dream—I get flashes of feelings and imagery, but the actual plot is entirely lost on me. I heard the next day that that the prime minister of the Netherlands had given a live press conference announcing new emergency COVID-19 measures, but I was unable to tear my eyes away from the screen long enough to field texts from my friends about our impending lockdown.
What I can tell you is that I did not know peace that first night, nor the following, and not even now, five days after having finished the entire series. I cried as the credits rolled on the final episode, for reasons I am still unsure of. I couldn’t identify a single emotion running through my body, only that I was feeling them at a capacity that I was entirely unprepared for. I drank a bottle of wine and watched vintage Brad Pitt movies to recover. When that only plunged me further into despair, I realized writing about it was my sole option for attaining even a semblance of closure, which brings us to the point of this article.
The only way I could think of moving on with my life was to sift through the most absolutely insane moments of this show and attempt to make sense of them. Narrowing down a docuseries made up of exclusively outrageous moments down to a top five was no easy task, but I have nothing but time on my hands these days. I would say these are ranked in some kind of order, but I’m not sure that that’s true. It’s hard to make sense of madness, to create any kind of scale when there is no such thing as a baseline for absolute insanity. I think that this is what Cady Heron meant when she said the limit does not exist, but I still can’t be sure because I refused to take calculus.
5. Doc Antle’s Sex Cult
Doc Antle is so lucky that truly illegal sh*t started to pop off after episode two, because it seemed to entirely overshadow the fact that he’s (allegedly) RUNNING A SEX CULT OUT OF HIS ZOO. The guy has a harem of woman that he recruits as teenagers, grooms into overworked, over-sexed tiger-training fembots, that he then compensates in the most minimum of minimum wages and what I can only imagine is extreme emotional abuse, and we all just stopped talking about it because Joe might have taken a hit out on someone?? Sure.
I can’t even begin to explain the energy that this man exudes, but I’m glad it exists 4,000 miles and one entire ocean away from me. I could watch an entire spin-off on Doc, his “wives”, and their children, but would be racked with guilt the entire time knowing that it would fund his zoo and alleged cub euthanizing. That being said, Keeping Up with the Antles would be a ratings boon for whatever network was smart enough to snag it. @Rick Kirkham, where you at?
I am not convinced that our man Bhagavan isn’t an old pagan God that got bored one day and decided to take up private zoo ownership in Myrtle Beach. He’s not afraid of the ramifications of a Netflix series exposing his shady practices because he’s immortal and can up and turn back into a tree any time that he pleases.
The guy is a villain, but a villain that I was very upset to find myself nodding along to sometimes. Suffice to say, I am probably the kind of person who could be talked into a cult. If Carole was built up to be a foil to Joe, then maybe Doc Antle was built to be a foil to our humanity. Also, his son has no right going round looking like that. I said what I said.
4. Saff’s Work Ethic
A moment of silence for Saff, the realest bitch at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park and likely in all of Oklahoma. The soft-spoken, steadfastly loyal, army veteran turned zookeeper seems to be one of the only people on this show who truly cares about these animals, and what does he have to show for it? An amputated arm.
In an attempt to protect Joe, the tigers, and the zoo from bad press, Saff returned to work a casual FIVE DAYS after losing his arm. Alternatively, last summer my office stopped stocking chocolate covered almonds and there were whispers of a walk-out.
At the end of the series Saff is quoted as saying that “not a single animal benefited from this war,” and he’s right. Maybe if they’d had more people like him to look after them, they could have.
3. The Alligator Enclosure
I wanted to root for Joe. I think all of us wanted to root for Joe, at least a little bit. If Tiger King were a perfect, maddening work of fiction, Joe would be the anti-hero we’d all obsess over. But (tragically) this is a very real story and Joe is a a very real man with very real flaws, who very possibly murdered a bunch of alligators to spite his reality show producer.
If this were a scripted series, this would be the part that would have been cut for being just unrealistic enough to break the audience out of their awe-struck reverie. Somewhere, Shonda Rhimes is furiously taking notes for her next Everglades-based dramatic thriller. But unfortunately this is real life, and the alligator arson was the point where Joe lost a large chunk of the empathy he’d cultivated throughout the first three episodes. Not just because of the cruel death of multiple innocent animals, but also because we as an audience learned that he had deprived us of what could have been the golden age of reality TV. Remember when Rick dropped to his knees and cried? Same.
2. Travis’ Death
There were so many parts to Travis’ story that were tragic, but none more so than his untimely death. Purposeful or not, it’s obvious the kid was in a dark place, and I can’t imagine that he was getting anywhere close to the emotional support he needed at the G.W. Exotic Park.
Addiction is not a joke. Taking advantage of other peoples’ addiction for your own gain is not a joke. Using your husband’s funeral as an opportunity to promote your music career sounds like a joke that I’d get in trouble for writing, but is in fact something that actually happened.
Did Joe love him? It’s hard to say. I’d like to think so, but even if he did, love does not negate abuse or offset neglect. You can love something and still hurt it, which I think might be only moral that we could possibly glean from this train wreck of a show. Be it tigers or Travis, maybe it’s time for Joe to recognize that he doesn’t have a God-given right to own the things he claims to care about. They all deserved better.
1. Carole Baskin. That’s It.
I don’t care where you stand on Carole Baskin’s innocence. I don’t care if you love her, hate her, fear her, or like myself, harbor a healthy combination of the three. At the end of the day, whatever happened to Don Lewis is between Don, Carol, and the FBI, and I’ll accept that because the Carole Baskin episode of Tiger King was one of the most all-encompassing hours of television I’ve watched in my life.
If Carol were a man and this was an industry that didn’t rely on the illegal breeding and purchasing of endangered animals, she would a titan. She’s eccentric and bloodthirsty and just a little more insane than I’m comfortable with anyone having that much money, power, and access to tigers being. If Elon Musk and Cersei Lannister had a child, it would be Carole Baskin. I can’t explain that any further, just that I know it to be true in my very bones.
Can you imagine that mindset, that pure determination and lack of regard for anything that stands in her way, directed at something rewarding? Carole probably could have cured cancer by now if she’d grown up with an unhealthy obsession with medicine rather than cats.
Do I think she killed her husband? I am legally not allowed to put that in writing. But do I think she’ll ever be prosecuted for it? The odds are about as good as them ever finding Don’s remains.
A shortlist of moments that didn’t come close to making this list but I still felt deserved recognition
⭐︎ Literally everything about Jeff Lowe, a human pile of flaming garbage, starting with the fact that he wheels baby tigers into Vegas hotels to lure young women into having sex with him, and ending with the fact that he told his VERY YOUNG pregnant wife that he couldn’t wait until she was back in the gym seconds before not subtly alluding to the fact that he was planning on having sex with their nanny.
⭐︎ Howard Baskin serenading Carole with Robert Goulet’s If I would Ever Leave You after Joe’s conviction.
⭐︎ The fact that there was an entire storyline centered around Joe Exotic discovering SEO
⭐︎ James Garretson’s wholly unnecessary (and at the same time extremely necessary) 30 second action movie tribute, where he rides around on a jet ski while The Final Countdown plays in the background
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⭐︎ Tim Stark’s monkey?? Which was very purposely not explained?
⭐︎ John Finlay’s tattoo. Yes, that one.
⭐︎ The fact that Joe Exotic sold pizza to real people that was made from the expired meat off of the Walmart truck.
⭐︎ The cameo from literal Scarface
⭐︎ The entirety of the Here Kitty Kitty music video
Images: Courtesy of Netflix; Giphy (5), jtrain56 / Twitter; natcpod / Instagram