Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 26, 2020

Tiger King is an alternate reality to our own incomprehensible reality

By KAYLEE ZOU | April 9, 2020

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Joe Exotic is the central figure in the new Netflix documentary series Tiger King.

I entered my senior year of college with several misgivings. I had just spent my junior spring semester abroad at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and everyone had warned me of what tends to be a difficult transition back to life at Hopkins after months of reckless fun in a foreign continent. Most of those warnings ended up being true. That, on top of the jarring reality of what I foresaw would be a competitive job hunt season, made me quite apprehensive about being a college senior. 

But fall did its thing — it came and went, and I, nonetheless, found myself exuberant again for the arrival of spring, my final semester as an undergraduate college student.

Then, of course, the unexpected happened, and before I knew it, I was home.

I have been home for a little over three weeks now, and I’ve pretty much gotten a (lazy) routine down. Outside of my Zoom classes, my to-do list has consisted of Netflix, Netflix and Netflix. Oh, sorry, also: Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube and TikTok. As anyone with, or even without, a Netflix account knows, there is so much buzz lately around this Joe Exotic character and the new documentary series about him titled Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (spoilers ahead).

I watched the entire series in a span of three days. I tried coordinating episodes with my friend, but the endless cycle of falling behind or surpassing each other just wasn’t happening.

Here’s the thing. I honestly don’t know if I have anything substantial or intellectual to say about Tiger King, although it has been a substantial part of my quarantine experience thus far. However, I think it’s important that during a time like this, we notice and appreciate the forms of entertainment that bring us consolation in our increasingly morbid reality. 

So I want to take this moment to make clear what everybody who’s already seen Tiger King knows: Tiger King is incredible TV. In this period of intense social isolation, Tiger King has been the mental break we all needed; I think it literally took over my entire life for those three days I was watching it, and, residually, I have not stopped contemplating it. The title itself promises “murder, mayhem and madness” and it certainly delivered on all three fronts. I have not stopped imploring every one of my friends to watch the series, because I want to discuss it with as many people as possible. 

I went into watching this series as somebody with close to zero prior knowledge on the subject. Within the first few minutes of the first episode, Tiger King lures you in with an avalanche of information. You learn that there are more tigers privately owned by Americans in captivity than exist in the wild in the entire world. You learn that Joe Exotic, who the documentary series centers on, eventually ends up in jail. You see, shot after shot, people interacting unbelievably closely with tigers and lions, feeding them with bottles, kissing them and lying with them. And the voiceover narrating these shots expresses the dangers of owning big cats, calling it a “time bomb.” It’s all very ominous from the start. 

It takes a while to figure out what Tiger King is about, although this doesn’t seem to undermine the show, but rather demonstrates how convoluted this small society of big cat enthusiasts is. Perhaps the central conflict is Joe Exotic’s character himself. His passion for his animals is confusing and troubling, because while he claims to love them deeply, he repeatedly exploits and abuses them for money. But he’s also not exactly pitted as the enemy of the series. 

His personal nemesis, Carole Baskin, perhaps has even more disturbing problems to her character. Tiger King clearly has a bias against her and leans toward the allegation that she did murder her then-husband Don Lewis. After divulging the theory that Baskin ground up her husband in a meat grinder used to prepare food for her big cats, there is immediately a close-up shot of a meat grinder in action. It is then disturbingly easy to visualize this theory. Baskin has since refuted Tiger King’s claims and defended herself and her sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue. 

These are just some of the threads that Tiger King follows. There are several more deeply problematic aspects of this society of big cat enthusiasts that the series shines a light on. Unlike other true crime documentary series that can sometimes lose traction following the first episode or two, each episode of Tiger King offers new and equally shocking information to add to the story. The series is also profoundly emotional as it reveals that the people involved in these zoos have sacrificed so much for their big cat dreams and still have more to lose. One of Exotic’s workers lost an arm in an accident with a tiger and went to work five days after his amputation because of his dedication to the zoo. 

Tiger King is a documentary series that truly builds on itself and ultimately comes to an intense and surprising ending. Joe Exotic knew it and explains it well himself — he makes really good TV. It just so happens that all the other people involved in the multifaceted scandal that Tiger King covers also make for a really good plot. For those who haven’t watched Tiger King yet, you are missing out. This series is truly quite the distraction that is getting me and my friends through this quarantine. 

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