As of this writing, the most popular Netflix streaming choice in the United States is Tiger King, a seven-episode series about the eccentric Oklahoma zookeeper, Joseph Maldonado-Passage (né Schreibvogel aka Joe Exotic), and Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist who tries to bring him down.
It is riveting, grotesque entertainment that you could not make up if it weren’t real. Tiger King is a sensation, and it more than scratches our itch for addictive real-life drama while we are cooped up at home. But it does much more. If we let it, the series can provoke theological reflection about our need for redemption through several particularly extreme test cases of human brokenness. In a year effectively without Holy Week and Easter, Tiger King should have Christians aching for the cross and the empty tomb, and perhaps spur non-Christians to seek their true selves in Christ and the Church.
To literary types, Tiger King may carry a whiff of Flannery O’Connor’s southern Gothic. Aside from the animals, Joe’s zoo is full of the most extraordinary misfits: a man with two prosthetic legs, a woman who lost her arm to a tiger, two straight men who engage in a three-way relationship with Joe in exchange for drugs, guns, and vehicles, and a chain-smoking Hollywood producer trying to make everybody rich.
Then there’s Joe himself: a gay, gun-toting, mullet-wearing, country-music-singing politician and YouTuber who owns of hundreds of exotic animals. Joe’s Florida-based counterpart (and nemesis) Carole Baskin, inspires wild, homicidal ravings in Joe; but she has an unwholesome air about her too, and her past contains dark mysteries, possibly involving murder.
We do not know the background of everyone in Tiger King, but the origin stories of Joe and Carole are heartrending enough to explain much. Both were rejected by their fathers as teenagers: Joe for coming out as gay, and Carole for being raped by neighborhood boys when she was fifteen years old.
Parental rejection takes its toll on every psyche. Joe drove off a bridge in a suicide attempt and broke his back, lost his brother in a car accident, and only found his way back to life through a job with a tiger keeper in Florida. Carole ran away from home at age sixteen, married young to an abusive man, and was rescued by an eccentric millionaire and cat enthusiast many years her senior, who left his wife and family for her.
Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin are flip sides of the same coin that was minted in our original fall from grace. Joe plays a bizarre and controlling paternal role in the lives of his ersatz husbands, John Finlay, Travis Maldonado, and Dillon Passage. Carole’s fourth husband, meanwhile, compares her to Mother Teresa and posed on a leash in their wedding pictures. Their similarities of character show Joe and Carole as particularly jagged edges of a shattered humanity—bereft of fatherly love, they remain unable or unwilling to turn to a heavenly Father for acceptance and transformation, and are thus spiritual orphans, wanderers within their own counterfeit consciences.
Reinhard Hütter notes in his new book, John Henry Newman on Truth and its Counterfeits: A Guide for Our Times: “The decisions that the counterfeit [conscience] posits create the semblance of a true and therefore good conscience precisely because the counterfeit’s decisions are held to be infallible.” Compare that with St. Paul’s agony over his broken self, which gives way to the power of God: “Wretched man that I am. Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). Joe Exotic, like other characters in Tiger King, justifies his actions for the sake of a love of animals. But Joe’s brokenness has made him delusional. Animals can be “tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue” (James 3:7-8). Joe lacks wisdom from above, and his true conscience has been replaced by a dangerous, false one. Having experienced the pain of rejection, he has created his own unnatural and ultimately unsatisfying mechanism for acceptance behind the walls of his G.W. Zoo.
For years, Joe Exotic managed what seemed like an eccentric but harmless life, reigning supreme in a kingdom of his making. But as his emotional open wounds went untreated and festered, his ramblings increasingly echoed those of past cult leaders; to him and those “workers” living in squalor on the grounds of his compound, his homicidal ramblings about Carole Baskin somehow made sense. Again, as Reinhard Hütter explains by way of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Henry Newman, the conscience without its source in God is always “subject to the power of the passions and the variegated desires of the will to which they give rise.” Joe tells a journalist that if anyone comes to try and take his cats, “there will be a mini Waco,” conjuring up the fiery demise of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian Cult in Texas in 1993. One clue about the depths of his illusions: several times within the series, Joe is dressed as a priest.
As entertaining as it is, Tiger King’s real value may be in offering us something much scarier than a superficial reminder of O’Connor’s gruesome literary landscape. It is difficult to detect anything “Christ-haunted” about Joe Exotic’s world. The series offers the startling possibility that even in a Bible-belt town in rural Oklahoma, the default remedy for the plague of sin has become self-justification and self-aggrandizement, not Christian hope. Both Joe and Carole (who has her own cult-leader vibes and practices) inspire pity—and we should want to pray for them—but the way they have constructed themselves should also make us shudder.
It may be no coincidence that Tiger King has captured our attention in the year when, because of coronavirus quarantines, most churches have shut their doors, and we Catholics feel the particular loss of being able to receive Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. We see clearly that Joe, Carole, and everyone else in Tiger King need Jesus, possibly because we are desperate for him ourselves.
But our interest in Joe Exotic and the whole rag-tag bunch in the series is also cautionary. Are we, who supposedly put all our hope in a Savior, content to be entertained and fascinated by Joe’s brokenness, or are we prepared to let our light shine into his darkness? Are we going with the flow of quietly exalting our own selves as sovereign, or are we working to haunt reality again with the crucified, risen, and glorified Christ?
To put it another way, in ‘a world without Easter this year’, do Christians bear witness to the fact that the world should still want the Resurrection above all else? Surely the soma of the highest caliber reality TV is not enough for our souls.
If we walk away from Tiger King fascinated, but more poised than ever to bend the knee to the King of kings, it is time well spent. If we see Tiger King as the epitome of the prolonged Good Friday we are living in now, perhaps it will push us harder toward the inevitable Easter glory to come.