Somehow this episode manages to bury the lede. Will I spoil that lede? Not yet, but probably. “Tiger King” is a masterwork of manipulation as far as narrative non-fiction. Directors Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode have a great sense of what to hold back and what to get out there.
For example, a disaster at Joe Exotic’s zoo feeling like low budget Jurassic Park for rednecks? It’s out there right away, along with Exotic’s indifference to employee Kelci Saffery’s newly missing limb. In fact, Saffery had the arm amputated so she could get back to work. Why does she want to rush back to work? So the animals don’t suffer, which then turns into the theme of the episode… Exotic, “Doc” Antle, and Carole Baskin all exploit their workers. In fact, Exotic’s the only one we know for sure is paying them. Between a hundred and a hundred and fifty a week, presumably in addition to room and board, but it’s unclear. Meanwhile, Baskin’s labor is all volunteer and Antle’s running a marriage cult. Antle and Baskin groom teenage girls through the Internet while Exotic tries to primarily hire people in dire life straits.
So Exotic and Antle seem to be running labor camps while Baskin relies on her volunteers’ sense of empathy for the animals. Given Baskin’s running a rescue… that reliance is… better? But Exotic is trying his damndest to keep the animals alive too… whereas Antle probably kills his tiger cubs once they’re too old to be petted. It’s mentioned and never contradicted.
We also find out this episode Exotic relies on reject or spoiled meat from Walmart to feed the tigers, which is better than the roadkill while not great. It’s almost like you shouldn’t have a 200 tiger zoo in the middle of Oklahoma without a dietary veterinarian on staff in addition to a sufficient, reliable endowment.
Or if you are going to have a private one… be like Mario Tabraue, who’s got a private zoo in Florida. Tabraue, the inspiration for the 1983 Tony Montana in Scarface—including the chainsaw—has the money to provide for his animals. Why? Presumably because he got rich enough selling cocaine and had enough of it stashed from laundering, he’s all good. He buys tigers from Joe Exotic, which—theoretically—means they have a better life than with Antle for sure and maybe even Baskin, who doesn’t have the deep post-cocaine pockets.
Tabraue, who’s aged better than Al Pacino, is way too likable. Like… way too likable. He’s like a cool grandfather. No one else in “Tiger King” is cool though, at all, so it might just be by comparison.
Also all the other guys—Exotic, Antle, major creep Tim Stark—are all violent misogynists. Like, it’s obvious some of the reason they have a problem with Baskin.
So Baskin having gotten rich from her mysteriously dead husband—that aforementioned buried lede—well… it doesn’t make their virulent misogyny okay (Antle’s dangerous), it does give them enough valid anti-Baskin fodder to hide some of it in. Or at least Chaiklin and Goode edit it so they can hide some of it.
But, yeah… Baskin’s rich because her (second) husband disappeared. She’s apparently on number three, Howard Baskin, who’s been on the show both episodes now without any mention of him having reformed a black widow. It’s a great cliffhanger and at just the right moment to make “Tiger King” “must see TV.”
Must see streaming. Whatever.