Welcome back, friends and neighbors! We hope you guys enjoyed this week's episode of Parallel Quest. If you haven’t exhausted the topic of Tiger King in your Zoom conference calls then you’re in the right place. The more I thought about the documentary the more I started to realize something strange. Joe Exotic, the eccentric protagonist and owner of G.W. Zoo, is living the hero’s journey. It sounds absurd, but after watching Tiger King, ask yourself, is it really?
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the hero’s journey let’s quickly hash out some terms before getting to the main thesis. It was Joseph Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with A Thousand Faces that put flesh on many of the bones that construct the hero’s journey. In it, a hero is called to an adventure where he must win a decisive victory and return home changed or transformed. Think of classics like The Odyssey, The Matrix, Star Wars, and more recently, Harry Potter. And, may I propose, Tiger King. Below are five assertions of why the ancient template for storytelling is unfolding before our eyes.
1) Joe’s Call To Adventure
The first step in the hero’s journey is a call to adventure, an incident that forces the hero from the ordinary into the world of the extraordinary. This is where we find a character like Neo called to “follow the white rabbit” to Morpheus. Joe Exotic’s call came in 1997 when tragedy struck. His brother, Garold, died in a drunk driving accident outside Dallas, Texas, leaving Joe with $140,000 from a lawsuit and an insatiable desire to work with animals. Not all calls to adventure are as easy as say, Harry Potter's, where a loveable giant comes to tell you that you're a chosen wizard of prophecy, but some start with tragedy (just think of Luke Skywalker and his aunt and uncle). From there Joe begins his foray into the extraordinary world of exotic animals, rescuing two tigers in the 2000s which would become the staple of G.W. Zoo.
2) Joe Crosses the Threshold
A significant part of a hero’s adventure is his journey into the unknown world. Here is where the hero must overcome the guardian or beast preventing further progress. This is Peter Parker becoming Spiderman, but first needing to defeat Bone Saw McGraw in a wrestling match in Spiderman. Or it is when Harry must receive his letter inviting him to Hogwarts at the behest of his aunt and uncle. For Joe Exotic the guardians of the thresholds take many forms, from activists to law enforcement agents, to even his own enormous ego. All of these he must divert, reason with, and overcome to achieve success on his journey. Initially, there was the obstacle of obtaining exotic animals, a task which required Joe to delve into some of the seedier parts of society to make these purchases. All the while battling the beastly activists who questioned every step Joe took in populating and maintaining his zoo. Granted, much of the resistance Joe faced in Tiger King stemmed from his own ego and image of himself, but nonetheless, I believe even if he did everything the right (read: legal) way, there was always going to be guardians blocking the cages of his zoo.
3) Joe’s Road of Trials
Here is where much of the documentary takes place. After introducing you to its eclectic cast and getting you familiar with the world of big cat zoos, we pretty much spend the rest of our time hashing out Joe's trials. From financial pressures to general park safety, to even garnering enough views on his online television program, Joe is surrounded by trials. The hero, in this case, Joe, faces an ever-growing challenge each turn that he makes. A defining moment comes early on when one of his employees' arms is ripped off by a tiger, forcing Joe to truly consider if he can withstand the repercussions for a lack of safety procedures in his zoo. Another, and arguably greater, trial shows rears its head in the form of a lawsuit from rival big cat owner, and Joe's nemesis, Carol Baskin. This trademark lawsuit required Joe Exotic to file for bankruptcy and form a new entity that temporarily kept him safe from collectors. We see as the documentary progresses greater and more challenging trails thrown at Joe, who pulls out any and all stops to overcome them, even if they weren't necessarily legal.
4) Joe Meets the Goddess/Temptress
It's no secret who Joe Exotic most despises in this world. If Joe were commissioned to create his own dictionary I am certain that instead of the word "nemesis" would be defined with a picture of Carole Baskin. In every hero's journey, they must come face to face with a goddess or temptress. In the case of Star Wars, it is Luke meeting Princess Leia or Frodo meeting Lady Galadriel in Lord of the Rings. For Joe, it is not so much a goddess as it is a temptress. His journey takes a dark turn when his sole focus becomes Baskin and Big Cat Rescue. Here we see the hero cajoled into diverting their true path. If they remain off this path and in the presence of the temptress too long, they may go mad and never return. We clearly see this with Joe’s television show and its growing content for bashing Baskin. Not only did Joe completely divert his attention to despising Baskin, but he went so far as to remove her completely. This is where we witness a dark turn for the hero, such as Anakin Skywalker being seduced by the evil Emperor Palpatine.
5) The Abyss and (hopeful) Rebirth of Joe
Here is where we find Joe Exotic currently. With the conclusion of Tiger King, we know Joe is incarcerated at FMC Fort Worth for a litany of charges, two of which are counts of him hiring someone to kill Carole Baskin. To pour salt into an already gaping wound, Baskin took control of Joe's zoo earlier this month. Here we find our hero at his lowest. Here we find him in the abyss. This is the lion's den scenario we've seen played out countless times in innumerable stories across time from Gandalf falling to the Balrog in Fellowship of the Ring, to Woody and his troop of toys drawing ever closer to the garbage incinerator in Toy Story 3. Hope is as far off as the stars and darkness are fast encroaching. The only thing that can save the hero at this point is a rebirth, a deeper look at who they are and what they truly stand for. It is where we finally reach the Truth. It is difficult to say what will become of our hero Joe Exotic at this point, but if he truly is on the hero’s journey he will come out of it a new man. The only thing left is to find his way back again.
Well, there you have it, a case for Joe Exotic existing in the Hero’s Journey. Heroes never have the easiest paths, and we can clearly see that in Joe’s life. Down there in the abyss we’ll truly see if he will be reborn. Or, he may fall to the challenges that rage against the hero and drag him away into that terrible abyss, like Cypher in The Matrix, or Boromir in Lord of the Rings. Only time will tell.
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