Let’s get something out of the way: There is nobody, and I mean nobody who you should root for in Tiger King. It’s a collection of terrible people, doing horrible things, in a microcosm which somehow existed under our noses in the 21st century and not an antiquated history book.
Villains are unique in their ability to exist without a hero. A hero needs a grand force to fight against, but a villain — they can simply act in a way that we find reprehensible. Sure, it’s nice to root for the good guy, but we all have an inherent ability to use our experience and morality to identify a villain. Carole Baskin is that villain, one we desperately needed at a time when sports couldn’t supply us with one.
Tiger King was one long, multi-episode schadenfreude session. If you pulled for anything, it was the destruction of every person featured in the documentary, or perhaps the hope of an asteroid slamming into a hopeless planet that allowed people like this to grow and fester. However, inside of the show itself existed a taxonomy of reprehensible people, many of whom were willing to admit at least some of their faults.
Then there’s Baskin. Perfect Baskin, greeting her “cool cats and kittens” from an office chair or a bicycle or anywhere else she has access to a webcam. Soft-spoken Baskin, draped in bedazzled animal print, adoring her milquetoast husband and their disturbing wedding photos.
It wasn’t long before Tiger King’s sub-narrative came through. The person we presumed was going to be the victim was a wolf in tiger’s clothing.
Baskin proved to be such a good villain because she’s a woman who, at first glance, appeared to be a paragon of virtue standing up for the plight of abused and maltreated tigers, but who, in the end, was not all that different from those she claimed as enemies. It was Batman’s Harvey Dent who said, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” and by that standard, Baskin is immortal.
That’s what makes a great villain in sports. It’s not enough to just be the bad guy. It’s not about cheap shots or low-blows. Those are quickly forgotten. It’s about portraying yourself publicly as a person who deserves to win, all the while sharpening your knife and looking for the next victim to stab in the back when the lights are down.
Baskin is the New England Patriots. And that’s why she’s universally reviled.
Throughout Tiger King, it feels like she’s untouchable. Every single break goes her way. By fronting a non-profit she can legally run a cult-like compound of volunteers who do her bidding while worshiping the ground she walks on.
The rules of society and law don’t seem to apply to Baskin, and that’s before we even get into the (unsupported) speculation that she might have fed her late husband to her tigers and allegedly organized a scheme to ensure she was the sole heiress to his fortune.
Being a truly great villain isn’t just about committing crimes, but getting away with them and making people pull their hair out at the grand unfairness of it all.
That’s why everyone outside of New England hates the Patriots. Not because, as their fans assume, we hate ‘em ‘cause we ain’t ‘em, but because of the pervasive, inescapable feeling that they can’t be knocked off their throne. There’s a general acceptance that the Patriots can do anything and everything to subvert rules and common decency, scampering away with slaps on the wrist when their improprieties are too brazen to be ignored, all while finding a way to consistently improve in a league where consistency is impossible to achieve.
What do the Patriots’ minutemen-adorned jerseys and Baskin’s leopard print leggings have in common? Both serve as the impenetrable armor allowing them to live and rule with relative ease,
It helps, of course, that Tiger King paints its bizarre tale as one of underdog vs. conqueror, despite both main characters being inherently vile. If there were a Super Bowl of tiger-fronted cults, every year would be Baskin vs. Joe Exotic. A game nobody wants to watch, but a game from which no one can look away.
We need that villain right now. We need it so desperately. We need it more than we ever wanted to admit, and especially now. After all, it’s easier — and healthier — to hate a football team or a weird tiger-cult leader from a documentary than direct our frustration toward people we actually know.
The phenomenon of Tiger King isn’t one of story alone, but of time. It arrived when we all had nothing better to do but watch. It connected us during a time of isolation. It did what sports always do: Give us an escape, if only for a moment, with clearly drawn battle lines separating Team Carole and Team Joe. In some ways, we all have Baskin to thank for distracting us so we could unite against a common enemy.
So, until sports are back and we can move on with our lives, stay tough you cool cats and kittens. Protect yourselves, make smart choices, and don’t make any plans to go to Costa Rica.
I’d hate to see you slathered in sardine oil and tossed in a meat grinder.