If there is a bottom to Mallory Rubin’s well of passion, no one has found it.
It’s 10 a.m. Monday in her adopted hometown of Los Angeles, 15 hours after she watched Arya Stark slay the Night King in a seminal episode of “Game of Thrones.” Rubin has already delivered her initial reactions on the Twitter-based show “Talk the Thrones,” and she’s thinking ahead to the daunting production schedule for “Binge Mode,” the wonderfully obsessive podcast she cohosts with Jason Concepcion, her dear friend and colleague at The Ringer.
Also, the Reisterstown native has a cold.
But as conversation commences with a question about divided fan reaction to the long-anticipated Battle of Winterfell, Rubin launches into a six-minute soliloquy that touches on the savagery of internet culture, the show creators’ disappointing ambivalence toward fantasy mythology and her oft-stated ardor for the departed Jorah Mormont (portrayed by rugged Scottish actor Iain Glen).
This blend of astute analysis, slightly unhinged enthusiasm and unvarnished personal reflection offers a snapshot of why the 32-year-old Rubin has transformed from a successful but relatively anonymous sports editor to one of the most acclaimed “Games of Thrones” commentators on Earth.
Time Magazine has named her podcast with Concepcion one of the 10 best of both 2017 and 2018. Moments after each “Game of Thrones” episode, fans flock to Twitter to watch Rubin and Concepcion break down the happenings with fellow Ringer editor Chris Ryan. The Ringer, a sports and pop culture website founded by sportswriter Bill Simmons, just enjoyed its most lucrative month ever, driven in healthy part by the site’s intensive coverage of HBO’s epic fantasy, which will conclude May 19.
Rubin is both an open-hearted lover of self-creation narratives and a worrier, so this rise to prominence strikes her as some combination of splendid and absurd.
“On days when I still have 20,000 words of copy to edit, it almost feels detached from the reality of the rest of my life,” she says. “Jason and I would talk about this stuff just as friends, if nobody else listened. But it’s like a really, really special thing to say out loud, ‘I love this thing unabashedly and here’s why’ and not have anyone tear you down for it.”
Her success affirms a few things she has believed for many years — that fantasy stories provide lifelines and connective tissue for countless people who might otherwise feel alone and that in so doing, they become quite real. It’s why she so loves the climactic moment in the Harry Potter books (subject of a 63-episode “Binge Mode” run) when Harry has a conversation in his head with his deceased mentor, Albus Dumbledore.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry,” Rubin says, quoting Dumbledore from memory. “But why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Rooted in sports
Sports and fantasy narratives have coexisted in Rubin's kinetic brain from early on.
Her parents divorced when she was 3 years old, and she and her sister lived primarily with their mother, Sherri Bell, a Baltimore County educator who bestowed on them tremendous drive and a frank (occasionally racy) sense of humor.
But Rubin spent every other weekend with her dad, Barry. And it did not take long for sports and the nature of stories to become the currency of their father-daughter bond.
Barry Rubin hammered together a bookshelf in Mallory’s room and filled it with fantasy novels such as “Watership Down” and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
“Why did he do it?” she says. “I think because stories meant a lot to him when he was young, and they mean a lot to him now. They’ve been a constant source of joy and awakening in his life, and I think he wanted me to have that.”
“Fortunately,” her father says, “this was not something I was just boring her with.”
It’s like a really, really special thing to say out loud, ‘I love this thing unabashedly and here’s why’ and not have anyone tear you down for it.
Mallory Rubin, "Game of Thrones" podcaster on The Ringer
Share quote & link
At the same time, he filled her head with tales of the Baltimore Colts and Earl Weaver’s world-beating Orioles. It didn’t matter that the Orioles stunk for much of her childhood. She still formed attachments to unremarkable players such as Chris Richard, Larry Bigbie and Jay Gibbons. When it came to the Ravens, Ed Reed — a real-world magician of sorts — was her guy.
“Game of Thrones” entered her life while she was at Sports Illustrated. For all of her bona fides as a book reader, she actually watched the HBO show first. After the first season ended, she devoured George R. R. Martin’s five books..
She traded analytical takes with several colleagues on a blog barely intended for public consumption. She even wrote a piece comparing “Game of Thrones” houses to baseball franchises and drew skeptical looks when she equated the Orioles with the Targaryens, another long-dormant power.
It hadn’t occurred to anyone that “Game of Thrones” would spawn an entire side industry for commentators. But the show did come up when Rubin interviewed with Dan Fierman, the editorial director for Simmons’ pre-Ringer website, Grantland.
“I ended up going on this pretty deranged but impassioned … thing about Jon Snow’s parentage,” she recalls.
Rubin joined the staff and moved to California in August 2013
ESPN fired Simmons in May 2015 and shuttered Grantland five months later. A few weeks before that announcement, Simmons hired four former staffers to help him plot his next move. Rubin was on that short list.
‘Binge Mode’ is born
She began to make her on-air mark at The Ringer with guest appearances on others’ podcasts and the HBO show “After the Thrones.”
Early the next year, Simmons walked into her office and said, “I have an idea for you — ‘Binge Mode.’ ” He imagined deep-dive podcasts for every episode of “Game of Thrones” going back to Season 1.
“I felt confident she and Jason would be really good at that,” he says. “I had no idea what was going to happen.”
Before they bunkered together to record the initial 60 episodes in a mad rush, Rubin and Concepcion were friendly colleagues who knew they shared certain obsessions.
But they exited that sleep-deprived stretch of 2017 as the closest of compatriots. The great trick, one they didn’t even realize they were pulling, was that fans got to hear their relationship deepen in real time.
“If either of us was 1% less a hard worker or 1% less serious about the material, we probably would’ve murdered each other, just because of the timetable on which these things had to come out,” Concepcion says. “Instead, we really drew together. A lot of fantasy stuff — how nerdy and emotional you feel about it can be embarrassing in certain company. But I think we gave each other permission to go overboard.”
They sounded like they were having a grand time, beginning each podcast with an adult content warning to prepare listeners for their blue humor and developing an array of in-jokes. (Did you know, for example, that Harry Potter’s stern professor, Minerva McGonagall, was a closet Quidditch gambler?)
In lovingly composed passages of analysis, they also asked listeners to consider these works of popular fantasy as literature, filled with timeless themes of choice, human fallibility and destiny.
When they signed off from that first run, Rubin and Concepcion had no idea if there would be more “Binge Mode.” But then they unexpectedly found themselves at the center of a world they had created. She was the “Mother of Dragons” and he the “Maester.” They drew packed crowds to live recordings of the podcast.
“I don't like that,” she says of a moment in which key female character Sansa Stark seemed to suggest she grew from a brutal sexual assault. “I don't think we need to be at the point with any character where we say, in any way, that you have to suffer some sort of horrible trauma to become a better person.”
“I’m going to kill you with my bare hands,” she says, pointing at the camera as if Jon Snow is standing on the other side of it. “You have a fabled beast of war, a trusty companion who will never leave your side. And you send him off? You can’t even pet him goodbye? … I’m irate, and I will never recover from this.”
“Binge Mode” won’t go away after “Game of Thrones” concludes; Rubin hints at an eventual dive into “Lord of the Rings.” But the show and books have meant so much to Rubin’s life and career that she’s staring at a considerable void.
“I’m going to be a husk of a human being,” Rubin says. “This has been such a big part of my life that not having a new ‘Game of Thrones’ episode on a Sunday night and not going to talk about it with my friends is going to spawn a sense of emptiness and despair. But that then leads me to a second thing I know is true … which is that the best stories stay with us forever.”