‘Binge Mode’ and Appreciating Big-Budget Fantasy

“An utterly commanding second act centered on a series of disclosures and epiphanies,” raves Mallory Rubin, Co-host of the Binge Mode podcast and Editor-In-Chief of theringer.com. Out of context, one could assume this analysis might be in response to a piece of Victorian-era classic literature or a Shakespearian tragedy — a piece of art worthy of the excruciating attention to detail. This is the typical level of passion that Rubin and her co-host, Jason Concepcion, pour into every episode of their popular Ringer podcast. But the work they’re dissecting is a relatively contemporary piece, and one that doesn’t regularly generate high-art criticism.

“And it also reminds us yet again of one of the great miracles of Star Wars,” she continues. “Creating something utterly singular while abiding by such classical techniques. It’s the movie-making version of introducing frozen nitrogen to quintessential french cuisine.”

Rubin is referring to The Empire Strikes Back, the fifth installment of the Star Wars saga and the subject of episode 20 of her and Concepcion’s 34-episode podcast trek through the beloved and divisive series. Before breaking down the entirety of the Star Wars canon, the duo analyzed every episode of Game of Thrones and every chapter of the Harry potter novels, along with any and all secondary material from each fantasy series. They’re currently working through their fourth (and possibly final) longform analysis, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These franchises are important to Rubin and Concepcion. The passion and sheer excitement with which they speak about the concepts behind these billion-dollar intellectual properties are contagious and, crucially, unapologetic. They believe that within these big-budget machines is something substantial worth examining. It’s clear that, despite the commodification and capitalization of the source material, these stories (which is what they are, at their core) mean a lot to the two of them. And they mean a lot to me, too. Though I wasn’t always as secure about this meaning as they are.

The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite film. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is my favorite novel. Game of Thrones is one of my favorite television shows. But often times when someone asks me to list these superlatives, I usually give my default, cultured answers of Call Me By Your Name, Slaughterhouse-Five and Mad Men, all of which I love to death and do not fall far behind on my arbitrary list of favorite pop-cultural works. But I’m lying when I say they’re my capital-F-favorite things. They’re not Star Wars. I can’t remember a time in my life when I hadn’t seen Star Wars. Star Wars is like family to me. I love it unconditionally, even when it’s bad. The mythoIogy of it, the scope of it, the stakes of it, the morals of it all captivate me at my most innocent. I don’t think any single creation has done more to expand my adolescent and adult imagination than this franchise. It is a religious text for me, not in the sense that I worship it to a fault, but in that I turn to it in times of need. It’s gotten me through teen angst, frustration, heartbreak, even loss. I may be coming off as hyperbolic, but the exact issue at hand is that I’m being as literal as can be. I love these stories compulsively, to the point where I’d be willing to dedicate hundreds of hours of listening to a hyper-specific, analytical, collegiate lecture of a podcast dedicated to them, should such a product exist.

But as I aged, I often found myself ashamed of the way in which I obsessed over something that was manufactured to make money, and it frustrated me that I couldn’t pinpoint where this obsession stemmed from. I could point to childhood nostalgia, but there were plenty of other stories that I loved as a child that I inevitably grew out of. I eventually gave up searching for answers, and forced myself to accept that the corporate powers that be, whether it be Disney or Warner Media or an unnamed old-white-male shadow figure that looms over Hollywood in secret (picture that strange scene in The Order of the Phoenix where Harry envisions Lord Voldemort in an expensive suit for some reason), had secured yet another victim to their sprawling, multi-billion dollar capitalistic scheme.

The evidence for my victimization was substantial: these properties, at least during the time in which I’d been consuming them, were being produced at a speed and in a quantity previously unseen. In the past decade, Disney has produced an average of 2.5 Star Wars and/or Marvel movies a year, all of which I’d watch in the theater on opening night and several nights after. HBO sped through production of Game of Thrones while their source material, the novels by George R.R. Martin, remained unfinished. To pump these products out like an assembly line, with multiple chapters being filmed simultaneously in an effort to keep audiences’ attention and wallets year-round, cheapened them to a lot of people. Obviously that didn’t stop these same people from engaging with them, as evidenced by the continuously shattering box office and Nielsen records. But it felt as though, at least amongst my peers, there was a collective sigh of “well, they’re making them anyway.” My best friend and roommate, a software engineer and lovable societal pessimist, was a bit more blunt when I asked him about this dynamic:

“It takes the dignity of it away,” he said as I ambushed him with my voice memos app. “You could have a really good movie in isolation, or a series of movies…and then it just becomes such a blatantly obvious ‘fuck you, you’ll pay for it.’”

When faced with these arguments, I felt forced to agree, either out of peer pressure or partial agreement. My roommate isn’t wrong; there were times where I felt undignified. It felt like these companies knew I was vulnerable to these properties, and they were more than willing to capitalize. But none of this stopped me. I continued to feed the beast in the form of movie tickets, streaming subscriptions and oh, so many graphic socks covered in licensed material.

Then in 2018, I discovered Binge Mode in the middle of their Harry Potter run. I’d been aware of the podcast and admired Rubin and Concepcion for their work at The Ringer and Grantland before it, but I’d yet to dive in until I noticed they were actually going chapter-by-chapter through one of my favorite stories. I noted the extensive runtime of their episodes and was a bit intimidated, but I decided to give it a shot because I found the duo’s endeavor admirable.

What captivated me initially was their chemistry. Concepcion’s goofy energy and confidence are matched by Rubin’s emotional intelligence and (surprisingly lewd) sense of humor. Following the now-iconic opening of a declarative “Hello!” and a jittery “Yeahhh” from the duo, there is sure to be a joke or reference to the subject at hand that rouses cackles from the two of them, and it prepares the listener for what promises to be a gleeful, hyperactive and caffeine-fueled experience (try listening to Binge Mode on anything higher than 1.5x speed and you’ll fry your AirPods). Concepcion’s impressions and various bits (the New York sports fan calling into a radio show to discuss the Meereen fighting pits or Quidditch player prospects always kills me) remind us that these franchises are indeed entertainment products, and as such we should be having fun with them. Rubin’s tongue-in-cheek infatuation for various male fictional characters (Jorah Mormont, the Winter Soldier, animated Obi-Wan Kenobi (??)) is simultaneously endearing and confounding. The two feed off of each other like a seasoned improv troupe, allowing for banter and innuendos. I quickly realized I’d be returning to the podcast regularly if for nothing else than the contagious camaraderie between the two hosts. Concepcion spoke on this camaraderie during their final Harry Potter episode.

“As soon as we began working together,” he says, “it was clear that we both loved story, felt the responsibility of analyzing it in a certain way, and just had a similar work ethic and view. That honestly just made it easy. She’s an incredibly smart and hardworking person, and I love to make her laugh while we’re doing this podcast.”

Concepcion is aware that if he can get Rubin to break, that laughter is contagious for the audience. And indeed it is. But if I came to Binge Mode for the comedy, I stayed for an education. It was so impressive to me that they were able to inject so much humor and poise while maintaining the focused structure necessary for such an extensive, overarching examination. Each podcast opens with an in-depth summation of the plot of the subject (season 3, episode 5 of Game of Thrones; Chapters 27–30 of the Goblet of Fire; Episode VIII: The Last Jedi) followed by a declaration of the defining theme of the episode. The fact that they chose to format the podcast this way, dividing their analysis into such small fractions of the work as a whole, was my first piece of evidence that these properties were delivering something beyond basic consumer satisfaction. If they weren’t, Rubin and Concepcion wouldn’t have enough material to fill what would often turn into a two-hour lecture.

What inevitably bleeds through is the duo’s sheer adoration for the franchises. Rubin and Concepcion give their own origin stories in relation to the source material, and it often reveals why they are so impassioned. During their Harry Potter finale, Rubin recalls that she used the novels as a guide for her own transition to adulthood, and associates it with the relationships she’s built through a shared love of the story. Initially, this gave me pause — is it actually just nostalgia that attaches us to these franchises? Her relationship to Harry Potter sounded an awful lot like mine to Star Wars. But then she followed with this soliloquy, and my doubt vanished.

“‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry,” recites Rubin, quoting Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. ‘But why on Earth should that mean that it is not real?’” She then continues in her own terms, “Those words, which close ‘King’s Cross’ as the myth swirls back around the truth, were a gift from Dumbledore to Harry, and are among the greatest gifts that J.K. Rowling or anyone has ever given to me. They embody why we love stories. They remind us that ink and paper can be stronger than concrete or metal or any other building block. They convey, in a single sentence, the unsurpassed power of fantasy to unlock, for each and every one of us, a world of infinite possibility.”

My mindset had already shifted at this point in my listening experience, 68 episodes in. I’d grown an appreciation for fantasy storytelling as a medium in which morals, harsh truths and human nature could be learned if the reader was willing to listen. But Rubin’s statement affected me in a way that I am still processing to this day. It awoke in me an excitement for the concept of imagination I thought I’d lost a long time ago. I’d read this line from Deathly Hallows multiple times in addition to hearing it spoken on screen, and I’d grasped the allegory to fiction story telling. But hearing Rubin’s fervor, her reverence for this idea that shifted something inside her, made me reconsider my own relationship to the story and storytelling as an idea. Of course, Harry had already impacted my life in unquantifiable ways, but Binge Mode showed me how to start counting. If the novels themselves were the cure, Binge Mode was the syringe.

Despite my revelations, I withheld any real change of heart about my franchise dilemma because Harry Potter (as with Game of Thrones, their previous subject) was literature, after all. Yes, it had been converted into an overwhelming franchise, but at its core it was no different than Dickens or Chauser or Beowulf. It was literary mythmaking, and Harry’s myth was one of leadership and burdens, family and grief — a story with purpose. But could this same purpose be found in a story that was sold as a “blockbuster” from its inception, without the literary validation behind it?

Rubin and Concepcion attempted to tackle that very question with their next endeavor, one I’d been hoping they’d dive into since the inception of the podcast: Star Wars. And their mindset, an obviously wise approach in retrospect, was the same as their first two seasons: analyze the subject (an extensive series of films) as a literary text, contextualized with age-old mythmaking traits that can be found in the greatest works of fantasy. The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell was referenced throughout their 34-episode run more times than I could count. The same thematic burdens that anchored Jon Snow and Harry Potter — power, leadership, the call to action, the oscillation of destiny and free will — now burdened Anakin, Luke and Rey Skywalker (that last one still feels strange to type). Rubin contextualizes Anakin’s moral dilemma and his dealings with Emperor Palpatine, a manifestation of evil, in the following analysis from their Revenge of the Sith podcast:

“Anakin has made his Faustian bargain,” she says. “Making a deal with the devil, sacrificing the state of his soul, to pursue a gain that he doesn’t need and shouldn’t want. That is a term, ‘Faustian,’ that George Lucas used before to describe Anakin’s fall because it fits almost perfectly. Anakin’s story is all the more tragic because of this specific nature. He has access to so much, to so many. But nothing can quench that thirst for more knowledge, more power, and the ability that those things would bring. Specifically, in this case, the knowledge and power and ability to save Padme. Which Palpatine knows and has exploited from the go.”

I’d never heard anyone talk about Star Wars like that before. Sure, I’d heard the comparison to The Hero’s Journey, and I’d read internet jargon about why Darth Vader is “the greatest villain in cinema history,” but to define this character dynamic as an allusion to a classic German legend (I had to Google “Faustian” of course) was both jarring and illuminating. Despite being mass-marketed and labeled as a vehicle for selling toys, these movies were indeed drawing on source material with thematic substance behind them. And Revenge of the Sith is considered one of the bad ones! A film made 28 years after the original, the sixth entry into a series that, at the time of its release, was in an all-time valley in terms of its cultural approval rating. The prequel trilogy was considered overly produced, poorly made and overall unnecessary — a scheme by George Lucas and 20th Century Fox to capitalize on a franchise that ended with some dignity decades earlier. Yet Rubin and Concepcion continued to find nuance in this story. They saw it as a valid entry to the saga and a necessary story to be told — an exploration of a mythical character, Darth Vader, that has resonated in the zeitgeist for decades. The podcast attempts to ask why this resonance exists, and refuses to accept the answer of “he makes for a very cool action figure.”

That is not to say that the podcast was an unobjective celebration. The duo was more than willing to criticize, scrutinize and poke fun at the franchise when it was deserved (as it often was). But their criticism was never based in corporate contempt. They acknowledge that there were successful and unsuccessful attempts at good Star Wars storytelling, but they were attempts nonetheless. They were more than willing to pick apart the most recent entry, The Rise of Skywalker, for telling what they considered to be a contrived and contradicting story that was inconsistent with the previous films. But they analyzed the film’s attempts at mythmaking all the same. And above all else, they refused to simply chalk the failure up to “Disney’s corporate greed.” Beneath the industry of it all, there are actual people who submitted actual content to these creations, whether it be the script, the set, the performances, the sounds or the visual effects. Rubin and Concepcion considered these aspects and based their observations solely on them, without allowing the pessimism of commercialization (which I’d been guilty of) to seep into their analysis.

As they worked their way through the saga, I began to feel more and more validation with every episode. Not in a conceited sense; it was more as though I was finally reaping the fruits of my labor. The evidence that Rubin and Concepcion brought with them to legitimize their passion for this franchise justified the hours I’d spent falling in love with this story in the first place. Binge Mode proved that Star Wars, though a modern myth, is an old tale. It’s a story of choices and responsibilities, and it is told in a unique and compelling format. As with the other franchises, Star Wars is a story worth telling. The podcast had reactivated my excitement for it. My periodical rewatches were instantly enhanced, and my capitalistic guilt began to fade. I was now confident that these stories were substantial.

With Concepcion’s recent announcement that he’d be leaving The Ringer to work for Crooked Media, it seems as though Binge Mode might be coming to an end after its Marvel season, at least in its current form. Throughout their run, Binge Mode managed to increase my love for properties I thought I’d maxed out in terms of adoration. But beyond that, they made me realize my love was not unfounded. I probably didn’t need any justification for liking these franchises in the first place; I should’ve been okay with liking what I liked, and shouldn’t have had to ask why. That’s just an insecurity I need to work on. Still, I found some security knowing that there is a reason I’m so attached to these stories — they are made with artistic intent, and they have something to say about humanity. Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Marvel, they all have huge budgets and aim to please a lot of people at once. But at their core, they are building expansive imaginative worlds in which so many of us love to get lost. Binge Mode served as a map for these worlds, and Rubin and Concepcion were the most entertaining and knowledgeable tour guides I’d ever interacted with.

writer, journalist. SFSU Journalism 2020 Warriors stories for the Martinez Tribune: https://martineztribune.com/tag/mason-bissada/

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