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HBO

‘Q: Into the Storm’ tries to unravel a conspiracy but gets too caught up in the details

The docuseries attempts to find out who is behind QAnon.

Mar 22, 2021, 11:15 am*

Internet Culture

 

Michelle Jaworski

Q: Into the Storm, the HBO docuseries from director Cullen Hoback, certainly doesn’t skimp on the details. Throughout its six episodes, we’re introduced to several key players who helped push the QAnon conspiracy into the mainstream, the inner-workings of 8chan—the image boards that eventually became synonymous with Q (which later rebranded as 8kun)—and the people who run it, and many of Q’s believers. It spans from QAnon’s origins on 4chan all the way to the insurrection on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. 

Q: Into the Storm
Two and a half stars


Release Date: March 21, 2021
Director: Cullen Hoback
Streaming: HBO Max
Over six episodes, ‘Q: Into the Storm’ depicts Cullen Hoback’s years-long quest to discover the identity of Q, the anonymous person (or people) behind QAnon. While meticulous in relaying its details, it loses its focus and covers too much while overlooking the human toll of the conspiracy.

As thorough as Into the Storm might be in its attempt to unmask Q, the anonymous person whose posts fed into the movement, it also widely misses the mark. It gets lost in the weeds, spending way too much time on the interpersonal drama that’s prime for a very online audience (but perhaps not many others) to the point where Into the Storm loses control of its own narrative and is almost dull in its telling. There’s almost a sense of recklessness in how it presents its characters and the stories those people spin.

Sure, the portrayal of Hoback’s search for Q might be akin to a journey down the rabbit hole, but it’s also a rabbit hole that’s warped the reality for its followers and destroyed lives. It’s hard to become invested considering the damage the conspiracy has already done.

man looking at film equipment
HBO

Laid out plainly, QAnon sounds absurd. The conspiracy claims that Q is someone with “Q clearance” (aka someone who can access top-secret data) who said that former President Donald Trump would one day plan “the Storm,” a day in which the cabal of Satan worshippers, cannibals, pedophiles, and human traffickers (many of whom are made up of top Democrats and A-list Hollywood names) would finally be rounded up and arrested. Somehow, the conspiracy caught on, resulting in millions believing in at least part of what QAnon promised. It was embraced—or, at its most generous reading, wasn’t authoritatively denounced—by our former leadership, which led to two of its one-time followers to run for office and win.

Between late 2017 and January 2021, Q posted nearly 5,000 cryptic messages for followers to analyze. And analyze they did as a wave of far-right media, YouTubers (called QTubers), podcasters, grifters, and opportunists emerged. At first, it’s a fringe movement; its followers at QAnon-centric conventions barely filled a board room. But the further you get into Into the Storm, the more people showed up. Hoback, to his credit, doesn’t give credence to the conspiracies that QAnon spouts, the incredulity evident in his voiceovers and the questions he asks his interview subjects. Among his interview subjects are several journalists who cover and debunk QAnon.

But he also gives QAnon believers ample time to explain their cause while almost entirely ignoring the human cost of QAnon beyond January’s insurrection. Several QAnon believers mention offhand that they’ve lost family because of their belief, but Into the Storm doesn’t delve much further into it than that; people who’ve lost their family members and friends get even less thought. It’s a conspiracy that encouraged harassment of anyone who spoke out against it, including the very reporters who covered it.

man in wheelchair holding letter q
HBO

The more ambitious aspect of Into the Storm—and the one that makes Into the Storm veer off-course—is its chronicle of 8chan and the three men who spent years waging a battle for it. Hoback’s life slowly becomes entwined with Fredrick Brennan, 8chan’s founder who would eventually denounce his own creation; Jim Watkins, the businessman with a military background who purchased 8chan when Brennan couldn’t keep up with costs; and Ron Watkins, Jim’s son and former 8chan admin who claimed to have spoken with Q and whose false election conspiracy theories would later be retweeted by Trump and cited by Trump advocates

When Hoback first starts filming, QAnon is still considered to be a fringe conspiracy. Brennan and the Watkinses all get along with one another, and Ron is so much of an enigma that Googling him brought up his father’s photo instead. Over several episodes, we watch the fracturing of a front that at one time seemed united, personal vendettas dragged through the press and courts, and the narrative that 8chan is home to white supremacists and mass shooters after several gunmen post their manifestos and links to livestreams of their violence on 8chan.

Brennan and the Watkinses seem to trust Hoback to an extent, but their relationships with him are also filled with lies and contradictions—some of which aren’t revealed to be lies and contradictions until later episodes. Those lies are presented in a sort of “gotcha” move that one might see on a late-night comedy show, except that instead of presenting the contradiction right away, Into the Storm might wait a week or two to do so, depending on when you watch the next episode. They almost seem to relish the attention that Hoback gives them.

father and son standing
HBO

At the center of Into the Storm is a question that Hoback, at least, is interested in: Who is Q? Brennan, Jim Watkins, and Ron Watkins are all suspected to either be associated with Q or actually are Q; all three of them denied the latter charge multiple times throughout. Members of Trump’s inner-circle—which include Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, and Roger Stone—are, at some point, also floated as possibilities. It’s a globe-trotting journey that takes Hoback from the Philippines, Japan, and Italy to California and Arizona.

“Q is whoever you want it to be,” Brennan observes early on. And while Hoback eventually settles on the person he believes is Q (although not before changing his mind several times), how much does it really matter? Whoever it is, it doesn’t change just how much damage on a fundamental level happened because of it.

The first two episodes of Q: Into the Storm debuted on March 21 on HBO Max. Future episodes will air Sundays.

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*First Published: Mar 22, 2021, 11:08 am