The most telling part of HBO’s “Q: Into the Storm” comes in its second episode, when Ron Watkins, a conspiracy theorist and former 8chan administrator, explains why he agreed to be interviewed for the documentary: “It’s very important to get the word out that as the years go by, more and more people are attacking free speech online and we need to do all we can to defend it now.”
It’s a common right-wing talking point regarding social media platforms’ restrictions on bigotry, violent content, and conspiracy theories, and it’s a lie that “Q: Into the Storm” does distressingly little to push back against. The documentary, which is directed by Cullen Hoback and executive produced by Adam McKay (“Succession”), is billed as an investigation into the identity of the person(s) behind QAnon and its impact on American culture and politics but boasts a needlessly conspiratorial framing and offers little in the way of new information despite its six-hour runtime. At its best, “Q: Into the Storm” is an aimless puff piece on some of the conspiracy theory’s most notorious promoters. At its worst, it’s an uncritical platform for QAnon adherents to promote their worldview and trivializes a conspiracy theory that has directly inspired several violent crimes.
For the uninitiated, QAnon, which gained traction in late 2017, alleges that a cabal of Satan-worshiping cannibals and pedophiles comprised of Hollywood liberals, Democratic politicians, and various government officials run a global child sex-trafficking ring and conspired against Donald Trump during the former president’s Oval Office tenure. QAnon releases “Q drops” on 8chan, a website with ties to white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and several mass shootings, to relay its messages. The conspiracy theory became popular in right-wing media and has been promoted by a handful of Republican politicians, including U.S. Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, as well as Trump himself. A mob boss was allegedly murdered by a QAnon believer in 2019 and a slew of the conspiracy theory’s followers participated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January.
There is ample opportunity for documentaries to constructively analyze QAnon: How did something so detached from reality gain such a large following? How can we help our friends and loved ones who have fallen victim to QAnon’s messaging? What kinds of policies and tactics could be enacted by social media and web hosting companies to ensure that such dangerous conspiracy theories do not gain traction on their platforms in the future? What will happen to QAnon following Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election?
“Q: Into the Storm” is uninterested in seriously addressing any of those questions. While tangential references to the 2020 election and misinformation on the internet are scattered throughout the documentary, Hoback is almost singularly focused on uncovering QAnon’s identity. That said, the biggest issue with the documentary isn’t its aim — though there’s no indication that uncovering the forces behind QAnon will impede the conspiracy theory, its identity has long been a source of speculation — but rather Hoback’s reporting tactics and decision to dedicate so much time to the lives of the conspiracy theory’s key promoters.
The bulk of “Q: Into the Storm” is comprised of Hoback hanging out with — and occasionally interviewing — 8chan founder Frederick Brennan, whose website grew in popularity after he helped it become a hub for the misogynistic Gamergate harassment campaign in 2014, as well as Jim and Ron Watkins, the father-son duo who took ownership of 8chan in 2016. The documentary exhaustively details the years-long feud between Brennan, who eventually distanced himself from 8chan and became a vocal critic of the website and QAnon, and the Watkins. While the series’ first episode does an adequate job of outlining QAnon’s origins, the following five episodes devolve into a tepid profile about 8chan’s operators; extensive details are offered about the trio’s personal lives and worldviews to the point where Hoback’s investigation into QAnon’s identity, much less the material impacts of the conspiracy theory, is regularly lost in the mix.
Such is also the case when Hoback interviews a variety of QAnon social media influencers and D-list Trump surrogates. Regardless of the interviewee, Hoback is mostly unwilling to ask his subjects hard-hitting questions and rarely pushes back in his interviews or his narration when his queries are deflected or answered with half-truths or outright lies. It’s not surprising that the Watkins and the other conspiracy theorists interviewed for the documentary frequently lie to Hoback — that’s their shtick, after all — but it’s unclear why so much misinformation and utter nonsense (Jim suggests in Episode 2 that QAnon is legitimate because of the multiverse theory while dramatic music and occasional lightsaber noises are played in the background) is presented in the finished product with nary a critique.
Ethical quandaries aside, the sheer quantity of contradictory and irrelevant statements simply makes the documentary a slog to get through. Hoback’s investigation into QAnon’s identity seems to hinge on information he gleans from conspiracy theorists (a handful of journalists and extremism researchers are interviewed but their appearances are fleeting compared to those of QAnon supporters) and though the director makes an effort to sift through the lies, the unreliability of most of his interview subjects makes it difficult to give much credence to anything happening onscreen.
Interviews aside, “Q: Into the Storm” is rife with scenes showing its subjects participating in QAnon events or milling about their daily lives. The documentary takes a cue from Netflix’s “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” by presenting its conspiracy theorist subjects as crass social misfits — there are more than a few fart jokes and flippant displays of racism throughout the series — and though there’s doubtlessly value in revealing how unlikable the people who propagate QAnon are, the amount of time dedicated to their peculiarities ultimately downplays the damage their conspiracy theory has caused. For example, there’s a section in Episode 3 where Jim’s internet porn business is outlined via a needlessly explicit montage. The montage is followed by this sentence, which is stated prior to a tangent about Ron encouraging Hoback to participate in sex tourism in Japan: “Now, if you’re thinking these guys seem to be into porn, like, more than the normal amount, you would be right. But Ron takes it to another level.”
Similarly bizarre segments are scattered throughout the documentary and Hoback’s narration, which sporadically includes inexplicable critiques of mainstream media, is often ill-informed. He describes Gamergate in Episode 2 as “pushing back against the feminist critique of video games.” Steve Bannon’s efforts to create a school for far-right activists are referred to as “attempting to cultivate an academy for shitposting cultural warriors on the deified grounds of an 800-year-old monastary” in Episode 4.
What’s truly inexcusable, however, is the documentary’s inclusion and framing of footage from the 2019 mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand and El Paso, Texas in Episodes 3 and 4, respectively. The former, preceded by narration stating that “the games were about to come to an end” and an interview segment where Ron absolves himself and 8chan of guilt, features footage of the gunman opening fire at a Christchurch mosque interspersed with numerous images of 8chan users posting celebrations of the attack. It’s horrifying, gratuitous, and utterly unnecessary; the violent footage of the U.S. Capitol storming set to triumphant music and cheering Trump supporters near the end of Episode 6 is almost innocuous by comparison.
[Editor’s Note: The following portion of the review contains spoilers for “Q: Into the Storm.”]
By the time the documentary wraps up, Hoback concludes that Ron Watkins is Q. The director signs off via a roughly minute-long forecast on how the QAnon movement might change in the future and a criticism of Ron’s actions; he’s a “cynic who treats the whole world like it’s a game.” That’s about as scathing as Hoback’s critique of QAnon and its promoters gets throughout “Q: Into the Storm.”
Hoback’s reasoning for Ron being Q is… somewhat understandable, conspiratorial framing to his conclusion notwithstanding, but it’s hard to completely accept the documentary’s answer when so much of the investigation hinges on information obtained from, well, conspiracy theorists. The big reveal is probably besides the point. Despite Hoback’s suggestion that revealing Q to be the brainchild of an antisocial nihilist could disempower the movement, the last few years of American politics have long since proven that a significant fraction of the populace has no qualms about supporting such an individual as long as they find their message appealing.
In the end, “Q: Into the Storm” could end up doing more harm than good. There’s the occasional reference to QAnon promoters hawking the conspiracy theory for financial gain and individuals such as Roger Stone being described as “infamous,” but the vast majority of the documentary is an uncritical platform for unrepentant racists to espouse their worldview and justify it in the name of “free speech” and “patriotism.” The documentary’s B-roll is absolutely littered with images of racist 8chan posts and random QAnon Twitter accounts. Hoback’s commentary mostly just adds fuel to the fire. QAnon supporters will rejoice at seeing their idols riff with one another in an HBO documentary. For the well-meaning expecting a nuanced deconstruction of one of the most violent and deranged conspiracy theories in recent history, consider yourselves warned.
The first two episodes of “Q: Into the Storm” premiere Sunday, March 21 at 9 p.m. ET. on HBO. New episodes will air back-to-back on subsequent Sundays.