Hoback clearly prizes his access to the elusive Watkinses, but the pair can’t sustain six hours of television. You might also wonder whether devoting an HBO series to them is a worthy investigative mission, or whether it’s actually giving them exactly what they want. Attention hijackers, the New York Times journalist Charlie Warzel wrote last year, typically seem to “thriv[e] off the attention they’ve generated.” The same statement applies to conspiracy theorists. Without middlemen to track, channel, and translate Q’s posts for a mass audience, QAnon would have no power. It’s hard to say who’s served by feeding the trolls, and Jim Watkins, who says gleefully in one episode that he can’t wait to tell his liberal neighbor about the storming of the Capitol, is arguably a troll to whom Into the Storm keeps giving an even bigger mouthpiece.
Read: How to tell the story of a cult
There are best practices for reporting on conspiracy theories in general, and QAnon in particular. Into the Storm flouts all of them. It names and profiles influencers who sprout like weeds in the light of attention; it serves up ardent Q followers as figures of ridicule; it rarely pauses to debunk the most outlandish beliefs it details, assuming—maybe—that viewers at home can do that for themselves. The series even offers some wacky theories of its own. Maybe Q was spun off from a shadowy cicada-themed psyops mission, devised by a German pianist in league with Iranian spies and the Pentagon. Q, Hoback suggests several times, might even be someone close to Trump.
Tonally, Into the Storm feels like something I can describe only as Extremely Online. Synthesized, video-game sound effects abound; in one scene, supercuts of Reddit videos emphasize how an interview subject is feeling. When people don’t want to be interviewed on camera, Hoback inflates their online mythology by portraying them as digitized characters. Episodes include, variously, scenes from wildly popular YouTube videos laying out the gospel of QAnon, Nazi memes, clips of hard-core pornography, and even fragments of the live-stream posted by the shooter who murdered 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. When Hoback speculates on Q’s identity in the first episode, he does so on a whiteboard, intentionally or accidentally mimicking how Q’s disciples often employ the same prop. The overall style is part Adam McKay (who, incidentally, produced the series), part winking Daily Show segment, part Crazy Frog music video.
Missing is a sense of what QAnon has cost us, beyond the violence of January 6. The only time Hoback alludes to the families broken by Q is when he briefly excerpts a clip from Inside Edition. But the strongest coverage of the phenomenon in recent months has tended to focus not on the wackiness of Q-driven delusions, but on the despair that close relatives of Q followers feel at how isolated and paranoid their loved ones have become. There’s no sense in the series, either, that one of America’s two dominant political parties has tacitly accepted Q believers as its base, and even rewarded a new Q-friendly congresswoman—who’d previously implied on Facebook Live that a large group of government officials were Satan-worshipping child abusers—with an assignment on the House Education Committee, until some members protested. Over and over, Hoback asserts that QAnon is a role-playing game that’s somehow managed to bleed into reality, with all the awestruck marvel of a man who hasn’t personally suffered its consequences. After watching the series, you might conclude that it would be more meaningful, and more productive, to hear from someone who has.