The New QAnon Docuseries Is a Gamified Mess

Jim Watkins with his son, Ron Watkins
Jim Watkins with his son, Ron WatkinsHBO

Early in the first episode of Q: Into the Storm, the filmmaker Cullen Hoback makes a confession. “QAnon creeps into your thoughts,” he says, describing how years of investigating the false conspiracy theory that a cabal of powerful elites is engaging in ritualistic child abuse has warped his thinking. “It changes the lens with which you see the world.” Hoback can’t see the number 17 without thinking of its corresponding letter in the alphabet, Q. When he sees owls, he thinks of the demon Moloch, whom his followers supposedly appeased with child sacrifice. By Hoback’s own admission, his perception has been tweaked by his immersion in an online mire of grandiose role-playing and feverish delusion.

Which is maybe why Into the Storm feels interactive rather than analytical. It’s less a measured interrogation of a phenomenon that has upended contemporary politics, devastated countless families, and helped provoke a fatal attack on the U.S. Capitol than a jaunty promenade down gonzo lines of inquiry. Hoback’s mission is to determine who’s behind “Q,” the figure who spawned an improbably influential conspiracy theory via an anything-goes website otherwise infamous for hosting white-supremacist memes and diaper porn. After six hours, you might wonder, Does it matter? The project could have worked to counter or explore the damage QAnon has done to the wobbling facade of American democracy, but instead it’s a rollicking game that could arguably make things worse.

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The series seems to have been built and sold upon access—Hoback began documenting his investigation three years ago, when, he says, he hoped “unmasking Q might bring an end to what, in 2018, was still mostly a game.” The first episode vaults through a frenetic explanation of how and where QAnon started that will likely leave the unfamiliar reeling: In 2017, an anonymous poster claiming to have “Q-level security clearance” began dropping messages on the imageboard website 4chan (and then 8chan), suggesting that President Donald Trump would shortly be arresting large numbers of high-profile Democrats and movie stars who, Q’s followers deduced, were secretly cannibalistic pedophiles. One theory regarding QAnon’s origins is that it was spawned when Trump hosted a White House event for military leaders and made cryptic, smirking references to “the calm before the storm.”

Hoback focuses his inquiries on the website where Q eventually settled. “If it’s legal within the bounds of U.S. law,” he explains, “it’s legal on 8chan,” briefly noting the paradox that a movement devoted to supposedly bringing down child abusers was formed by posts on a site where child pornography was often prevalent. (In 2019, 8chan disappeared from the internet after being cut off by its network provider; it later popped back up under a new name, 8kun.) Reporters investigating QAnon have long theorized that the person behind Q is either Jim or Ron Watkins, the father-and-son duo who took over 8chan in 2016 from its founder, Fredrick Brennan. Hoback gets significant access to all three, and even helps Brennan escape Manila, where he and Jim Watkins were based, when a legal dispute between the two turns ugly. Hoback goes above and beyond in the series to gain his subjects’ trust; it’s hinted, for example, that he might have accompanied Ron Watkins to a brothel.

All three subjects dominate the series. Brennan is the most sympathetic figure for his willingness to condemn 8chan after three separate mass shootings in 2019 had ties to the site. But he also seems intent on manipulating the story at times; Hoback captures him on more than one occasion boasting that reporters simply parrot whatever he tells them, and that he has significant power over the mass-media QAnon narrative. Jim Watkins, a deeply eccentric and discomfiting figure who seems to revel in the attention QAnon brings him, comes across almost as a Bond villain, giving interviews with a cat on his lap and ushering Hoback around his remote pig farm in the Philippines. Ron Watkins, a soft-spoken and affectless guy who blinks excessively while telling Hoback over and over that he definitely isn’t Q, looks like a college student but displays an unnerving lack of empathy when it comes to the significant number of violent deaths that could plausibly be linked to 8chan.

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.

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.