Q: Into the Storm Exposes the QAnon Conspiracy and Its Toxic Roots
HBO’s QAnon documentary has been criticized for its hands-off approach to its subjects, who include some of the most reactionary characters on the internet. But the film is a deft portrayal how a dangerous conspiracy theory could emerge from the internet’s fever swamps and cause real world damage.
Of all the images to emerge from the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, the one which has lingered most is probably that of Jake Angeli (variously known as the “QAnon Shaman” and “Yellowstone Wolf”) flexing from atop the dais in the Senate chamber, boasting a horned fur hat and an exposed chest covered with tattoos. Like so much associated with the far-right Q conspiracy, the scene was at once deeply sinister and grotesquely absurd, evoking a dizzying mix of blood-and-soil nationalism, renfair-esque cosplay, and the irreversibly addled minds of the terminally online.
Though there’s plenty of competition, it’s difficult to think of a single shot more emblematic of the spluttering final days of the Trump era — or anything that better illustrates why the whole Q phenomenon is such a difficult subject for documentarians to explore. Combining violent intent, internet grift, and a sprawling, incoherent narrative about the mythic destiny of the president who formerly hosted NBC’s The Apprentice, QAnon is an extremist political tendency that is also postmodern to the core. For that reason, it presents any prospective filmmaker with something of a dilemma. How, after all, are you supposed to treat a subject that’s simultaneously so dark and so ridiculous?
This was the challenge confronting director Cullen Hoback, whose entertaining documentary series Q: Into the Storm began its run on HBO in March and concluded last weekend. Hoback’s answer to the question, it would seem, is largely to let the film’s characters speak for themselves while doing his best to investigate and uncover the identity of the mysterious “Q.” That search, alongside interviews with various figures connected to QAnon, is largely what carries the film throughout its six parts — the arc of which broadly traces the conspiracy theory from its earliest days in 2017 to its animating role in the events of January 6, 2021.
While this story is by now reasonably well known, Hoback’s rendering is both informative and entertaining — offering us a detailed look at the intricate patchwork of chan culture, sexual and racial prejudice, evangelical fervor, right-wing fanaticism, and online anonymity that ultimately gave birth to the Q phenomenon. Though Hoback does conscript experts like The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer and Jared Holt (known, among other things, for his work at Right Wing Watch), the majority of screen time is occupied by figures who are Q adherents or at any rate Q adjacent — resulting in a mostly unfiltered portrait of the phenomenon’s bizarre cast of characters, online influencers, and enigmatic mods.
Most prominently featured is 8chan founder Fredrick Brennan and the duo of current 8chan (now 8kun) owner Jim Watkins and his son, Ron. A sizable chunk of the series, in fact, consists of Hoback in conversation with one of the three as he details their histories with the forum and its increasingly central role as a hub for conspiracy theories and right-wing violence.
Originally founded by Brennan, an amiable young man who is as close to a protagonist as the film has, 8chan became QAnon’s online home following its migration from the more closely moderated 4chan (where the first-ever Q post appeared in October 2017). Having sold the site to Watkins Sr in 2015, Brennan relocated to the Philippines, where he worked as the site’s administrator until falling out with the new management over its association with online extremism and mass shootings (including the 2019 massacre at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand). Watkins, meanwhile, is a creepy character of (at least initially) ambiguous motivation who earns a living through pig farming, small-time retail, and hosting websites in places with minimal legal restrictions — with his son Ron assisting in the day-to-day operations of the site while insisting he has little interest in what goes on there.
Hoback’s approach certainly gets him in close, and makes him a participant in the story as much as its narrator (in the series’ fifth episode he even helps Brennan stage a nail-biting exit from Manila as he tries to escape a lawsuit initiated by the elder Watkins that seems likely to end in a prison sentence). The price he pays for this level of access is an inability to do more than passively observe during his interviews, a gonzo approach that has inspired several negative reviews from critics who argue it amounts to quasi-glorification. The most condemnatory even deems Into the Storm “an aimless puff piece on some of the conspiracy theory’s most notorious promoters.”
This reception, though possibly well intentioned, is more than a little unfair. Depiction, after all, does not equal endorsement, and Hoback’s film has no sympathy for QAnon or its deranged movement leaders. As both a journalistic and documentary subject, moreover, the Q phenomenon hardly suffers from a dearth of condemnatory treatments and fact-checks — neither of which could have explicated the motivating impulses behind it as interestingly as Into the Storm. In Hoback’s treatment, we get to hear from the proprietors of 8chan and the LARPing internet alchemists of QTube (the loose network of YouTube-based QAnon channels) themselves, and the resulting portrait ultimately offers some real, if provisional, answers as to the movement’s meaning and origins.
Interacting with both Jim and Ron Watkins over the course of several years — the project being some three in the making — the director’s seemingly passive eye clearly understands its subjects well, and a mixture of editing and commentary makes it obvious that he finds them neither sympathetic nor trustworthy. The series’ key moment [spoilers incoming] comes in its final episode, when Hoback, having embedded himself with Jim Watkins during January 6 Capitol storming, concludes by arguing that the identity of the mysterious Q is, in fact, Ron Watkins himself. “If you look at my Twitter feed, that’s what I’m doing publicly now,” Watkins tells the filmmaker during their final conversation in the film, adding:
I’ve spent the past . . . almost ten years, every day, doing this kind of research anonymously. Now I’m doing it publicly, that’s the only difference. . . . It was basically . . . three years of intelligence training teaching normies how to do intelligence work. It was basically what I was doing anonymously but, before, never as Q.
Watkins, whose ensuing cheeky expression carries the air of someone catching themself midway through a mistake, hastens to add: “Never as Q. I promise. Because I am not Q, and I never was.” For Hoback, this is nothing less than an inadvertent admission, and the director certainly makes a plausible case as to the mysterious Q’s identity. Watkins, after all, has hitherto spent much of his screen time vigorously professing his ignorance and lack of interest in the whole affair and, if nothing else, was clearly much more involved than he’s willing to admit.
Insofar as Hoback’s project has shortcomings, most can be attributed to the timeline of its production, which began well before QAnon drew mainstream attention or attracted the majority of his adherents. When he began filming, the director couldn’t possibly have known where things would end up, and, viewed primarily as a retrospective, Into the Storm is as well-executed a documentary as any in the genre. Though the broader political and historical dynamics behind QAnon will still need further exploration, the series offers an informative and compelling look at the Trump era’s most singularly deranged offshoot — and the surreal confluence of credulity, LARPing, grift, and right-wing reaction that carried it from the darkest recesses of the internet into the very heart of the Republican base and, ultimately, to the dais of the United States Senate.