During the early days of the QAnon movement — before the Capitol Riot insurrection, before the #StoptheSteal movement, and before believers like Marjorie Taylor Greene transitioned from the annals of Conspiracy YouTube to the halls of Congress — there was a longstanding debate within the media whether it was worth covering QAnon. At first, those in the “ignore” camp focused on the sheer outrageousness and irrationality of the theory to bolster their argument. Could any sane person really believe that a cabal of powerful, left-wing figures was trafficking and eating children?
But as the movement grew and started to infiltrate the corners of everyday life, often with the aid of Donald Trump himself, citing the absurdity of QAnon as reason not to cover it seemed like an almost willfully churlish and ignorant thing to do. It didn’t matter that QAnon was baseless. It didn’t matter that QAnon was silly. People were paying attention to it, and instead of continuing to ignore it, the media had an obligation to pivot toward asking why.
Yet the question of why so many people believe in QAnon is not the mystery at the heart of Q: Into the Storm, an in-depth, six-part documentary premiering March 21st on HBO (with episodes airing on subsequent Sunday, available to stream on HBO Max). Instead, filmmaker Cullen Hoback, who spent three years working on the project, asks a central question more characteristic of a narrative thriller than a docuseries: Who, exactly, is Q, the enigmatic individual (or individuals) who claims to have high-level military clearance and has been posting tantalizing drops on 8chan for the past few years?
Throughout the series, Hoback toys with the viewer by positing Q’s identity: Is it Jim Watkins, the heavy-breathing, chronically mendacious former military man who become the owner of 8chan, or his son Ron, a soft-spoken expat obsessed with porn? Is it Fredrick Brennan, the original creator of 8chan, who has since disavowed his association with the website and the Watkinses? Is it longtime Trump crony Roger Stone, or Steve Bannon? Or… cue dramatic music… the filmmaker himself? (Spoiler: It’s not.)
When not asking this question, Hoback devotes much time to parsing the history of 8chan, the role it has played in various far-right extremist shootings, and feuds between multiple factions within the QAnon community (which basically has the same effect in building dramatic tension as reading snippy back-and-forths on a Twitter thread). The resulting investigation, while thorough, goes off on so many tangents that it becomes impossible to follow a coherent narrative thread, failing to adequately address what is obviously the most important issue at stake here: What, exactly, is drawing so many people to this bizarre conspiracy theory?
For those who follow the QAnon movement, the selling point for Q: Into the Storm is the fact that Hoback obtained unprecedented access to the enigmatic Watkins family, visiting them in the Philippines for years to conduct interviews. The decision to center the series around the Watkinses is interesting for two reasons: One, both father and son have a history of publicly lying and attempting to manipulate the press, casting virtually everything they say into doubt; and two, they are extremely tedious to watch, coming off less like diabolical masterminds and more like what they really are, which is compulsively uncharismatic online trolls who have improbably found themselves shaping the trajectory of global events.
When the trailer for Q: Into the Storm was first released, many internet-extremism experts took umbrage not only with the slick, 1980s-inspired graphics and fast-paced editing, which they argued made QAnon seem like an exciting alternate-reality game, but also with the platforming of the Watkinses. The concern was that the series might improperly glamorize them. If only. Such a depiction, though irresponsible from a journalistic perspective, would ultimately have been much more compelling than Q: Into the Storm, which seems to think that the viewer’s attention will be captivated by footage of Ron practicing martial arts, or Jim proudly showing off the kale he sells in his organic food store.
Ultimately, Hoback settles on one of his characters as the likely culprit behind Q. Though the identity is framed as a shocking reveal, it will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever set up a QAnon Google alert. (Brennan, for his part, has very publicly made similar claims for years.) It is also, in many ways, beside the point: In the wake of Trump’s defeat, Q has been silent for the past few months, and was long ago supplanted by an ecosystem of influencers and media personalities who have turned a hefty profit off of the QAnon mythology. Though the documentary is obsessively focused on the identity of Q, it’s been a long time since the QAnon movement was equally focused on Q itself. Ultimately, it doesn’t much matter who is behind QAnon, because QAnon has long proven it is able to thrive independently of Q or 8chan or even Trump himself. And the series, for all of its thoroughness and attention to detail, doesn’t do nearly a good enough job unpacking how it has gotten to this point.
Q: Into the Storm steers away from committing many of the cardinal sins outlined by anti-extremism researchers in covering conspiracy theories: It doesn’t make QAnon seem sexy or enticing, and it largely avoids engaging in outright mockery when interviewing credulous believers. But it also devotes tremendous, and largely unquestioning, space and attention to two men who have unapologetically provided a platform for far-right extremists to spread their poisonous ideas, sometimes to demonstrably violent effect. More than anything else, the series is a testament to how an artist’s years-long obsession with a subject can often culminate not in expertise or a unique perspective, but in being unable to see the forest for the trees. At the end of the day, what is most interesting about QAnon is not the trolls behind it, or even the true believers who embrace it, but the combination of toxic cultural conditions and the fragility of human psychology that have allowed it to flourish.