Timing is the great unknown when it comes to documentaries. Despite the filmmakers’ best efforts to capture the zeitgeist, by the time the research is done, the filming complete, the editing wrapped, and the finished product ready, the subject at hand can be long forgotten.
This is not an issue for HBO’s six part docuseries Q: Into the Storm. The series, directed by Cullen Hoback and executive produced by Adam McKay, couldn’t be arriving at a better time as it seeks to understand the QAnon phenomenon. QAnon used to be a fixation of only the most terminally online. But sometime in the last year, not coincidentally around when many QAnon adherents stormed the U.S. Capitol, the story of Q and the posters who followed him, went very, tragically mainstream.
The country has never been more primed for an all-encompassing documentary about the QAnon conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, the one we’re getting is incomplete. The back half of Q: Into the Storm succeeds as an intriguing, at times even riveting, human story. The front half, however, doesn’t come anywhere near close enough to being the clarifying historical document about an era-defining political movement that it needs to be.
To be fair to Hoback and his doc, presenting the historical documentation of such a big, strange, and toxic phenomenon is no simple task. The QAnon movement emerged on the 4chan’s /b/ “Random” board in late 2017. An anonymous user (as all 4chan users are unless they choose to reveal themselves) going by “Q Clearance Patriot” claimed that President Donald Trump’s bizarre statement about a “calm before the storm” was referring to an event when a shadowy cabal of celebrities and politicians including Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks would be arrested for crimes against humanity.
“LARPing” (a term borrowed from the phrase “live-action role playing”) as important people with top secret information has always been a popular pastime for posters on 4chan and other similar boards. But something about “Q’s” LARPs, which incorporated bonkers pre-existing conspiracy theories like Pizzagate into its framework, had enough appeal to go truly viral. Q continued posting, moving over to 8chan in 2019, and the QAnon movement blossomed into a virulent strain of sustained misinformation.
The QAnon story is there for the telling. But Q: Into the Storm quickly makes clear that it won’t be the one to tell it. The first big complication that the documentary faces is the challenge in presenting such a uniquely online concept visually. The first episode is largely concerned with summarizing the Q phenomenon and yet with only 50 minutes and limited visual and rhetorical tools to do so, falls quite short of presenting a coherent narrative of the cult’s origins.
The doc can’t figure out the correct formula of what to explain versus what to assume the audience already knows. The end result is a frustratingly incomplete exploration of QAnon that breezes past its 4chan’s origins to get to the 8chan era that Into the Storm wants to examine. This is undoubtedly because of the privileged access Hoback gained to 8chan owner Jim Watkins and his son Ron Watkins (more on them in a minute). But it ultimately robs viewers of important context. In fact, the documentary’s narration refers to 4chan as “8chan’s less infamous godfather,” which is just fundamentally incorrect.
Early episodes of the docuseries also suffer from curious interview choices and a frustrating refusal to contextualize those interviewed. The first episode features notable right wing scam artist Jack Posobiec as a subject to talk about Pizzagate, a scandal in which adherents believed (mistakenly, obviously) that there was a pedophile dungeon operating in the basement of D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. Other, more level-headed interviewees gently point out that Posobiec is a conspiracy-courting liar, but the invisible hand of the doc doesn’t delve into that part of his C.V. It’s like having the Hamburglar on to speak about the fast food industry without disclosing that he has a questionable history with hamburgers.
Funnily enough, however, Posobiec provides good advice to the documentarians that they ultimately do not follow. In trying to explain away why his embrace of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory was satirical (it was not) and not a cynical capitulation to online weirdos (it was), Posobiec says “I was making fun of people who believe in this kind of stuff. Partially that’s on me because I didn’t understand that the IQ of the Internet is below average.”
In spite of that bit of wisdom, the first episode of Q: Into the Storm takes for granted that its viewing audience has a solid grip on reality, ignoring years of recent evidence to the contrary. It features several other unchallenged, slice of life interviews with Q adherents, and it even seemingly bemoans that NBC News would stoop so low as to dox a pair of them. It also presents a series of supposedly correct Q predictions like “Q correctly predicting the arrest of several members of the Saudi Royal family” and “Q’s itinerary matches the President’s perfectly” while forgetting to add important context like “wait…no. That’s obviously dumb.”
The first episode of this series is a real mess, and perhaps even irresponsible in some respects. That’s a shame though as several of the episodes that follow it are quite entertaining, if not enlightening. Starting with its second episode, Q: Into the Storm begins to spend the majority of its time with three fascinating members of the Internet communities that Q sprouted out of. The first is Fredrick Brennan, the original creator of 8chan. After operating costs of the difficult-to-monetize site became too onerous to maintain, Brennan sold it to the doc’s other two main subjects: porn magnate Jim Watkins and his coder son Ron.
When 8chan became the exclusive home to both Q and several mass shooters, Brennan sought to end his involvement in the site while the Watkins relished the attention. Both Brennan and the Watkins have already been covered extensively by Q-curious journalists over the past few years. Brennan, in particular, is both media savvy and seemingly up to be interviewed for any Q feature. But Q: Into the Storm is really able to sink its teeth into the visually dramatic potential of these three men, feuding and living in the Philippines.
Brennan (who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta and has spent much of his life online) and the Watkins (who are just world class creeps) are real characters and the documentary clearly relishes spending time with them. Hoback’s skills as a documentarian are on display here. The doc excels when there is a clear story of two warring factions to be told, rather than having to deal with the difficult concept of what makes QAnon so viral. Hoback even inserts himself as a character of sorts, which comes across as appropriate given the circumstances involved, rather than indulgent.
The doc also concerns itself with uncovering the identity of Q (at least the 8chan iteration of Q). Into the Storm does indeed settle on an individual who is almost certainly Q. This makes for an engaging watching experience as Hoback’s investigative skills are on full display. It also misses the mark entirely as Q’s identity is no longer that important when compared against the destructive QAnon movement he wrought.
In the end, the real issue with Q: Into the Storm might be that of branding. Media companies are in a race to be the first to present the definitive and all-encompassing story of QAnon. HBO could be forgiven for thinking they had achieved that goal with Q: Into the Storm. Hoback and McKay have both the filmmaking bona fides and the access into an Internet underworld to make a definitive documentation of the QAnon phenomenon work. That’s not what they did here, however. Whether it’s through a morbid fascination with its subjects, or investment in storytelling at the expense of enlightenment, Q: Into the Storm doesn’t live up to its full potential.