HBO’s QAnon documentary searches for Q’s origins but misses the point

HBO's QAnon documentary searches for Q's origins but misses the point thumbnail

The new HBO documentary about the conspiracy theory QAnon, “Q: Into the Storm,” is a diffuse six-episode mini-series directed, written, shot and narrated by Cullen Hoback. Hoback has made interesting and technically literate films before, notably 2013’s improbably entertaining documentary about license agreements, “Terms and Conditions May Apply.”

As far as his QAnon series goes, I liked the animation over the opening credits.

The problem with “Into the Storm” is that rather than tightly focus on relationships within the conspiracy theory that essentially bookended the Trump presidency and contributed to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol (which is most of the final episode’s climax), it is instead a sort of unified theory of the contemporary internet. Its six one-hour episodes track the lineages and influences of meme culture from the Something Awful forums (where today’s popular comedy writers and activists rubbed elbows in the late 1990s) to the hacker collective Anonymous and from the web-based hate campaign Gamergate in 2014 to two of several explicitly political right-wing movements it sired, “pizzagate” and its amped-up successor, QAnon.

It’s entirely possible that one need not understand the entirety of the modern internet to grasp QAnon; after all, most of its adherents don’t.

In that sense, “Into the Storm” wants to be a grand story about the way we live now. Instead — and despite the high stakes — too much of it plays out as sub-“Real Housewives” catty infighting between boring and self-involved dudebros living in relative isolation in various noncontiguous countries and devoting their lives to … well, to nothing.

That is why the show is such a tedious, frustrating slog, punctuated by moments of frankly inexcusable prurience — including what appear to be blurred-out images of child abuse and footage of the Christchurch shooting taken by the killer and uploaded to an image board called 8chan specifically to inflame race-based hatred.

All of this is not to say “Into the Storm” is worthless — just that it’s two hours of documentary in a six-hour bag. It’s entirely possible that one need not understand the entirety of the modern internet to grasp QAnon; after all, most of its adherents don’t.

At its core, QAnon is a cult of personality that occasionally lacks a person, dedicated (most of the time) to the pronouncements of a pseudonymous blogger calling himself (assuming it’s a him at all) Q and spreading, in coded messages, what it or they claim is secret information about the nefarious activities of Democrats and movie stars (who eat babies to rejuvenate themselves) and the secret war by former President Donald Trump to bring them justice. Q’s gnomic tidbits and ambiguous prophecies are usually vague; there is a cottage industry of Q interpreters dedicated to promoting and, likely not coincidentally, profiting from the conspiracy.

Too much of the documentary plays out as sub-“Real Housewives” catty infighting between boring and self-involved dudebros.

Q used to post on an internet message board called 4chan, then exclusively on its nominal successor 8chan and now does so on 8kun, encouraging “interpreters” to take the posts and their interpretation to more popular platforms like YouTube and Facebook where your older relatives can most easily get hooked. The original Q account stopped posting in December, but Q’s acolytes continue to grift even as they drift.

The conspiracy theory became popular enough among American conservatives during the Trump administration (which consistently egged QAnon adherents on) that two politicians who publicly courted its believers were elected to Congress in 2020 (Reps. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.), and it inspired some of the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol during the right’s lethal crusade on Jan. 6.

The conspiracy theory, and its all-consuming allure to some people who truly believed that the problems in the world could be explained by the rich and powerful living off an adrenaline byproduct harvested from children’s blood, has destroyed familial relationships, friendships, marriages and more. It’s a fundamentally lunatic series of ideas with incongruously vast appeal; great fodder for a deep dive into the psyches of the apparently reasonable people affected by it. Hoback, however, is more interested in the psyches of the people who he believes perpetrated it, and those people are mostly disappointing, contemptible jerks.

Fredrick Brennan, the programmer who created 8chan and helped launch Gamergate, is Hoback’s most sympathetic character — in no small part because he’s repudiated his work and made awful sacrifices in pursuit of amends. He’s a fascinating, obviously intelligent and self-aware person who, at one point, tells a TV interviewer that he “might actually deserve” his inescapable association with the site he no longer runs.

Jim Watkins, to whom Brennan sold the site, is the villain of the piece, along with his bratty son, Ron. Ron is particularly interesting in contrast to Brennan. He’s nondisabled where Brennan is visibly disabled, impenetrably pompous where Brennan is often humble, and creepy in every possible way: disingenuous and deceitful and, Hoback suggests, possibly even dangerous.

QAnon would be great fodder for a deep dive into the psyches of the apparently reasonable people affected by it.

“Maybe 25 percent of 8chan is paid for by pigs,” observes Jim Watkins, who owns an actual pig farm (among other businesses), at the beginning of the series. Hoback uses it as an apt metaphor — the site does seem to be populated by the most piggish people possible — and makes it a point to show copious amounts of the grossest and most antisocial posts from the site.

The Watkinses, various semi-recognizable right-wing media personalities and the nonrecognizable fifth-tier acolytes of Q are just some of the huge cast of malevolent dorks who populate “Into the Storm.” Is one of them Q? Maybe, but the question of who originally told people the obvious lie that Hillary Clinton eats babies is far less interesting than why anyone ever believed it.

Hoback’s own credibility would benefit from fewer scenes lengthily indulging the conspiracists: Their grasping at straws, which forms the basis of Q’s fandom, is uncomfortably recalled by Hoback’s own efforts in the film to identify Q. And there’s a continuum between Hoback’s own slick style — heavy on screenshots, ominous bleepy music and digital animation — and the overproduced YouTube videos parsing Q’s 8chan posts that QAnoners (“Q-tubers”) pore over. At some point in the six hours, it ceases to be clear where Hoback ends and the conspiracy theorists begin.

This is why, perhaps, some of the lessons learned by other journalists who have looked into this conspiracy — including several that he interviews — might have served Hoback well: Trust but verify, deplatform hate speech rather than give it more air and choose dry small-T truth over sexy hyperbole.

“Into the Storm” sets out in search of the truth, but it gets bogged down gawking at a world made up almost entirely of lies.

Sam Thielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in New York. He is the creator, with film critic Alissa Wilkinson, of Young Adult Movie Ministry, a podcast about Christianity and movies, and his writing has been featured in The Columbia Journalism Review, The Guardian, Talking Points Memo and Variety. In 2017 he was political consultant for Comedy Central’s “The President Show.”

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