By Lexi Matthews
Boston University News Service
The HBO docuseries “Q: Into the Storm” concluded last week, wrapping up filmmaker Cullen Hoback’s three-year investigative narrative on the QAnon political conspiracy theory. As the six-part series aims to uncover the identity of Q ― the anonymous mastermind behind the wild conspiracy claiming that top Democrats are part of a cabal of baby-eating pedophiles ― we follow Hoback in an ornate game of cat-and-mouse with the founders of the platform where Q was born.
“Q: Into the Storm” cares little about debunking these wild claims and more about finding and disarming the root of the conspiracy with Q himself. As Hoback says in the first episode, he hoped “unmasking Q might bring an end to what, in 2018, was still mostly a game.” The series, which premiered in March 2021, comes after the Jan. 6 capitol insurrection that proved definitively that QAnon is not just a game and helps viewers piece together how anonymous message board sites like 8chan helped these conspiracies boil over from conservative fantasy to real-life violence.
The series thus hinges heavily on the testimony and personas of Hoback’s prime suspect list for Q: 8chan founder Fredrick Brennan, current 8chan (now 8kun) owner Jim Watkins and his son, Ron, and a flurry of other prominent QAnon posters in the movement. Hoback began his investigation in 2018, months after Q makes his first post, and the movement first crops up online and is thus able to connect with Brennan, Watkins, and several prominent Q theorists very early on with relatively open access.
The result is an unfiltered portrait of the movement’s bizarre cast of characters. Using what appears to be an unlimited travel expense budget, Hoback travels from Los Angeles to Japan to Sweden to the Philippines to sit down with some of the online figures that have risen to prominence as QAnon “truthers:” alt-right activist Jack Posobiec, YouTube QAnoners (or Q-Tubers) Dustin Nemos and Liz Crokin, and a dozen others. We follow these men and women scouring message boards for “Q drops”― posts made by Q that contain cryptic messages about “the deep state” that needs to be deciphered ― then creating their videos spreading the gospel of Q to their own followers.
In accordance with the ideals of freedom of speech that Q followers preach, Hoback gives the Q followers an open platform to espouse their beliefs without ridicule or condemnation. It’s a smart play as a filmmaker to get an honest look into the minds of those overtaken by Q-frenzy, but critics have condemned the decision as overtly sympathetic towards a group of people who have incited hatred, bigotry, and violence with their beliefs.
While Hoback is intrigued by the psyches of the people sucked in by Q, he is even more fascinated by the psyches of the men who have platformed him. Luckily for Hoback, Brennan and the Watkins are hypnotizingly strange. Brennan, a gifted coder with a genetic condition bound him to a wheelchair, created the 8chan in 2013 while coming down from a psychedelic mushroom trip. He moved his life from New York to the Philippines to join Ron and Jim when they bought 8chan from him in 2018.
As Q settles onto the site, we learn more about Jim and Ron, the American businessman and his coder son, respectively, who run a pig farm in Manila to pay for 8chan’s server and repeatedly ― almost comically ― backtrack and misstep on just how much they know about Q.
After the perpetrator of the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand posted his manifesto and live-streamed his attack on 8chan, Brennan had a moral awakening and left the site in 2019. We watch as Brennan flips to a staunch condemner of QAnon, especially critical of the role 8chan has played in spreading harmful misinformation, while the Watkins dig their heels in deeper. The tension is played out to be a fight over free speech, uncovering dark truths, and where we can draw a line in the sand for what constitutes “good” and “bad discourse.” In reality, we watch three grown men sneak and lie to each other in what feels more like a contrived personal spat than the ultimate battle over democracy.
The series culminates in Hoback’s theory of who exactly Q is. In a scene from the final episode that has now gone viral, Ron Watkins seems to slip up and insinuate that his personal posting on Twitter continues the same work he did as Q on 8chan for many years. While Watkins still denies that he is Q, and this hardly constitutes hard proof, many have now pointed to this clip as the shining, pay-off moment of the whole documentary.
If this moment truly is the shining pay-off, it’s emblematic of the pitfalls of the documentary and the study of QAnon as a whole. Early on in the doc, Jim Watkins tells the camera, “It’s very important to get the word out [about QAnon] that as the years go by, more and more people are attacking free speech online and we need to do all we can to defend it now.” Do we play right into the hands of Q, learning their lore and absorbing and spreading their message? How is our quest to understand Q any nobler than theirs?
When the dust is settled, and we have our answer as the one in front of us all along, it falls flat. Is it because we want the story to be more fantastical than it is, to believe in something bigger than us, just like Q believers do?