Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Q: Into The Storm exposes the sinister banality at the root of QAnon movement

Jim Watkins and Ron Watkins in Q: Into The Storm
Jim Watkins and Ron Watkins in Q: Into The Storm
Photo: HBO
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Three years ago, when director Cullen Hoback (Terms And Conditions May Apply) started filming his six-part HBO docuseries, Q: Into The Storm, most Americans still had the luxury of dismissing QAnon as a fringe movement. Self-described followers of “Q” would turn up at former President Donald Trump’s rallies wearing T-shirts with a blocky “Q” emblem and waving signs promoting debunked conspiracy theories. They were kooks, and few people took them seriously. Trump himself wasn’t asked about QAnon until 2020, and he had only nice things to say. Now, at least two one-time supporters of Q—Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert—are members of Congress. QAnon has infiltrated the mainstream.

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We can no longer afford to ignore Q, and that makes Q: Into The Storm disturbingly relevant. The documentary begins with footage from the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and climaxes with scenes from the “Save America Rally” that preceded the siege—quite literally the “calm before the storm,” to use a popular Q slogan. Jim Watkins, who owns the 8chan website that “Q” calls home, at one point compares the pro-Trump rally to the 1963 March On Washington. The comparison is twisted and lacking even minimal self-awareness, much like QAnon itself.

Q: Into The Storm quickly brings viewers up to speed on the movement, which started as anonymous posts on fringe Internet message boards that revealed, through cryptic clues, Donald Trump’s hush-hush battle with a Satanic cabal of baby-eating Hollywood elites and politicians, including Tom Hanks and Hillary Clinton. Stephen King would’ve dismissed this plot as implausible. Yet QAnon has thrived because it’s so absurd: It’s hard to imagine any rational person buys into this nonsense, but tens of millions of Americans reportedly believe its core premise. Hoback introduces viewers to the small-time YouTubers and podcasters who promoted Q’s gibberish, along with everyday Americans who embraced the conspiracy without question. Florida couple Jamie and Jenn Buteau voted for Barack Obama twice but are now full-blown MAGA and QAnon disciples. This puts into shocking relief how swiftly the post-racial “hope and change” era was corrupted.

When HBO released the trailer in February, concerns were raised that Q: Into The Storm might glamorize QAnon. Journalist Ben Collins worried that the documentary could “recruit more people” to a movement that traffics in antisemitic and racist narratives. After watching the six-part series, this fear seems overblown. Q: Into The Storm doesn’t overly sympathize with Q supporters nor does it simply sneer at the gullible. It’s a delicate balance that Hoback successfully maintains throughout the documentary.

There’s never a single moment when viewers might consider this motley crew of conspiracy theorists “cool.” This isn’t Goodfellas. QAnoners consistently come across as pathetic, lost individuals so desperate for meaning in their lives they obsessively follow a random trail of stale breadcrumbs. They want to believe they’re part of something greater than themselves and that they possess an insight the majority of the world lacks. They’ve cast themselves as the heroes from The Matrix, who’ve been “red pilled” and freed from a false reality. But QAnon is more a scam than a cult, and Hoback seeks to demystify the movement.

Fredrick Brennan
Fredrick Brennan
Photo: HBO
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The bulk of the documentary is devoted to unmasking the elusive “Q,” who QAnoners believe is a high-level government official with Q clearance, which grants “Q” access to classified information regarding the government’s activities. It’s absurd on its face that “Q” would choose a code name that limits his identity to a select group, but the fantasy requires grandeur. Candidates for the true “Q” include General Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, and Donald Trump himself. Former gossip columnist and entertainment reporter Liz Crokin suggests that “Q” is actually John F. Kennedy Jr., speculating that he faked his death more than 20 years ago. JKJ Jr. is only a slightly more feasible candidate than Elvis Presley, who had no previous background in politics. “Nothing will surprise me,” Crokin declares at one point. “Aliens exist. The world is flat.” This is Q’s promised “Great Awakening”: Nothing is real, but anything is possible.

It spoils nothing to reveal that “Q” is not anyone as powerful or well-connected as QAnoners believe. “Q” is someone who has gleefully “embraced infamy” (another melodramatic Q term), and Hoback pulls back the curtain on the P.T. Barnums behind this circus. Frederick Brennan founded 8Chan in 2013 as a supposed “free-speech” platform. The lack of restrictions and moderation created a breeding ground for alt-right and racist content.

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8Chan soon drew the interest of businessman Jim Watkins and his son, Ron. Watkins offered Brennan a partnership, but it was a devil’s bargain. Brennan was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, and he reveals that his friends were all made online because it wasn’t easy for him to play outside. He’s far more stable emotionally than Jim and Ron Watkins, and you can blame his early errors in judgment on his youth (he was 19 when he started 8Chan). Brennan is well-meaning if misguided at times, but the Watkins seem unabashedly sociopathic. They appear to delight in the chaos left in their wake. Brennan eventually cuts ties with them and 8Chan in disgust, and Brennan’s growing obsession with destroying the monster he helped create almost costs him everything.

Director Cullen Hoback
Director Cullen Hoback
Photo: HBO
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Hoback appears on camera quite often in Q: Into The Storm, but the participatory documentary style doesn’t feel self-indulgent like some later Michael Moore efforts. Hoback enters the larger narrative without making himself the center of the story. He develops a tenuous cat-and-mouse dynamic with Jim and Ron Watkins, but he comes closest to an actual friendship with Brennan.

The backstabbing 8Chan drama is reminiscent of The Social Network and often just as compelling, but Q: Into The Storm doesn’t delve as deeply as it could into the real damage QAnon has inflicted. Families have been torn apart as Q adherents become increasingly disconnected from objective reality. QAnon fully embraced the Big Lie that the 2020 election was “stolen,” and Ron Watkins shared baseless conspiracy theories about Dominion voting machines that Trump retweeted. (Watkins, like the former president, would later have his Twitter account permanently suspended.)

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The so-called “QAnon shaman,” Jake Angeli, turned up at several “Stop The Steal” rallies waving a sign that read, “Q Sent Me.” He was dismissed as a joke, but on January 6, he stood in the Senate chambers during a violent insurrection. This is why Q: Into The Storm is both engaging and deeply unsettling—it feels like just the first installment in a far more horrific story.