'Q: Into the Storm': TV Review

Q: INTO THE STORM
Courtesy of HBO
Absorbing and admirably ambitious, even when the focus falters.
3/21/2021

Cullen Hoback's six-part HBO docuseries delves into the origins of QAnon, its links to Donald Trump and the cost of free speech.

Cullen Hoback's six-part HBO docuseries Q: Into the Storm wastes very little time getting to the events of January 6, 2021. The domestic terror attack on the United States Capitol — with many participants publicly identifying as believers in the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory — is so fresh in our memory that you might blanche at the prospect of spending hours delving into the minds of Americans who latched on to sub-Nostradamus prophecies involving our supposedly messianic 45th president as well as left-wing, child-eating pedophiles.

To reduce Hoback's documentary to simply a whodunit investigation of QAnon, though, would be to ignore the dizzying number of things Into the Storm is attempting. Yes, it's a basic primer on the unsupportable nuttiness that helped power Donald Trump, launched thousands of amateur sleuthing YouTube channels, spawned the ugliest insurrection in recent American history and left countless families estranged. At the same time, it's a complicated, globe-trotting thriller about the increasing hostility among three very odd men; an origin story for fledgling political voices like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert; and occasionally even a thoughtful treatise on absolute free speech and its discontents. It's a piece of absurdist prankster journalism and a detour into speculative reality so silly it's almost like '50s sci-fi.

Does it all work? Heck no. Hoback's biggest misses are often when he tries to be the most ambitious. But there's so much going on that it's easy to admire the director-cinematographer-star's audacity, and to accept that a cleaner version of this story wouldn't have been as apt, or as interesting.

If "Q" and "8chan" and usernames like "CodeMonkeyZ" and "Hotwheels" and "Baruch the Scribe" sound to you like gibberish, Hoback breaks down most of the basics, tracing the origins of imageboard sites (online forums on which users post, and communicate via, photos and memes) from 2ch to 4chan to 420chan to 8chan and showing the consequences of these petri dishes of white supremacy, harassment campaigns like Gamergate and bizarre conspiracy theories like Pizzagate.

In 2017, a user initially named "Q Clearance Patriot" (he later became simply "Q") took to 4chan to relay a comment Donald Trump had made at a military event about American being in "the calm before the storm." That prompted a sea of cryptic riddles, catchphrases and references to the movie White Squall (don't ask) that somehow came to be interpreted as wisdom passed down from the highest reaches of government. A belief spread among these imageboard users that the only thing standing between the world and a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophilic Democrats and Hollywood elites was ... Donald Trump. Is "Q" actually Steve Bannon or Michael Flynn or even Trump himself? Or is it all just a LARP — live action role-playing game — that got out of hand?

These questions were eating at Hoback, who was already pondering the intersection of tech and government in documentaries (Monster Camp, Terms and Conditions May Apply), op-eds and TED talks. Presumably it's these credentials as a free speech crusader that got Hoback access to a remarkable assortment of Q-adjacent figures.

Central to the story of Q: Into the Storm are the three men whose battle over the soul of 8chan — assuming, probably incorrectly, that it has a soul — takes the director around the world, from Italy to the Philippines to Japan. Fredrick Brennan, who has brittle bone disease and navigates the streets of Manila in a wheelchair, made the transition from incel message boards to founding 8chan. When it required infrastructure he couldn't support, he sold the site to Jim Watkins, a businessman with peculiar investments ranging from porn to pig-farming. Jim, who suspiciously claims no interest in either politics or the internet, turned administrative duties over to his brilliantly introverted son Ron, who experienced a wave of notoriety last fall when he became one of Trump's most frequently retweeted sources of election fraud nattering. All three men have, at one point or another, been suspected of being Q or knowing Q.

All three of these figures exhibit either uncomfortable candor or the impression of uncomfortable candor; it's never clear whether the director is manipulating them or they're accommodating him to get more screen time, as part of a strategic war against their former business partners — or just to gain information, which may or may not be power in Q's disinformation campaign. Hoback is droll and clearly incredulous about most things Q-related, but he is able to come off as sincere enough for three very different and very strange friendships to develop. That leads to him and his constantly (if occasionally surreptitiously) running camera being put in some extraordinary situations, including a breathtaking evasion of international law enforcement, a less breathtaking evasion of a bear and one very sad holiday party with QTubers and a future Congressional candidate. All the while, John Morgan Askew's score adroitly shifts with the tone or genre.

Hoback's travel budget seems to have been sturdier than his attention span, and the docuseries has a frantic, all-over-the-place quality that may tax the patience of some viewers. The QAnon thread is definitely central, with Hoback going through the list of suspects as to the identity of "Q" with enough passion to pique curiosity I never had before. I even found myself interested in distinctions between different "chan" boards and the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels-style scheming among Ron, Fredrick and Jim. There's far too much happening in Into the Storm for me to say that its runtime is padded, which isn't the same as that runtime always being well-utilized.

There are leads and loose ends that Hoback doesn’t follow through on. For example, Fredrick goes from free speech absolutist to a man worried he’s complicit in mass shootings and Neo-Nazism, but Hoback never finishes exploring that shift. And however obvious the director’s disdain for the QAnon movement, he’s given hours of non-judgmental camera time to a lot of figures who have, for example, spent 12 months spreading deadly lies in the middle of a global pandemic. Have the last four years in which these voices were amplified just been the price we have to pay for free speech?

Q: Into the Storm guides us to this question and then darts off in other directions, racing from substantive issues to salacious theories, from thoroughly vetted business reporters to secretive Internet figures whose identities are obscured in sometimes hilarious animation. Hoback the public intellectual might want to have conversations that Hoback the filmmaker is too rascally to sit still for. Did this approach at least help him unmask "Q"? You'll have to take this strange trip to find out.

Episodes air in two-hour blocks at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Sundays starting March 21.