HBO's Conspiracy Documentary 'Q: Into the Storm' Ends With a Search for a Smoking Gun
Filmmaker Cullen Hoback goes down the rabbit hole in pursuit of the conspiracy poster's true identity.
Towards the end of Q: Into the Storm, HBO's six-part deep dive into the QAnon phenomenon, filmmaker Cullen Hoback is once again interviewing Ron Watkins, one of the figures featured in the series who may or may not actually be "Q," the anonymous online ringleader of a vast and insane right-wing conspiracy that ties together PizzaGate, child sex-trafficking, the military-industrial complex, and the election of Donald Trump. “Do you feel it’s a failure that you weren’t able to figure it out after so many years?" asks Watkins, referring to the central question of Q's true identity. Then, Watkins, the administrator for the controversial image board 8chan (and its spin-off 8kun), pushes further: "You would want to have the smoking gun evidence."
In the scene that follows, Watkins admits to frequently posting anonymously on the board, something he had previously denied. He claims that he was "teaching normies how to do intelligence work" and that he now wants to practice his skills out in the open on his own Twitter account, where he quickly gained a following for posting false conspiracies about voting machines following the 2020 election. "No, never as Q, I promise," he says with a deadpan quality. He smiles in a way that suggests he might actually be Q, or that he wants you to think he's Q, and Hoback starts laughing—presumably out of a sense of exhaustion. As a viewer trying to make sense of the show's constant barrage of information, speculation, memes, jokes, and niche internet history, you might relate to his frustration.
So, is Ron Watkins actually Q? Hoback makes a convincing case, piling up a list of clues that point in the direction of Ron and his father Jim Watkins, the operator of 8chan and a self-styled free-speech provocateur with a military background and an early career operating porn websites. Jim became the owner of 8chan in 2014, but the site was still run by its founder, Fredrick Brennan, until 2016, when Brennan resigned from his admin role. Eventually in 2018, Brennan publicly split from the Watkins, growing more critical of the role the image boards play in spreading hate speech and disinformation online, and the bitter rivalry between these two parties makes up the dramatic spine of Q: Into the Storm, which also attempts to thread in mini-profiles of various Q-adjacent media figures and a broader history of some of the internet's odder corners. (The influential forum Something Awful, the hacker collective Anonymous, and the web puzzle Cicada 3301 all get referenced and folded into the larger narrative.)Over the course of Q: Into the Storm, you spend a lot of time with Ron and Jim—watching them feed pigs on a farm in the Philippines, film videos in their offices, and occasionally show off their expensive pens and watches, two collectible items that could connect them to Q—and it's unlikely you'll find either of them to be particularly trustworthy. Hoback, an earnest screen presence who rarely pushes his subjects too aggressively in interviews, clearly gained their trust to a certain extent, but the two are guarded, evasive, and contradict themselves on a number of occasions. Jim's insistence that he's "not a political guy" grows harder and harder to take at face value as he embraces his role as a Q-pin-sporting figure of online obsession.
The scene where Ron almost admits to being Q might remind you of the climax of HBO's true-crime saga The Jinx, where suspect Robert Durst muttered "killed them all, of course" on a hot mic in a moment of stress when he thought he wasn't being recorded. (The "truth" of that moment has also been called into question in further reporting.) But Ron's laughter isn't quite the clarifying "gotcha" moment some viewers might be hoping for in investigating the board that's fueled the alt-right movement and has sucked in many to a delusional point of no return, and its prominence in the finale points to the show's larger structural problems. As a narrator, Hoback has a tendency to chase red herrings that go nowhere, and the need to end every episode with a cliffhanger-like reveal often undermines the potency of the material.
The filmmaking style mimics going "down the rabbit hole" of reading a thread or watching a series of videos online, but it's also draining to watch Hoback dig into a claim that, on some level, you suspect he might not actually believe. (I'm thinking specifically of the detour involving Steve Bannon.) Though the series can be quite funny, especially in its portrayal of the bizarre combination of trolling and sloganeering inherent to QAnon, the "get a load of this guy" tone grows weary as the series progresses and the stakes get higher. The reveal at the end of the finale can't quite match the more poignant reflections that Brennan makes to the camera at the end of the episode before it. "Internet stuff, like 8chan stuff, I didn’t really see it as affecting the real world," he says. "You know what? There’s no difference at all. The internet is the real world." More than unveiling the exact identity of Q, exploring the intricacies of the simple idea that the internet can bleed into reality will probably be for what the show is best remembered.