I finished watching the last two segments of Cullen Hoback’s HBO documentary miniseries Q: Into the Storm yesterday. Despite the name, it’s not so much a documentary about QAnon as it is about 8chan/8kun — the fringe image and message boards curating the very worst of the internet.
That’s why I’m dissatisfied with most of the reviews of the six-part series, which focus on Hoback’s conclusion/guess about the “identity of Q”: Ron Watkins, aka “CodeMonkey.” That’s how Watkins himself evaluates the project in his final conversation in the film, accepting Hoback’s stated premise that the multi-year project was primarily a quest to unmask the identity of “Q.” He taunts the filmmaker for failing to come up with more than a bunch of circumstantial clues, clearly enjoying that Hoback was unable to prove it was him.
But again, that’s not the main focus of this weird, twisted story of weird, twisted people and the disturbing, destructive influence they’ve had on American politics and millions of American lives. That’s why a constellation of QAnon fans and “celebrities” appear throughout the series, but they’re never center stage. The stars of this story — the main characters as well as the villains — are the father-son duo who took ownership and control of the 8chan boards and exploited that platform for their own ends and their own perverse (in every sense) reasons.
Jim Watkins, Ron’s father, is a pornographer. Think Larry Flynt, but with less subtlety and wit. He got into the internet pornography business early enough to carve out a niche and make a fortune at it as one of the first website owners to figure out how to base sites in countries with the most permissive laws. He hosted and ran a wide array of porn sites from the Philippines, mostly catering to an audience in Japan.
Watkins is make-you-shudder creepy. He has the vibe of Humbert Humbert mixed with Joseph Goebbels mixed with the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. His interactions with everybody come across as simultaneously contemptuous, condescending, disingenuous, and salacious — even on the rare occasions when he’s not doing anything overtly or deliberately icky. He seems, at all times, to imagine himself to be playing a secret game with secret rules. The nature of the game, or the fact that the game is even being played, is unknown to everyone else, but that doesn’t reduce the smug delight Watkins takes from outwitting them all to win this imaginary game in his head. To Watkins, this proves that he’s smarter and better than they are.
He is, in other words, a troll. Jim Watkins is so skin-crawlingly horrifying that viewers can’t help but feel pangs of sympathy for his son. But sympathy for Ron Watkins is difficult to sustain because he consistently proves himself to be just as smugly creepy as his dad. Ron was raised to play Jim Watkins’ imaginary game and he, too, seems to be playing it — and congratulating himself for beating others at it — all the time.
What of Ron’s mother? Is there or was there a Mrs. Watkins? Hoback never shows or tells us anything about that. But she’s a tangible absence in this story about a father and son uninfluenced by love and respect from or for any woman. Jim and Ron Watkins don’t seem to want or need the company or influence of women. They have porn for that. They don’t like women, but they really like porn.
A lot of porn. It’s everywhere, constantly for these guys. Hoback mostly keeps it on the periphery, but it’s always there. And that might be the most telling characterization of this series’ main figures: These are men who want and need the constant presence of porn while avoiding the presence of actual women.
The other major character in this story is more complicated. Frederick Brennan is much younger and far more sympathetic. He’s a tragic figure — not because of his severe disability, but because he recognizes the consequences of the choices he has made. Brennan was born with “brittle-bone syndrome.” His bones betrayed him — some growing, some not growing, and all leaving him fragile and dependent on others for his care and mobility.
Unable to move about in the world, he was raised by the internet — and largely by the parts of the internet that should never, ever have anything to do with the raising of children. He initially fell under the sway of GamerGate and incel culture, spending most of his time on 4chan and the more appalling corners of Reddit. That’s what gave him his Big Idea: combining the anonymous posting system of the former with the structure of the latter to create 8chan, which he imagined would be a bastion of unfettered free speech.
Fred Brennan soon realized that the promise of unfettered free speech on the internet doesn’t so much create a noble marketplace of ideas as it does create a haven for Nazis and porn. He didn’t mind the porn, but the Nazis troubled him — quickly making it clear what Nazis think should be done with people like him. He seems, for a while, to have tried to commit to an ACLU-in-Skokie principle of free speech even for the most repugnant ideas, but as the creator and operator of 8chan and its ghastly array of Nazi boards, he also recognized that “ideas” was an inappropriately grandiose term for the toxic hate he was hosting.
But while Brennan had some slowly developing moral qualms about his creation, it was also proving lucrative. And it could be even more so if he could find the capital and tech-ability to scale up its servers and software. That’s what the Watkins offered him, so he sold 8chan to Jim and Ron, becoming their employee and, in a way, their abused pet. The Watkins, unlike Brennan, didn’t have any qualms about the Nazi boards.
That’s the central story of Hoback’s documentary — the creation of 8chan, it’s takeover by Jim and Ron Watkins, and its creator’s eventual, literal escape from their clutches. QAnon — the conspiracy theory/religious cult that enthralled millions of Americans, reshaping our laws and government and culminating (so far) in the lethal insurgency that seized the Capitol and the Republican Party on January 6 — is just a subplot that plays out in the background of that story.
That might seem like criticism, but I think it’s a great strength of this documentary. By focusing more on the internal struggle among the founders and operators of 8chan than on the massively consequential political phenomenon of QAnon it might seem like Hoback has taken his eye off the ball. But 8chan is the ball. It is the center of this story — two indescribably creepy, porn-obsessed men seeking to wring all the money and lulz they can from an internet cesspool so that they can win the imaginary game in their heads.
All the rest of it — the Big Lie, insurrection, impeachment, the toxic enchantment of millions of willingly gullible “normies,” the divisive destruction of families and religious congregations — really is, in one sense, a side-effect of the nasty games being played by a handful of creepy men.
In the final episode of the series, we see Fred Brennan fleeing the Philippines to avoid arrest on legal charges manipulated against him by Jim Watkins. As he escapes aboard the last pre-pandemic flight out of Manila, “Q” posts a message on 8chan that reads “Game over.” Around the world, millions of Q devotees set about “researching” the occult meaning of that “Q-drop,” certain that it conveyed some deep insider knowledge about the imaginary war between Donald Trump and an alleged deep-state cabal of cannibalistic Satanists. None of those QAnons had any idea of the only thing signified by that Q-drop was Ron Watkins’ taunting celebration of his defeat of his former friend.
Did Cullen Hoback “prove” that Ron Watkins wrote all of those “Q” posts? Not with empirical certainty. But otherwise yes, yes he did. And abiding by their unspoken arrangement developed over years of filming, he allows Watkins to take credit for and gloat over his grand hoax while simultaneously and unconvincingly denying his role in it. Anybody who finds that denial credible wasn’t paying attention to the previous six hours of the documentary.
The Watkins are not solely responsible for QAnon. The hoax was originally created, apparently, by a right-wing Apartheid-dead-ender Afrikaaner, a man still furious that his creation was stolen and embellished by Ron. And it was exploited and amplified by a host of sleazy political ratfuckers like Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi, and by ghoulish ex-military-turned-paramilitary thugs like Michael Flynn and Paul Vallely (the kinds of people who think ratfucking — disinformation, lying, and anti-democracy dirty tricks — sounds more sophisticated and less fascist if you call it “psy-ops”).
But if you want to know where QAnon comes from and why it exists, the bottom line is a couple of skeevy, porn-obsessed, Nazi-coddling assholes who enjoy deceiving other people because they think that means they’re winning the game they play in their heads.