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TELEVISION REVIEW

HBO’s ‘Q: Into the Storm’ takes a deep dive into conspiracy culture

Jim Watkins (left), owner and operator of 8chan, with his son, Ron Watkins.
Jim Watkins (left), owner and operator of 8chan, with his son, Ron Watkins.HBO

To many of us, the attraction to the QAnon phenomenon is a dark mystery. Why is it that so many Americans are eager to play follow the unknown leader, “Q,” treating his incendiary online posts as holy texts to be mined for meanings, signals, and directions? Are these believers players in an exclusive and absurd online game that has reeled out of control, or Trump-era white supremacists seeking one another out, or anarchic pranksters testing the darker sides of free speech, or stunted personalities who won’t face facts they don’t like, such as the pandemic? Are they dupes in a political ruse, one that has reached Congress with Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, one that manipulates lost souls by convincing them that the only person who can stop Democrats from raping and eating babies is the superheroic Donald Trump?

“Q: Into the Storm,” a six-part HBO docu-series that takes on the QAnon conspiracy movement, is fascinating as it elucidates the Internet culture that enabled Q to thrive. Filmmaker Cullen Hoback takes us on a hugely ambitious three-year journey, throwing himself into the world of the power-mongers and attention-getters whose manipulations ultimately helped fuel the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. He delivers a detailed survey of the origin of QAnon and he talks to many who’ve revered Q, including the “Qtubers” who post video micro-analyses of Q’s words. One Qtuber says that if Q said the world was flat, she’d believe him.

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And Hoback works hard to uncover the identity of Q, who claimed to be a Trump insider but who could be an online nobody as easily as he could be Michael Flynn, or Roger Stone, or Stephen Miller. By the end of the series, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., we learn whether or not Hoback does indeed have a prime suspect.

“Q: Into the Storm” also at times gets mired in the weeds as Hoback gets wrapped up in the dramas of three men who’ve given Q an online platform with 8chan, an imageboard website (a forum for images and memes) whose anonymous users have been linked to neo-Nazism, hate crimes, and child porn. Q started on 4chan, a moderated site, but moved to 8chan for more freedom, his fans following him there in order to receive warnings about a forthcoming “storm” that would expose liberal criminals. Hoback spends time with the three 8chan men in Manila, tracking the ups and downs of their relationships and power struggles. Fredrick Brennan is a clever man with brittle bone disease who created 8chan, sold it to Jim Watkins, and continued to work for it with Watkins’s son, Ron. Each of them is a character, with Fredrick highly entertaining, and none of them is entirely trustworthy, most notably Jim, who knows how to not answer questions like a pro. We see their bonds break down as the stakes of the QAnon movement get higher, as Trump and his staffers embrace and retweet Q’s ideas while the pandemic rages on.

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While Brennan and the Watkinses embody so much about the phenomenon, and while any one of them could be Q, some of the midseries episodes tracking them feel wasteful. At times, Hoback approaches good questions and then backs off, returning to the three men he’s decided to focus on. Having watched the series, I still wonder: How is it that a person becomes so loyal to a mysterious figure that she is willing to be convinced that Earth is flat? What does QAnon teach us about free speech and online extremism? Hoback’s investigative journey is worthy, but it’s missing some important philosophical and psychological underpinnings.

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Q: INTO THE STORM

On: HBO. Premieres with two of six episodes Sunday at 9 p.m.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.