Skip to main content
opinion

Jim Watkins, left, and his son Ron Watkins, believed by some to be the likely culprit behind the QAnon phenomenon.Courtesy of HBO / Crave

A curious event unfolded this week. A bunch of TV critics, given advance access to a new HBO docu-series, asserted that the mysterious QAnon phenomenon is the work of a shady, rather sad-sack young guy named Ron.

The assertion made news. After watching the six-part series Q: Into the Storm (two episodes air through HBO/Crave on Sunday at 9 p.m.), I’d agree – the likely culprit behind one of the most bizarre, troubling and destructive conspiracy theories in a century is indeed one Ron Watkins, a shifty, possibly sociopathic chowderhead. Who is he? One of the other major players in this convoluted story simply calls him a “tech bro.”

While watching the series, I had to take many breaks. The story told is both daunting to comprehend and demoralizing. (Watching videos of Whigfield’s Euro-pop classic Saturday Night provided blessed relief.) What filmmaker Cullen Hoback has done is certainly remarkable. Rather than stringing together threads from existing footage and talking to pundits, he sought out key players and traveled the world to interview them, poke around in their lives and ask blunt questions. All that TV critics are doing is relaying what he reports.

Binge-watching guide: More than 30 series and specials to help you get through winter

First, though, even trying to offer a primer on QAnon is tough. See, a guy whose online handle is “Q” asserted, through cryptic declarations (first on the site 4chan then 8chan), that Donald Trump was the leader of a secret battle against a cabal of Hollywood stars and politicians who are pedophiles and baby-eating monsters. This gibberish morphed into a more general conspiracy belief about the 2020 U.S. election being stolen from Trump.

The series opens with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob that included many angry people who admit to being believers in the cracked QAnon conspiracy theory-muddle. It’s a strong start that signals an urgent need to get to the bottom of the phenomenon. From there, it’s a tricky, what-the-hell journey into the stories of the people who have control over the portion of the internet that allowed Q-belief to become a powerful force.

What you note right away in this journey is how few women are involved. The first to emerge is Liz Crokin, a former journalist who did tabloid-style gossip columns and now asserts that Donald Trump worked in secret to free thousands of children from sex traffickers. She says if Q said the world was flat, she’d believe it. The next woman is DeAnna Lorraine, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress last year. She sits like a glamorous siren surrounded by dullard men who swallow the Q conspiracy wholesale.

Fredrick Brennan created 8chan as a monument to unfettered, uncensored content-sharing on the internet.Courtesy of HBO / Crave

Mainly, it’s about three men. There’s Fredrick Brennan, an immensely articulate, disabled young man who started 8chan after finding 4chan too censorious. (It’s mostly disgusting porn and disgusting racism.) Unable to make 8chan financially successful, he sold it to oddball businessman Jim Watkins, who moved the operation to the Philippines and put both Brennan and his son Ron in charge. There followed a bitter dispute between the three. And the program features an incredible sequence with Brennan trying to escape Manila. Surreptitiously, the series suggest, Ron controls the operation and essentially created Q as a dumb but mindboggling political game.

All of this would merely be a story of outlandish antics by angry, male tech geeks were it not the fact of the attack on the U.S, Capitol, the existence of two QAnon-supporting members of Congress and the fact that, last December, Ron Watkins emerged as a fanatical supporter and spreader of Donald Trump’s election-fraud proclamations. This series is one of the most strange, saddening and ominous stories of our time.

Also airing this weekend

Genius: Aretha (National Geographic Channel, Sunday, 9 p.m.) is, on the evidence of the first two hours (it’s in eight parts), a good but often messy attempt at dramatizing the life and career of Aretha Franklin (played by Cynthia Erivo as an adult, Shaian Jordan as a child). While there are fine musical-showstopper moments from the get-go, it has an awkward structure – every key event of creation in her adult life is predestined by an experience in her childhood. Thus, there are repetitive scenes of flashback dramatizations that become confusingly arranged. Any fan will relish many scenes, but others will find it hard going.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Aretha Franklin in the series Genius: Aretha.Richard DuCree/National Geographic

The Gloaming (starts Sunday, Starz 9 p.m.) is a very good bet for an unusually intense and evocative thriller series. An Australian production, it’s set in Tasmania and soaked in an atmosphere of dread and gloom while clinging to the murder-mystery genre. All slow-burning and gorgeously-made forlornness, it has two already traumatized detectives Molly (Emma Booth) and Alex (Ewen Leslie) investigate a murder that they know in their hearts reaches back into the past, including their own. The first episode alone has more terrifying menace than anything I’ve seen in months.

Emma Booth stars as detective Molly McGee in The Gloaming.Courtesy of Starz

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.