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'Watchmen' brings its master plan into focus, layering the old onto the new

Updated 10:37 AM ET, Mon December 2, 2019

Editor's Note: The following contains spoilers about "Watchmen's" seventh episode, "An Almost Religious Awe."

(CNN) - Even after the opening flurry of episodes, "Watchmen's" master plan remained difficult to foresee. Yet over the last few hours, the HBO series has dizzyingly blended its new elements with the source material, with producer Damon Lindelof and his team having played the long game in spectacular fashion, proving that time really was on their side.

At first, the connections to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' landmark graphic novel and director Zack Snyder's flawed but ambitious 2009 movie seemed tenuous. Same universe, but merely distant echoes of what transpired there.

In recent weeks, however, the original characters -- decades older, since that story principally took place in the 1980s and this one is contemporary -- have gradually become integral parts of the show's framework, in a way that honors the original while boldly building on it.

Granted, there wasn't much mystery that the strange, wealthy recluse with robotic servants was Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), a.k.a. Ozymandias, The Smartest Man in the World, whose scheme to create harmony -- killing millions in the process -- was the gut punch of the comic.

Slower to arrive, though, were Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), a one-time costumed hero, now an FBI agent; and finally, Dr. Manhattan, the godlike figure who isn't bound by conventional laws of time and space, who had been notably absent.

The plot hatched by white supremacist group the 7th Kavalry finally came into full view, involving a plan to destroy Dr. Manhattan, who, it turns out, has been hiding in plain sight -- living, as Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) put it, "right here in Tulsa, pretending to be human."

That follows the revelations about Hooded Justice, the first masked vigilante, connecting the central figure of Angela Abar (Regina King) not only to him, but in the episode's most jarring twist, to Dr. Manhattan himself.

In hindsight, "Watchmen" was wise to introduce its new pieces before peeling back the ties to its deeper mythology. It's a richer experience now -- augmenting the show's exploration of racism, which has developed in unexpected ways -- even if the path to it was at times confounding to the point of opaque.

The latest hour was also filled with nifty touches, from Angela's backstory growing up in Vietnam -- America's "51st state," after Dr. Manhattan conquered it -- to the weird moment involving the elephant to the clever use of David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" as the episode concluded.

"We always knew that this day would come," Angela says ominously to her husband (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

There were understandable temptations to compare "Watchmen" to "Westworld," another sci-fi concept adapted from an existing property. But the new show has navigated an even more daunting task, carefully layering a fresh set of circumstances onto the original, then proceeding to establish those connections with surgical precision.

Whether the producers can bring that home remains to be seen, but it gives away nothing to say that the eighth and penultimate episode -- already available to critics -- fills in more key aspects of the story in a manner that all feels perfectly organic and breathtakingly intricate.

Moore's dense, grim superhero tale was called "unfilmable," explaining its long odyssey to the screen. Transforming that vision into a series (without the famously cranky writer's blessing) seemed no less challenging.

Seen that way, HBO's update is beginning to look like something of a miracle -- steeped in fantasy, yet bracingly relevant, and faithful to the source without being shackled by it.

Superheroes might not exist in this world, but as extraordinary feats go, "Watchmen" is shaping up to be one of this TV season's most impressive accomplishments.

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