HBO’s The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of the most interesting TV series of the year, and not always for the reasons it intended. Former Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat adapted the novel by Audrey Niffenegger, expanding it to explore the full potential of its story and themes. It’s meant to be poignant and romantic, but it’s unintentionally turned out to be existential horror.
Moffat turned the adaptation into a visit to many of his greatest hits: the timey-wimey clockwork jigsaw puzzles of Doctor Who, the farcical sex comedy of his hit sitcom Coupling, the bitter marriage battles of his cult sitcom Joking Apart (which was more bitter than funny despite his trademark skill at funny sitcom dialogue), the restless, rapid unfolding puzzle box revelations of Sherlock. The Time’s Traveler’s Wife has turned out to be a show full of tonal whiplash. It is an allegory for marriage and all its ups and downs. It could be read as an allegory for being in a marriage with a man who has a debilitating disease, or an emotionally distant man, and the inevitable loss in every love story brought on by death. It is not funny despite Moffat’s effort to inject humour at every turn. His sitcom banter clashes with the inherent tragedy of the story, creating tonal whiplash that emphasizes all the problematic and unpleasant parts of the story.
There’s the uncomfortable notion that Clare has been groomed from childhood to become Henry’s wife. In having scenes between Henry and Young Clare in every episode of the show, sometime several times, turns that problematic part of the story into the elephant in the room. Moffat has Henry admit that he inadvertently groomed Clare from childhood and apologise. Just because the show admits it’s about grooming doesn’t make it better. In fact, the show stating that Henry grooming Clare is inevitable because of Time and inescapable destiny makes it far worse. Clare’s entire life revolves around Henry. She thinks she has autonomy but she has no real agency in her life or where it goes. It’s all been predetermined that she would be married to this man and eventually lose him.
The show presents Henry and Clare’s marriage as predestined, inevitable, and inescapable. It was always going to happen and everything that happened in their lives, and everything they do serve the purpose of driving them together into a marriage neither of them asked for. The show’s statement about marriage is that it is unavoidable and miserable. Henry and Clare come to love each other because they think they’re supposed to, but it’s more that they’re literally stuck with each other, and to hate each other their entire lives would be unbearable. This is not romantic. It’s a prison. Their best friends Gomez (Desmin Borges) and Charisse (Natasha Lopez) end up looking like enablers of their dysfunctional relationship, darker and creepier versions of the friends in Coupling.
Clare says Love is what makes life and marriage bearable. Henry says Love is a cruel trick life plays on people, offering false hope that’s taken away by death. It feels like Moffat offering the two sides of Marriage as his mission statement for The Time Traveler’s Wife and combined, they create a picture of Hell. It doesn’t help that the glibness of the writing makes Theo James‘ Henry come off as smug and callow, and Rose Leslie‘s Clare come off as brittle and manipulative. They lack the soft, likable vulnerability that lovers in a romance need to be, they need to be sympathetic. Henry and Clare don’t even like each other. Any affection they develop comes off as grudging. This series is not a romance. It is anti-romance. It strips away all the illusions of romance to reveal the cold, stark prison of marriage.
The show touches upon the part of the story where Clare can’t carry her pregnancies to term because her fetuses inherit Henry’s affliction and die when they time travel out of her womb. What’s not spelled out – fortunately – is that the dead fetuses then time travel back to her womb where she miscarries. Multiple times. It gets more horrific the more you think about it. Further seasons might dwell on this even more, which will make it feel even more awful than in this season.
Moffat has been able to take a single paragraph, sometimes a sentence, from the book and stretches it out into an entire hour of episodic television in the series, so it stands that he could stretch out the show into more than one season if he got a renewal. That means we could be in for more seasons of existential horror. And it’s going to get bleaker and more tragic as it goes along. Everyone who read the book knows what’s coming, and Moffat has already foreshadowed those events in the early episodes: Henry is going to lose his feet, resulting in him spending his last years in a wheelchair; Henry is going to die from a gunshot wound, telegraphed by the appearance of a time-traveling pool of blood; Henry and Clare will have a daughter who can also time travel, foreshadowed by Henry seeing her fleetingly in the final episode of the season.
Moffat is arguably the cleverest screenwriter on the planet. His mastery of structure is unrivaled. At his best, he marries theme, emotions, and structure into something poignant, insightful, and poetic in a way no other screenwriter has done. However, he is not without flaws, like an over-reliance on glib wisecracks, female characters who fail the Bechdel Test and live totally in thrall and service to the men they love, and an attention-grabbing desire to shock for shock’s sake. His adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife highlights both his and the book’s flaws. The more he tries to make it a romantic comedy, the bleaker and more horrific it becomes. To watch all the characters smiling at Henry and Clare’s wedding at the end of the season is to watch horror unfolding and awaiting more horror to come.
This show is existential horror bleaker than any film by Ingmar Bergman. No amount of jokes and snappy wisecracks distracts or lessens it – they actually make the bleakness and creepiness stick out even more.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is on HBO Max.