Not So Sexy ‘Time’

‘The Time Traveler’s Wife,’ a creepy, lurky, very uncomfortable romance

You’ve got to go quite a way back in time–to Nabokov, perhaps?–to find a romance with underpinnings as creepy as The Time-Traveler’s Wife, in which a temporally unstuck man meets his future wife when she’s six years old – and then goes back to meet her a hundred more times when she’s still a child.

This not-quite-a-meet-cute is courtesy the wonders of time travel–or rather its horrors. To Henry (Theo James), who travels through time accidentally and largely at random, the ability to time-walk is not a boon but a curse, a nasty affliction that strikes without warning and thrusts him naked and afraid into just about anywhen and anywhere. Henry finds occasional respites (and a steady supply of food and clothing) in the idyllic woods near Clare’s house, where the two play games and Henry studiously avoids questions about their respective futures.

Thus begins (at least twice) an asymmetric love affair, with Henry’s future wife Clare (Rose Leslie) mostly pining away her childhood for Henry, who from his perspective will first meet Clare when she’s 22 and he’s 28 and still a bit of an asshole. That meeting goes less than swimmingly, as Henry, an actual honest-to-goodness time-traveler, nonetheless finds himself disinclined to believe Clare’s crazy story about how she’s his future wife.

But according to The Time-Traveler’s Wife – and Henry himself – it doesn’t matter what Henry believes. It’s all fated to be, since from at least one perspective it already happened. As Henry explains it, you only think you’re making choices. From his point of view, everything that’s ever happened or will happen is already in the books, and free will is a lie we tell ourselves to get through the day. This decidedly deterministic worldview is what ultimately negates any emotional headway the series might be making: Everyone’s a hostage to fate, a victim of an immutable past and present, and if that’s the case why bother watching?

Executive producer Stephen Moffat (Doctor Who) obviously knows how to do breezy paradoxes and make the pretzel logic of time travel feel at least a little charming, but this Greek-ish tragedy doesn’t play to his strengths. For a show ostensibly about a time-traveler’s wife, Leslie rarely gets much of interest to do. Sequences of the displaced Henry frantically struggling to stay alive and clothed are the only humor that really sticks, and that rabbit can only come out of the hat so many times.

The tossed-off in-jokes about grooming, clearly meant to acknowledge and therefore inoculate the series against its natural creepy ick factor, just highlight the very same. Loving The Time-Traveler’s Wife takes the same kind of morbidness that continually draws Henry back to watch the freak accident that killed his mother, until he sees it dozens of times from every possible angle, helpless to prevent it. If you’ve got free will, you can use it to look away instead.

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Ryan Kallberg

Ryan Kallberg is a writer based in southern California. His work has appeared in The Onion, The A.V. Club and on E! Online. His checkered resumé includes stints as a professional poker player, reality television producer, and sandwich assembler.

One thought on “Not So Sexy ‘Time’

  • June 9, 2022 at 12:57 pm

    I don’t understand why this show even exists. There’s only barely enough plot for a movie, and there’s already a movie. What are they even doing for six whole hours?


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