The Time Traveler’s Wife Premiere: A Repetitive Love Story

Henry and Clare hold each other
Photograph by Macall B. Polay/HBO

The following contains spoilers from The Time Traveler’s Wife series premiere, (adapted by Stephen Moffat and directed by David Nutter)

The premiere of HBO’s The Time Traveler’s Wife has quite a lot of work to do. As with any media involving time travel, the rules have to be explained: who can travel through time, how they travel, whether they can change history, and countless other details have to be expressly laid out to make way for the actual plot.

Those familiar with Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel or the Eric Bana/Rachel McAdams-led 2009 feature film, both of the same name, will come into the series with an understanding of Henry’s (Theo James) time-travel illness. Henry has no control over where and when in time he travels. One second he’s there and the next he’s a gust of wind and a pile of empty clothes. Henry crashes through time completely naked and is forced to steal clothes and food until he’s rocketed back to his present-day.

Henry works as a librarian at the Newberry Library in Chicago and meets Clare (Rose Leslie), a twenty-year-old art student. Clare wanders into the library asking about an old Chaucer book and the receptionist calls Henry over to help. Their relationship, and how Henry’s time-travel illness affects it, is the focus of the series.

The premiere episode is almost styled as a romantic comedy. The show lingers on their meet cute and first date while stitching in some of Henry’s journeys through time. The audience sees Henry’s first time travel experience when he’s seven as well as the jaunt through time that almost makes him late to his first date with Clare.

Henry and Clare on their first date
Photograph by Macall Polay/HBO

The Time Traveler’s Wife throws a lot of preconceived notions about time travel out the window. In the series, Henry can interact with younger versions of himself without worrying about whether it will affect his future. He also tells young Clare that they’ll one day be married without fear of the space-time continuum collapsing on itself. These two “rules” of time travel are different from most other pop culture iterations. It’s kind of refreshing to see a character interact with their young self without worrying about keeping their identity hidden.

One of the issues with the feature film adaptation was that it didn’t fully delve into the psyche of Henry, which was a huge component of the novel. It’s an understandable choice to edit out the internal musings of Henry, given the time constraints of a film. HBO’s series will have six episodes to really dig into the tragedy of the fact that Henry is unable to be fully present in his life. It seems that the series is using a faux-documentary angle to allow Henry and Clare to talk frankly about their emotions outside of pure conversations. They are sitting and looking directly into the camera, almost as if they’re being interviewed. Who is behind the documentation and its actual purpose are still unknown.

Henry and Clare hold hands and walk along the street
Photograph by Macall Polay/HBO

A lingering question from this first episode is that of Henry’s death. Early in the episode, he sees a massive pool of blood in his bathroom. Moments later, it disappears without a trace. Henry later explains to Clare that all parts of himself are able to time travel. It’s his explanation for why one of his baby teeth randomly appears when Clare comes up to his apartment for the first time. As the episode ends, Henry is walking through an alleyway and is greeted by his feet, seemingly from the future. They appear to have been cut off.

There’s a complicated dynamic that is inherently woven into the DNA of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Henry has visited Clare over 100 times, from when she was a child to when she turned 20. During these meetings, he tells her about their future together and their marriage. Their meeting in the premiere episode is the first time they are meeting as two people living in the same time period. Henry doesn’t know who Clare is because he isn’t at the age where he would’ve traveled back in time to meet her, but Clare knows exactly who Henry is. She has spent her entire adolescence knowing him. Clare even admits that she built her entire life around him before Henry even knew her.

Young Clare sits on a rock
Photograph by Macall Polay/HBO

The way Henry’s and Clare’s lives have intersected is an odd experience for the audience. It should feel like a sweeping romance that has spanned years, but instead there’s an odd power dynamic in play for both Henry and Clare. When they first meet, Henry is a bit of a playboy. He flirts shamelessly with girls at his library job despite the fact that he has a girlfriend at home. Clare is shocked because this is not the same Henry that has been visiting her for the totality of her childhood. The show tries to brush off any concerns by saying that Clare and Henry have built their entire lives around each other. It’s simply not true, though. Henry, in the linear timeline, has had 28 years to live without knowing who Clare is. He’s been able to lead a full life and develop his own interests and desires for the future. He’s even dating someone else the first time he sleeps with Clare. 

Future Henry has built his life around Clare. They’re married, they share a home, and they’re fully committed to one another. By inserting himself into Clare’s life when she is a child, he’s taken away her ability to cultivate a life of her own. She’s essentially been treading water, waiting until they meet so her life can “begin” when she first sees him. A future-Henry comes to see Clare after she sleeps with Henry after their first date. Clare learns that Henry has a girlfriend, so she leaves his apartment and runs into future-Henry on the street outside. She laments that she doesn’t want this version of Henry. She wants the kind, loyal version of Henry she’s gotten to know from the future when they’re married. Future-Henry assures her that those attributes are within present day-Henry, she just has to help him get there. Not only has Clare’s childhood been lost for the sake of living for the future, she now has to spend her present bettering this man. These circumstances and their eight-year age difference make it a little difficult to be swept up in the romance the series is trying to sell.

It will be interesting to see how The Time Traveler’s Wife progresses under these conditions. All time travel shows require a suspension of disbelief, but it’s not easy to do that when the series asks the audience to forgive choices that aren’t necessary. It will be extremely difficult to believe that Henry and Clare are cursed, star-crossed lovers if it continues to appear that Clare has no real choice in the matter.

The Time Traveler’s Wife airs Sundays at 9pm EDT on HBO and streaming on HBO Max

Written by Tina Kakadelis

Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Amy Adams her Oscar.

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