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Twenty-one Questions About HBO Max’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’

There is the main query of why this wild novel has been adapted for a second time, but there are also tiny concerns regarding romance, amputated feet, and why a man traveled through time to have sex with himself

WarnerMedia/Ringer illustration

Earlier this week, certain subscribers to HBO Max were exposed to an unprecedented moment in television: In the second episode of The Time Traveler’s Wife, a TV adaptation of the 2003 novel by Audrey Niffenegger, a teenage time traveler named Henry was caught by his father giving a space-time-continuum-bending blow job to a past version of himself. The viewing public was floored by this scene—as opposed to Henry’s dad, who seemed fairly chill.

But not me. Because, years ago, I read The Time Traveler’s Wife, and you better believe this little detail stuck with me. Now, having revisited the novel and watched the first two episodes of the series, I’ve arrived back from the past to not only reiterate that Henry’s going to town on himself was lifted directly from the source material, but more importantly, to offer a warning about said source material: Despite its whimsical book cover and titular focus on a couple overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, and despite selling over 8 million copies while mostly being categorized as a romance, The Time Traveler’s Wife is not a love story. In fact, it’s one tiny (frostbitten) step away from being a full-on horror story. Auto-fellatio barely skims the surface of its bizarre depths.

To be fair to the story’s author, Niffenegger has always seemed to understand that she was putting something deeply weird and sad out into the world, no matter how it was received at the time. Which makes it even more confounding that, after the book was adapted into a bad movie starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams in 2009, Steven Moffat decided to readapt it into a series on HBO Max. Because here’s the thing: You know that trope on The Bachelor, where all of the romantic relationships are born out of just talking about the romantic relationships all the time? How every date is spent assessing where they started (a driveway in Agoura Hills) versus where they are now (a bench ABC placed outside their childhood home), and how it’s “craaaazy how far we’ve come”? Well, that’s basically what the alleged love story in The Time Traveler’s Wife is like, except one member of the relationship has the ability to traverse the space-time continuum. And if you can believe it, the overall effect is even less romantic than in The Bachelor, thanks in large part to the fact that the other member of said relationship is a child—meaning that, on a very foundational level, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a story about grooming.

Henry first starts involuntarily time-traveling to visit Clare when she is 6 years old and he’s in his late 30s. He proceeds to visit her from the future 152 times before she is 18—and yes, that age holds the significance you think it does. Adult Henry becomes childhood Clare’s best friend and confidante, and the central determining force in her life. Given that Henry knows this child he keeps visiting is his future wife, he somewhat inadvertently teaches her about all the things he knows she’ll love and care about one day: art, poetry, and him. Eventually, Henry lets it slip to Clare that she’s his future wife, a move that immediately has adolescent Clare totally hot for adult Henry, and an awful favor that 20-year-old Clare eventually returns when she finally meets 28-year-old Henry in the present-day timeline. Unfortunately, current Clare quickly discovers that current Henry is kind of an asshole, at which point future Henry enters the chat to let current Clare know that the reason current Henry is an asshole is because she hasn’t yet shaped him into the man she knows he’ll one day become ...

It’s reciprocal grooming, you see! Except that one instance is with a defenseless child, and the other is just a woman being told that she bears the moral responsibility of fixing an emotionally stunted adult man, a concept that many women may also recognize as “a normal Tuesday.” Henry tells us over and over again that he has no control over when and where he goes throughout time, and that he has no power to change the closed time loop he exists within. No matter how hard he tries (never very hard), he can’t not meet Clare as a child and shape her into the woman he’ll one day marry. But ...

Doesn’t that sound exactly like something a child groomer would say while trying to defend grooming a child? “Noooo, I’m from the future, I’m a time traveler and she’s my future wife, so it’s cool!” It’s not cool—none of it is cool. Which leads me to my gateway question: Why do people keep trying to market this as a love story? The TV series leans a little more into the horror aspect—Henry is never not violently thudding out of the space-time continuum—but it can also be kind of slapstick-y, an interesting tone to take in a story that is fundamentally about a man teaching a child how to be his future wife. To be clear, this isn’t exactly a discouragement from watching The Time Traveler’s Wife—I’d never seen Theo James in anything, and he is really quite something in this thankless role. This is simply a breakdown from future Jodi of the 21 most horrifying questions I had while revisiting the plot of The Time Traveler’s Wife novel and comparing it to the first two episodes of this series, in hopes that we can all be a little more prepared for what’s to come. Spoilers for the future (and 19-year-old past, I guess) ahead:

1. Let’s just start with the obvious: If you could time travel, would you take the past versions of yourself to pound town? Would you do hand stuff, as is implied in the book? Would you do mouth stuff, which is more than implied by the show? Is there any meaningful difference? As much as I want to say that Henry giving himself a blow job in the TV series is the most absurd aspect of this story, it’s not even close for two reasons: (1) The Time Traveler’s Wife gets so much weirder than auto-fellatio, and (2) it’s actually maybe a decent depiction of human behavior? Last year, I wrote a story for The Ringer about astral projection and lucid dreaming, and across the board, the people (OK, men) I interviewed who had started lucid dreaming as teenagers told me that weird sex stuff was the very first agenda item they attended to while traveling the astral plane.

So I guess Henry is really just keeping this closed time loop extra closed … y’know, biblically speaking.

2. Which leads us to: Is Henry gay?

He’s not, you guys. Somehow this self-conscious reassurance has somehow time-traveled from the 2003 novel to the 2022 television series.

3. Why does the TV series age up Henry’s foray into becoming Henrysexual from age 15 in the novel to age 16 in the show? Surely, if they were prepared to make some major age edits, those would be focused to the more central problem of this “love story.” Which brings us to …

4. Does Henry groom Clare? In short: Yes, he does, and I don’t care how many times he tells us that he has no control over where he goes, and no real free will over the choices he makes because they will always be the choices that are made …

Try harder, bitch.

5. Does Clare groom Henry in return by shaping him into the future version of himself? Yes, but more in the sense of actual grooming, like making him get a haircut so he can be her Henry. (Yeah, the ick factor is still super high.)

6. Is the grooming of Clare so upsetting that we’re actually ignoring the fact that Henry also travels back through time and space to teach a different child—himself—to fight and steal in order to survive that thing where he’s always thudding out of the sky naked, with no clue where he is or any physical means for survival?

7. On that note, why is time travel so butt-centric?

The most obvious answer is that HBO spent all of their dick dollars on Euphoria, leaving us to settle for 30 glimpses of Theo James’s backside. But the larger canonical reason is that while Henry was born with a chromosomal disorder that allows him to time travel, his dungarees were not. So every time Henry time travels, his butt goes the distance but his clothes are left behind.

8. So why, then, does the TV series choose to take that little physics equation to even more absurd heights by making sure we understand that all of Henry is capable of time travel? As in, when Henry loses a tooth as a child, that tooth can independently travel throughout time and space; when Henry loses a lot of blood, that blood can appear and disappear in Henry’s present-day life as a kind of dark omen for his future; and you guessed it: If Henry were to hypothetically get frostbite, leading to the eventual amputation of his feet, those feet could travel back in time to haunt him throughout his entire life.

9. Why, and how, would two feet time travel together?

10. Speaking of unnecessary gore, what does one really say about a decapitation? Would the trauma of losing his mother in a regular car accident that he stress-time-blipped out of as an 8-year-old child not be horrifying enough to support the whole “the larger something is, the more gravitational pull it exerts” theory as to why Henry revisits this scene so often? Did his lovely, gorgeous, opera-singing mother have to be decapitated by a sheet of metal Final Destination 2 style? Was an entire generation of people not scarred enough to avoid driving behind logging trucks at all costs? Now we have to avoid sheet metal trucks too?! What’s next, livestock???

11. Another thing I wondered as I watched the decapitation scene approximately 100 times in the second episode of The Time Traveler’s Wife TV series: Why don’t the Henrys talk to each other more? Henry returns to the scene of his mother’s death so often that the show depicts it as basically a Where’s Waldo of Theo Jameses with varying degrees of shaggy hair. And yet one Henry never looks at another and says, “Hey, man, there are so many of us here—what if we just tried to go down there and stop that car from plowing into our car, ultimately decapitating our mom and scarring us for life?” And, sure, Henry tells us repeatedly that he can’t affect the past—but that’s not the tune he’s singing when he later hacks the lottery to buy a house!

12. This question comes up over and over again: Does Henry really try that hard to change the bad things that happen to himself and others? His future self is always telling his childhood self that he’s tried to stop bad things from happening and he can’t do it, so it’s useless to keep trying. But that sounds more like a closed loop of negative self-talk than a closed loop of time to me, Henry.

13. Please enjoy this quote from a 20-year-old Clare that has taken up valuable space in my mind for over a decade: “The last time I saw [Henry] he was sucking my toes in the Meadow.”

Do we think it’s a coincidence that Henry stops visiting Clare after a 41-year-old version of himself time travels to her on her 18th birthday and they have sex for the first time? I guess it really just goes to show that if there’s one bigger fuckboi in this story than Henry, it is most certainly Father Time. (For the record, Clare dresses herself in all white for the 18th-birthday visit that she already knows will happen because future-Henry gives past-Clare a list of all the dates he’ll visit her, which current-Clare later gives back to current-Henry, ensuring that no matter what, these two will be fucking the moment she turns 18. Ew!)

14. Is it cheating on your spouse if you’re constantly having sex with past and future versions of that spouse? For example, after Henry has sex with 18-year-old Clare, he travels back to the present day and has sex with his wife, current-Clare. Honestly that seems rude to both Clares! What are the ethics of a linear open marriage, a single-cell polyamory?

15. And let’s be very clear: These questions extend to Clare too. I know much of the focus on the absurdity of this story has been on Henry, but that’s because for a large chunk of it, Clare is a minor unable to consent to her participation in being a time traveler’s wife. But once Clare is an adult time traveler’s wife, she makes plenty of dirty decisions on her own. Like … is it cheating if her husband gets a vasectomy to try to keep her from dying during repeated attempts to have a time-traveling child, only for her to then go have sex with a past version of an unclipped Henry, finally resulting in a full-term pregnancy?

16. Right, we should talk about this: By far, the most horrifying section of the book are Clare’s six miscarriages due to—and this is tough—the fetuses repeatedly trying to time travel outside of her womb. “Can fetuses time travel?” is one question that the book definitively answers and I am dreading seeing whether the series does the same.

17. But also, if fetuses can time travel, why didn’t Henry time travel until he was 7 years old? It’s not like a traumatic event awakened the ability in him later in life. Child-Henry just liked museums almost as much as teen-Henry likes blowing himself, and poof—after wishing he could return to a museum late-night, this kid (not a fetus) is suddenly in his time-traveling bag.

18. So I guess it’s finally time for us to really get into it: What, exactly, are the rules of time traveling in The Time Traveler’s Wife? Because they’re obviously not the classic “avoid running into past versions of yourself at all costs” rules, what with all the fellatio and loitering around decapitation scenes together and what not. It kind of seems more like a “the only rule is that there are no rules (except the ones that are convenient to the plot)” situation. Because while we’re told that Henry can’t affect the past, we see him pretty consistently affecting the past. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that he meticulously curated an environment to guarantee that a child would grow up to be his wife.

19. Similarly, I guess it’s finally time for us—and Henry—to stop ignoring his disembodied, time-traveling feet. Of all the ways that a time traveler could die—of all the fantastical, outrageous, exciting ways to conclude such a life—I wonder why Ms. Niffenegger would choose for Henry to time travel into a locked parking garage and get frostbite so severe that his feet have to be amputated, thereby isolating him from all the physical and criminal skills he’s spent a lifetime collecting so that one day, when he time travels to the Meadow where he spent Clare’s childhood with her, he enters directly into the path of Clare’s dad’s bullet while he’s out hunting on their land? And I wonder why, after that fatal shot, she would then send him back to the New Year’s Eve party he’s been at in the present timeline to bleed out in front of all of his friends and family? I just … I just wonder why.

20. Two pairs of shoes: It’s a classic image. It’s how people announce pregnancies, and wedding photographers are always getting in there for a shoe shot that the happy couple will never do anything with. But I have to ask: given the amputated feet and adult-grooming-a-child of it all, is choosing the image of a child standing next to an empty pair of adult shoes, like … the most fucked up book cover of all time?

And if so, why would Steven Moffat choose for his TV series to re-create that image as the title card of each episode, as though this is some adorable imagery we’re all just jonesing for another look at. My greatest hope is that as the season progresses, Henry’s adult shoes are replaced with his disembodied, time-traveling zombie feet.

21. And finally, since we were all thinking it: Has the TV adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife finally replaced the ultimate time-traveling hypothetical question of “Would you go back in time and kill baby Hitler?” with “Would you go back in time and fellate yourself?”

For the record, Henry wouldn’t even consider the former, and is so eager to do the latter that he won’t even lock the bedroom door.