After six episodes and 150-plus jumps back and forth across the timeline, Clare Abshire has officially accepted the mantle of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Henry DeTamble has become… the jerk who got a vasectomy (or is he??). Steven Moffat’s brilliant-if-imperfect adaptation has wrapped its first (and potentially only) season with, what else, a timey-wimey wedding that honors the layered love story these half-dozen episodes have depicted, while still staying true to the minor tragedies of their relationship that Audrey Niffenegger laid out in her lovely, dark book.
But if this show has taught us anything, it’s that there aren’t really endings or beginnings, just returning to new and familiar moments over and over again. Which is to say, let’s end our watch on a high note, appreciating just how many things went wrong for this season (series?) finale to turn out near-perfectly right.
Dates and Times
With the exception of one final onscreen meeting between 42-year-old Henry and 14-year-old Clare in the clearing, the finale is all about time traveling forward: In the five weeks leading up to their wedding, Henry can’t stop catapulting into his and Clare’s future, visiting their home at key points in the first eight years of their marriage, as well as looking ahead to beyond his own lifetime (!) and confirming that he does not make it past his mid-forties.
But mostly, these various combinations of Henrys and Clares all relive (or experience for the first time, albeit out of order) Shoe Polish Day, a.k.a. their wedding. The problem is, Henry’s anxiety over dropping out of time on his big day becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: He does indeed blip out of existence when he’s supposed to be up at the altar. Good thing that eight years from now, he punches Older Henry back into 2008 to take his place… leaving Henry to watch the wedding video with the rest of us to see how things turn(ed) out, all while commiserating with an Older Clare over Older Henry’s betrayal after their many miscarriages.
Henry to Clare, before he even knows how much it will direct his future actions: “Love is what gives hope to mortals. It is the cruelest thing I know.”
Clare, the older (married) woman, after Henry tells her he’s supposed to make her happy: “Who told you that? … Henry, we’re not supposed to make each other happy. If we do, great. But that’s not the point. We’re getting married, not going on a hot date, or a vacation, or a weekend away somewhere, but actually getting married. Look at us—do we look like we’re gonna go on vacation? It’s like setting sail into a storm, and you know for a fact you both won’t make it out the other side, so what do you do? You cling on for as long as you can, because you know that this is as good as anything ever gets. Make my happy days happier. Make my sad days bearable. And if you forgive me when I hurt you, I’ll try to do the same for you. Deal?”
Paradox of the Week
Hoooo boy. For the first time, it’s Henry who is less emotionally invested in his and Clare’s present, in favor of worrying about their future. It’s not that he wants to speed there, the way she does, but his need to find out if he let her down regarding the wedding makes him want to keep returning, over and over, for glimpses of their married life. The show delights in confusing Henry and us with technicalities: He and Clare aren’t actually married, if you’re being literal… yet we see them acting as husband and wife, going house-hunting (Henry, of course, already knows from these jumps which one they’ll decide on) and cheating on the lotto in order to be able to afford said dream home.
It very much illustrates how a wedding and a marriage are such different beasts, even if they ostensibly seem to resemble one another. In fact, that sounds a lot like our time travelers, especially now that they have the same hair (plus or minus some grays): Henry just has to do one thing right—get to the church on time—and he can’t even, as his older self cruelly says, stick the landing. (At least, until he gets punched into the past, that’s what he’ll spend eight years believing.) The way that Older Clare later clarifies that she’s not married to him carries such bitterness, an old disappointment that will never fully stop aching.
And yet, that’s not the worst way that a Henry will disappoint a Clare.
It’s rather strange, and darkly compelling, that after Henry finally put away childish
haircuts things last week, we learn how much both Older Henry (about 36) and Older Clare (29) actually miss Junior. The poor kid always regarded the older, idealized Henry as the Ghost of Marriage Future, but here he is the ghost instead, haunting Older Henry with a version of his life that he had to give up in order to be the man that Clare wanted (needed) him to be. He didn’t go into that future easily, even if he seems very comfortable in it by the time he meets Younger Clare in the clearing. But lest we think that Older Henry has it all right, in 2016 we see how his know-it-all attitude and propensity for making big decisions without consulting anyone else makes him a—you guessed it—asshole.
Wedding-day snafus feel big in the moment but are softened with time; it’s one day, of course something will go wrong. Older Henry’s decision to take away their ability to get pregnant lets down Clare in a much worse way, because it’s something he deliberately chooses, as opposed to the time travel pulling him away. It also shows how, after nearly a decade together in linear time, he doesn’t trust her to be part of decisions about their future. He will always be the paternal figure, the “decent man” withholding knowledge or outright lying to the girl he’s trying to protect, instead of engaging with his wife.
He tells his younger self that he can’t bear to witness Clare’s hope for a child, when he’s known since he was on the other side of this conversation that the fetuses they create are going to keep time-traveling out of her womb. And yet, if he were so convinced, then why didn’t he ever tell her? Maybe there’s a part of Older Henry that wants to be wrong, though that part clearly doesn’t win out against the time traveler who thinks that he can’t bear to witness more loss. This whole series, both Henrys have been blasé about the cycle of life and death (“everyone’s dead in the future”), but it’s different when it’s their potential child who didn’t even make it to birth.
When Henry punches his future self back to his wedding day, it initially seems as if it’s yet another case of Older Henry cleaning up Junior’s mess—consider when he calls to give his younger self a heads-up about an alibi, or when he stops their first date from becoming a one-night-stand in the pilot. But even though Older Henry showing up (shoe polish and all) at the altar saves face for Clare in front of her family, it’s Henry who really shows up for Older Clare when she needs him most.
That’s definitely Alba who Henry glimpses at (ironically) his own wake. But the way the show presents her, all backlit and mysterious was (as my husband put it) “some Whedon shit.” I kinda preferred how the movie just had her lurking in a doorway watching Henry and Clare (at the time grieving one of their miscarriages) walk by, trying to play it cool despite the giant grin on her face. That much more matched the energy of Henry jumping back to watch his parents’ lives, as opposed to trying for the same MacGuffin-y note as the severed feet from the pilot.
The Time Traveler’s Scribe
When you think of Moffat and a wedding episode, your mind goes to Amy and Rory’s nuptials in Doctor Who’s “The Big Bang,” right? River Song dropping off her notebook to jog Amy’s memory mid-speech at the reception? But while both Clares are reminded of what they love about the different Henrys, the required prop wasn’t a notebook with crossed-out dates, but a video that has and hasn’t been recorded yet.
It’s a lovely callback to the second episode’s time-travel-by-cassette-tape, but most of all it’s an homage to Moffat’s own Hugo Award-winning Doctor Who episode “Blink”—an excellent reversal after he pulled from Time Traveler’s Wife for so much of his time on Who. Instead of David Tennant having half a conversation via DVD Easter eggs, it’s Older Henry sending messages (via the poor wedding videographer) to Older Clare and younger Henry, watching him pretend to be someone he’s not for their enjoyment. And while Henry had started the episode claiming he wouldn’t watch the tape, it turns out he has to in order to know exactly what to do, eight years later, to ensure that the wedding happens.
What didn’t ring true, as critic Abigail Nussbaum aptly pointed out, was the overly heteronormative moments that leaned hard into the familiar clichés and exhausted tropes of the entire wedding genre: Clare nagging Henry about silverware, and her mother insisting on making their wedding the big social event of the season. Nussbaum expounds better than I can on what the wedding narrative means to Moffat, but my take within the context of the story is that Clare, like many a young bride, didn’t actually know what she wanted on her wedding day. That’s why we have to see Older Clare nearly a decade into marriage, who actually knows what she wants to keep that partnership working.
Wedding clichés aside, Moffat certainly stuck the landing on this finale. Of course it would be fun if the series got renewed for a second season, to watch him play with layering other key moments from the book (see some predictions below), but this worked excellently as a series finale, which few shows can say. Clare’s sly little smile (“not yet, you’re not”—SCREAMING) made that mid-credits scene the perfect note on which to end—a shocker for those viewers who haven’t read the book, but a sharp little laugh for us book readers who were waiting to see how Clare’s big moment of agency would play out. Bravo.
The Time Traveler’s Wife Season 2
Moffat leaves just enough dangling plot threads to support a second season. If the series does get renewed, what could we see? It should be clear, but spoilers for the book:
- The most obvious one would be Alba’s life. Would they rename the series The Time Traveler’s Daughter? However, Moffat actually addressed exactly that conundrum: As Niffenegger has just completed the draft for the Alba book (yesss), any future adaptation would very much be its own thing, and people should fall in love with the book first.
- The fallout from Clare conceiving Alba behind Henry’s back, so to speak.
- Actually seeing Henry’s death—whether it’s Mark shooting him, like in the book and implied in the show, or some new twist. Again, Moffat seems keen on sticking to the source material: “We already know a fair bit about how it ends. By Episode 3, you know he’s going to get shot in a forest. You know he’s going to lose his feet at some point. So it’s a story of destiny, I guess. The end is built into the beginning.”
- Henry discovering that there are other Chrono-Impaired people?
- More of Henry and Clare’s lives in their thirties—or at least, more of Clare’s art!
- The mystery of when Gomez actually saw Henry.
- Or go way off-book and introduce a secret government agency??
- As line readings go, “How’ve you been?” / “AIDS.” is The Room levels of baaad.
- Tempered by the best line reading, from Gomez: “Don’t get nervous. You’ll crinkle.”
- Missed opportunity to show Henry lurking in the background of his parents’ wedding video.
- In rewatching the movie, I was reminded yet again of its oddest cameo: Broken Social Scene as the wedding band. Sadly, there was no fun Billie Eilish spotting at this wedding, though Natasha Lopez (as Charisse) got the spotlight singing “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
- Another review talked about Henry’s supposed cold feet regarding his own nuptials, and now I’m giggling imagining… what if the feet had reappeared??
Natalie Zutter thanks you for joining her on this wibbly-wobbly journey. Even if most of the Internet hated The Time Traveler’s Wife, she hopes you enjoyed watching it with her. Find out what next polarizing show she’ll unexpectedly stan by following her on Twitter.