The Art of Revenge: The Time Traveler’s Wife, “Episode Three”

Halfway through its first season, The Time Traveler’s Wife devotes an entire (and very uneven) episode just to the past: Clare gives her account of growing up in the meadow alongside her imaginary friend, who routinely beats her at checkers, lies to her multiple times about if they’re married in the future… and helps her plan a murder?? This episode bounced from grave seriousness to dark humor so abruptly as to cause tonal whiplash, as Older Henry’s attempts to control what Younger Clare does and doesn’t know break down in real time.


Dates and Times

The Time Traveler's Wife TV review Episode 3 revenge art

Screenshot: HBO

We suffer through some repetition of the past portions from the prior episodes, in service of telling Clare’s side of the story. There’s nothing particularly revelatory when it comes to how frustrating it is for her to be the one who waits, but the shift in perspective is still appreciated, as it scratches at the surface of the strange torture of meeting your soulmate when you’re six. Namely, her critical thinking skills as a preteen, where she starts connecting the dots (or checkers, as it were), only for Henry to lie to her; then her teenage frustrations where none of her male peers quite match up to her fantasy; and what happens when she tries to be the girl who stops waiting. (Content warning for sexual assault, which we’ll get into below in By the Book.)


Paradox of the Week

The Time Traveler's Wife TV review Episode 3 revenge art

Screenshot: HBO

Young Clare might be naïve to a fault, but she gets more clever with age. While her questions about Henry’s existence are at first just the “but why why why” babble of a kid, several years and dozens of meetings in she’s prodding for specific details of the future. It’s Henry who’s being careless, as he pops in at whatever age and might not remember what his older or younger selves have told her—like that he’s met her family. This, combined with the fact that his wife has the same name as her, prompts Young Clare (specifically, at 12) to tremulously put forward her “stupid” idea: that he’s married to her. Bless this poor child for trying to lie about how much she wants this to be true; and look at Henry offer up his own lie as he stumbles through what the kindest and most appropriate answer is (it doesn’t exist).

Henry claiming that “in the future, you and I are not married” is technically true according to the laws of this series, that treats every single iteration of them as separate people. It’s still a lie, however, and the pain it prompts stays with her for years. Sometimes that comes out as a 16-year-old Clare playing reverse Strip Checkers with a naked thirtysomething Henry… and sometimes it manifests as her speeding them to their not-deaths.

See? She’s getting the hang of this: If she and Henry know each other in the future—indeed, judging by the mere existence of 32-year-old Henry—then it doesn’t matter if she takes them down the freeway in the opposite direction with her eyes closed, because they can’t die today. But as Henry reminds her, sounding increasingly like a father figure, that doesn’t stop her from potentially ruining someone else’s life.

Maybe that’s part of what gets through to her—the idea of her deliberate actions forever marring someone else’s future. Because what this Older Henry doesn’t know to ask is that she was assaulted at a party. I appreciate the timey-wimeyness of bookending Clare’s (16) interactions with Henry (32) with the naked hijinks; then leaving Henry (41) to be the one waiting for her when she goes to a house party, only for her to run into the clearing with her dress torn and sobbing for him, which of course prompts him to disappear; and then yanking back Henry (32) into time, who has not yet experienced that unsettling visual.

But once this Henry sees Clare’s bruises and cigarette burns, he’s on board with kidnapping Jason and scaring him in revenge. In fact, if Theo James’ perfect enraged/devastated/helpless line reading of “Fuck—fuck!” is any indicator, Henry would kill the kid—which is where Clare backtracks. She claims he hurt her but didn’t rape her, then Older Clare immediately tells us on video that of course he raped her.

Once she negotiates Henry down to just scaring Jason shitless, the little shit tries to throw it back on Clare, pointing to the texts she sent after saying she had a great time. Honey, this Henry is from a post-#MeToo world, he knows that girls and women often have to lie to keep themselves safe. Then Jason goes for the final straw, claiming that he knows Clare well enough that she’s “into” the bruises and the burns—and that’s where Henry fucking loses it.

The Time Traveler's Wife TV review Episode 3 revenge art

My best attempt to capture Theo James’ “whoopsie” face. Screenshot: HBO

I don’t know the name for it, but there’s a storytelling trope I love where one character is compelled through dramatic means—the more overwrought, the better—to reveal some piece of information they had previously kept hidden. It’s handled a little clumsily here, because it seems odd that a 16-year-old boy with his limited experience would be so insistent on a girl loving being hurt during sex, but it’s enough to push Henry into yelling that he knows what Clare likes, because they’re married. It’s the loss of all reserve that makes it such a compelling trope, and the revelation of a secret that was being kept from one of the characters.

This is our first time seeing the Older Clare (who is all of 24, hah) who is Older Henry’s wife, all thanks to a marker. Older Henry spots it at the store where he picks up his Don’t Murder But Still Scar kidnapping supplies, and it twinges his memory, so he then hands it to Younger Clare so he’ll remember it.


Love Lines

Older Henry to Jason, but unwittingly to Younger Clare: “Because I’m her fucking husband!”

Older Henry to Younger Clare right before disappearing: “I love you.” Welp, that takes the cake for most awkward first time to say it.


By the Book

I see what this week’s credits were going for, repeating some of the footage from “Episode One” but focusing on just Young Clare’s shoes. Though it might have been more interesting if we’d seen that title card a few times over, with different styles of shoes beyond the child’s Mary Janes.

The Jason subplot is in the book, as is Clare’s claim that he didn’t rape her, that he “just” hurt her. As well as I can tell from the book (without having been able to reread the whole thing), that’s the most that Clare tells Henry. So the encounter with Jason could have ended there. Or it could certainly be subtext that Jason did go further, but she only told Henry enough to make him want revenge, not murder.

The show makes it supertext: Clare sees how Henry’s rage blinds him to reason, and perhaps thinking of herself behind the wheel, she denies three times (getting Biblical, are we?) that Jason raped her. “Don’t you dare make this about how angry you are,” she snaps at Henry to calm him and shame him, “it’s not about that.” And when he takes a breath and believes that it ended with the cigarette burn, he does listen to her and agrees that they’ll hurt Jason without cutting off his future.

The Time Traveler's Wife TV review Episode 3 revenge art

Screenshot: HBO

But then on video, long after Henry’s death, Clare clarifies that of course Jason raped her, in what world would a sexually frustrated teenage boy with wounded pride not take full advantage? I’ve gone back and forth on this over several watches, and I still have the same initial reaction: It’s unnecessary. So much of pop culture, and especially television, uses rape as a shorthand for female character growth. If the book kept it ambiguous, the TV adaptation could have followed its lead.

I do see what Moffat was going for, in Older Clare’s justification:

“I never told Henry the truth. If I had told him the truth, it would make it even more true, and I didn’t want it to be. You don’t admit that a monster was the first man inside you when you’re talking to the man it should have been. Henry never knew the truth, so when I was with Henry, it stopped being true. I could make it not true when he was there.”

But if the aim was to express Clare’s grief over her first time not being with Henry, there are other, more nuanced ways to show that. Sex can be regretted without it having to be a story about violence and violation. Next week’s episode sort of touches on that, which makes it even more frustrating how this subplot played out.

While Moffat drew the pen idea from the book, he adds the dimension of it being Clare’s first piece of art. It would have been nice to get more than a glimpse of Older Clare (that is, the 24-year-old), and see if her art piece involving Jason ever transformed into something else. Or maybe, as Even Older Clare points out, she doesn’t want it to be true, and so she never recreated that particular piece of work again.


O Henrys

Compared to last week’s teenage experimentation (that apparently blew up on Twitter with polarizing responses) and next week’s delightful multi-time-traveler farce, we get just one interaction between two Henrys: When 32-year-old Henry calls his 24-year-old self, who’s just started at The Newberry Library in Chicago, and orders him to have an alibi for the night. I wonder if that’s how Henry and Ingrid got together?

The sheer chemistry of “Fuck you” / “Fuck you too” over the phone… Theo James is very good at acting against himself, which will be used to a delightful extent next week.



The Time Traveler's Wife TV review Episode 3 revenge art old Clare Rose Leslie

Screenshot: HBO

So on second watch I’m thinking that Clare is also addressing their daughter Alba in her videos, same as Henry. At least, the weird line reading of “I hope you’ve found something more interesting to do. Or someone” would imply that, though it’s an odd thing for a mother to say to her daughter. She also makes clear that Henry has been dead for a long time.

The series seems to be vacillating between the puzzle-box mystery from the pilot involving Henry’s severed feet, and having Henry and Clare freely acknowledge that he’s going to die sooner rather than later (i.e., sometime in his 40s). The movie introduces the concept of Henry’s mortality to both Henry and Clare at the same time, as an older version of him travels to their apartment, bleeding, then winks back out of time to who-knows-when. It’s intended as a jolt of grim reality to temper their happiness; I believe at that point in that adaptation, they’re already married and building a life together.

By contrast, these two experience it at different points in time: present Henry sees the feet after the day he meets Clare for the first time (remember how Older Henry said those two things are intertwined), while Clare has suspected that a version of Henry got shot by her father in the woods since she was a preteen. Her father and brother Mark tell her she must have dreamt it; the puddle of blood that she glimpses disappears, too (presumably to adorn the bathroom of 28-year-old Henry in the pilot?).

The decision to present Henry’s death upfront as a case of when, not if, is a curious one. It places a ticking clock on their linear relationship, even as Steven Moffat has chosen to devote the entire first season to their early days. Having experienced Henry’s death as something of a “twist” the first time I read the book, I was initially disappointed that they just lay it out there. But considering how the series has contrasted it with Henry’s parents’ relationship, and especially their doomed love, there’s comforting common ground in knowing that this partnership will be more than just the 15 years (give or take) they will get in real time.


The Time Traveler’s Scribe

How could I have forgotten that River Song has a (TARDIS-blue) diary in which she records her encounters with the Doctor? While this episode isn’t quite as twisty as River’s own timeline with her husband, the idea of Young Clare being present at Henry’s potential death brought to mind how the Doctor and River keep living and dying (and killing and regenerating) around one another.


Other Notes

The Time Traveler's Wife TV review Episode 3 revenge art naked Henry Theo James

Screenshot: HBO

  • Poor Rose Leslie, they really did her dirty with the old-age makeup. She doesn’t even get a Coastal Grandmother look—she’s serving more Middle-Aged Art Teacher with the chunky jewelry and multicolored shawls. Which would seem to track as to her future, post-Henry life.
  • The ice cream scene is cringier each time I watch it. I think the point was to make teenage Clare seem as young as possible without her being her child self? But it almost reads as parody with her sulking about needing a napkin for her cone.
  • Kudos to the casting director to find the exact actor who could play “twerp” as teenage Mark.
  • Really enjoying (in that it makes me wince each time) the runner of Younger Clare being a shit about Older Henry and cars because he hasn’t yet told her why. It both fits this story and feels true to so many relationships, when you’re not yet playing with a full deck.
  • Henry and Clare against the headlights seems a visual throwback (throwforward?) to their postcoital joke in the pilot about turning on the lights when they’re naked.

Natalie Zutter thinks the kind of art an adaptation gives Clare Abshire says a lot about how they interpret her character. Talk Time Traveler’s Wife with her here and on Twitter!


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