This is it—lo those many years ago, when I said I wanted Steven Moffat to turn The Time Traveler’s Wife into a Coupling-esque farce, this is what I meant. This fourth episode is my favorite of the season, though the pilot is close behind, and the finale finds its own fun ways to futz with time. But today it’s brunch with two time travelers, an ex-(??)girlfriend, and Clare’s many romantic experiments post- and pre-Henry. It’s clever and awkward and a little sexy and deeply tragic.
Dates and Times
We wrap up (for the most part) Younger Clare (18) and Older Henry’s (41) time in the meadow with a big birthday, a proposal, a consummation, and a goodbye; they will not meet again for two years. But on his way home, Older Henry pops by his younger self’s “meeting the friends” brunch with Clare’s roommate and one-time hookup Charisse (Natasha Lopez) and her boyfriend Gomez (Desmin Borges)… a.k.a. Clare’s one-time hookup who’s still in love with her despite their respective romantic commitments. Well, Henry did tell her to have her fun before they met. Not even Daddy Henry making an incredible risotto can save the meal from transforming into a heaping helping of “manage the angry girlfriend” with a side of “have a deep emotional moment about existential dread and mortality.”
The Time Traveler’s Scribe
This and the finale have big Coupling vibes: It best brings to mind the season 4 premiere “Nine and a Half Minutes,” which replays the same span of time thrice over the duration of a sitcom episode. With three separate conversations taking place in the same room, what at first seems like a wacky sitcom moment in one takes on new context when that pair’s conversation is the central one. Here, it’s each time traveler leading a different conversation thread, from Older Henry writing Gomez notes that will both help in the moment and in their future encounters to Henry bouncing between Ingrid and Clare, not knowing where to land.
Paradox of the Week
We’ve watched Older Henry’s multi-stop time travel happen linearly, so that we understand that he returns home with more information about the past than when he left, as he is experiencing key events for the first time at that age. But what’s interesting with this episode is that he supposedly already remembers brunch, since in 2021 it would have happened, but in 2008 it’s about to happen. His explanation that Henry’s beer drinking made things fuzzier is a bit hand-wave-y, but it works well enough for me.
Let’s also take a moment to talk about Clare’s apartment: She got a real estate tip as a child from Older Henry, which allowed her to find the loophole that will give her a great deal and allow her to keep this place. Later, Older Henry freely admits to using foreknowledge to play the lottery in order to fund their “rock’n’roll lifestyle.” The movie adaptation presented this as Henry’s consolation prize for being away all the time; at least this series doesn’t try to assert the same justification, it simply establishes that this is how the DeTambles unapologetically move through the world.
The others think that Henry should balance his unethical lotto winnings with preventing crimes, though he protests multiple times that he can’t change anything—or maybe they just expect him to bear witness to it. But he immediately counters that they can do the same, that his ability to revisit the past doesn’t mean he has any more bearing on it than the average person, simply that he has to relive it over and over: “I see the same things you see, but in the wrong order. That’s not having powers, that’s dyslexia.”
This is not a case of with great power comes great responsibility, but at the same time, Ingrid isn’t giving Henry any credit at all. Initially she seems to be defending him to Clare, shaming the other woman for expecting the impossible from him when he can hardly take care of himself. But in turn she’s putting him down, or trying to drag him back down to her nihilistic level of not caring about anything (except him?), which shows she doesn’t much believe in him, either. It’s not healthy for Clare to expect her 28-year-old boyfriend to magically turn into her 41-year-old husband overnight, but it’s also not fair for Ingrid to try and capture Henry in amber when he’s starting to grow up and leave her behind.
And that’s exactly the moment where she clocks that she must be dead in the future. Though it starts out melodramatic (pointing to her scars and asking “Did I get messy again?”, which I initially misheard as “Did I miss you too much again?”), the conversation between Ingrid and Older Henry is a much-needed counterpoint to the wacky brunch times. She asserts that knowing is her right, but Older Henry immediately debunks this: “Knowing is not a right. Knowing is hell.” Unlike his younger self, who fumbles to defend why he can’t change the past, Older Henry has the confidence and the lived experience to tell non-travelers what’s what.
But also there is some condescension and control to him cherry-picking which details to share, him making determinations on what will affect the future even though he always claims that the past is fixed, so why shouldn’t the future be too? Ingrid asking, “How long do I have?” is such a bitter twist to 18-year-old Clare demanding to know how long before she gets to officially meet Henry: “At least tell me that,” they both say to this Henry who knows he is nearing the end of his own life.
Catalogue Man and Library Boy, what a pair.
I appreciate that neither Henry tries to treat the time travel as a superhero’s secret identity. Instead, it’s more about acknowledging a disability and asking the other people in the room to make space for it. Despite the farcical nature of the reveal, it must have still been incredibly difficult for both Henrys, whose first reaction to appearing in a new time is to run and/or fight. Here, they have to stand still and talk it out.
And that’s an awkward conversation, with the brunch feeling almost like being at some weird swingers party: Clare came with Henry (28), but the way she both relaxes and thrums around party-crasher Henry (41) makes it clear that their chemistry goes far beyond physical attraction. Henry (28) is clearly upset to watch his George Clooney self have the effect on Clare that he himself fumbles toward, and often fails at so far; but then there’s Ingrid, who gets this Henry so much better than anyone else can. Flirt, fuck, fight, start the cycle over again—there’s an animal magnetism and a mutual misery to them that seems to better fit Henry’s current worldview than the promise of a relationship he has to actually work at.
The fact that the one thing both Henrys can agree on is to—regardless of when—”live like we’re gonna live forever” helps answer some of last week’s questions about why this adaptation isn’t trying to make a twist out of Henry’s death.
Instead, the dramatic tension is in Clare, who just made it through her two years without Older Henry, now being asked to wait that much longer for the Henry she has to become the Henry she wants. Every time I’ve watched their hug at the end it makes me tear up at the minor tragedy of just how mismatched these two are.
By the Book
Gomez is a difficult character for any adaptation. It’s one thing for Henry to have a Schrödinger’s breakup with Ingrid, but this guy (played by Ron Livingston in the movie) is trapped in the useless role of pining after Clare despite her being long spoken for. The interesting choice that Moffat makes is to age up Gomez; it makes a lot of sense that the one guy Clare would even consider sleeping with while she’s waiting would be an older man, not quite Older Henry but certainly seeming mature. (Though that’s the joke here, isn’t it, that Borges’ Gomez is so neurotic and needy that you could never call him mature.) Except, why is a 33-year-old man hanging out with two 20-year-olds?? And not just hanging out, but Clare repeatedly calls him one of her best friends alongside Charisse. It must have been a book detail, but it sticks out so sorely compared to the rest of the info we get about Gomez. Aging up is great, but then you lose the plausibility of him being in the early-adulthood trenches with the two girls.
A secondary point is, if Moffat was going to have Clare experiment with Charisse, why not go full throuple with the two of them? Clare is a single gal who knows her soulmate is coming back to her in two years; she’s already confirmed that each of them are into her; it would stand to reason that she might get something out of being in a relationship with an established couple while she waits for her other half. Alas, we just get this weak punchline about Clare testing out some (but not all!) of her options.
Content warning for suicide: In the book, Ingrid’s death is a lot more immediate, and violent: 43-year-old Henry travels back to the day that he already knows is the day that she commits suicide. His anxiety about this fact and his attempts to hide his foreknowledge seem to goad her into shooting herself; it’s a similar conversation, where she’s demanding information about her future, and he’s a worse liar than in the TV series. Yet she already had the gun and a vague plan in mind, having clearly been on a downward spiral for some time after their breakup.
I’m glad that the show stops things at the conversation with Older Henry, ending things on something resembling a high note, though the fact that it leaves open what happens to Ingrid leaves her as a loose thread. She may be the one to storm out of brunch, but neither Henry nor Clare follow up on what happens to her. She conveniently walks out of their lives, and they move forward without another thought about her for a long time.
Older Henry regarding his younger self meeting Clare: “…and boy does he get a fright.” Another perfect line read.
Ingrid: “I love him.”
Clare: “You don’t seem very happy about that.”
Ingrid: “I didn’t know that was an option.”
Older Henry to Ingrid: “Don’t spoil the memory of good days with regret that they’re over. It’s all gonna be over, and sooner than you think—take it from a time traveler.”
Younger Clare to Older Henry: “I groomed you.” Oh, honey, no.
- Great detail that the sex blanket from the meadow is on Clare’s bed, so it finds its way into both of her hookups with Gomez and Charisse.
- “You’re clones!” Oh, Gomez.
- The surgical masks joke was real rough; it makes sense, sure, but is not funny enough to make up for the poor taste.
- Gomez has big “ineffectual boyfriend” energy, even compared to hapless Henry.
- “I was sixteen”—poor Henry, Clare will never let him live this down.