The following contains spoilers from Episode 3 of The Time Traveler’s Wife (adapted by Steven Moffat and directed by David Nutter)
Episode 3 begins with six-year-old Clare’s (Everleigh McDonell) first meeting with Henry (Theo James). It’s a meeting the audience has already seen, but this time, we linger on Clare as a child. When Henry disappears the first time, he tells her he’ll be back in six days. Clare’s life is immediately thrown out of whack, and she’s reduced to simply waiting for those days to pass ever so slowly. We see a montage of her bored and wandering through her house, waiting for each calendar page to be ripped off.
“No one should meet their soulmate when they’re six years old.” Older Clare (Rose Leslie) says this because the absence of Henry when she is both a child and an adult is a loss she feels greatly. However, one could argue that her disappointment in Henry’s absence is a problem Henry has created for her. It’s also an absence he doesn’t feel as strongly because he is able to find Clare in every timeline. He’s also living a full and busy adult life in the linear timeline. Henry does lose time with Clare in his present, but by inserting himself into her life as a child, he doesn’t feel absence in the same way.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, as much as The Time Traveler’s Wife tries to make it about Clare, the balance is forever skewed. It’s an unsolvable dilemma. Much older Clare (in House of Gucci-quality prosthetics) muses about what a “decent man would say” when a thirteen-year-old girl tells him she thinks they might be married in the future. Older Clare goes on to say that it must be difficult for him to interact with her because he knows Clare as the “woman he has already wedded and bedded.” Let me answer that question for you, Clare. A decent man wouldn’t have gotten himself into this situation in the first place.
This is a show about time travel, but the logistics and the rules seem to be forever changing. During one of older Henry’s visits to young Clare, it’s snowing outside. She says they can go into her house, but Henry tells her he can’t meet her family until 2008. Why is there an arbitrary date when it’s okay to meet her family, but he can know Clare at any age? They should be an integral part of the show, but the “laws” bend and twist for whatever works best in the moment.
Midway through the episode, there’s an intense scene where sixteen-year-old Clare speeds recklessly on a highway, going the wrong way to prove that nothing bad will happen to her. She believes this to be true because she knows Henry has seen her as an adult. Afterward, Henry shouts at her and tells her the future is not fixed, that it’s her decisions alone that shape the future. And yet, that’s simply not the case. Surely we would have seen some Butterfly Effect by now with all of Henry’s time traveling.
The last third of the episode pivots into a bizarre attempted murder plot. The audience is kept in the dark about why Clare wants Henry to murder her classmate, Jason (Spencer House). Henry goes along with it because he knows he’ll disappear before he can be held accountable for his actions. Henry forces Jason into the trunk of Clare’s car at gunpoint, and they drive to a secluded location. While they’re driving, Clare reveals that Jason hurt her. She stops the car in the middle of the road, in the dark, and gets out to stand in front of the headlights. Very dramatically, she unbuttons her shirt and shows Henry the bruises on her stomach and arms.
In the glare of the headlights, it’s almost as if Clare is on a stage with a spotlight illuminating her. This is by no stretch of the imagination a meaningful depiction of domestic violence. Instead, it merely acts as a knight-in-shining-armor moment for Henry. It immediately becomes about Henry’s rage as he asks her over and over again if Jason raped her. Clare is adamant that he didn’t. Much older Clare, in voiceover, says “of course he raped me.” It’s a strange choice to have Clare lie in an effort to lessen Henry’s anger. Of course there is no one reaction to being raped, and this critique is not about forcing all victims to process their trauma in the same way. In the case of this series, however, it is yet another aspect of Clare’s life that she has bent to the will of Henry. Up to this point, the show has had no interest in unpacking Henry’s effect on Clare’s life, so it seems like this will also pass without being addressed.
The episode ends as Clare is inviting her friends to write about the abuse they’ve experienced at the hands of men on Jason’s body in permanent marker. It’s portrayed as a distinctly feminist moment when Clare and these other young women are claiming their space and trauma. The trouble is that Clare calls these people her friends, but we’ve only seen young Clare living an isolated life. She’s either with Henry or without him. Even in the brief glimpse of her at the party, she barely talks to her classmates, and none of them have names the audience is aware of. The Time Traveler’s Wife, and this episode particularly, tries so hard to make the claim that Clare is the main character. It is called The Time Traveler’s Wife after all, but she is such a flimsy characterization.