The following contains spoilers from Episode 2 of The Time Traveler’s Wife (adapted by Steven Moffat and directed by David Nutter)
Episode 2 of The Time Traveler’s Wife attempts to explain 28-year-old Henry’s (Theo James) standoffish nature. Now that Henry and Clare (Rose Leslie) have met in the linear timeline, they’re forced to reckon with their entangled futures. Clare is annoyed that Henry isn’t living up to the version of him that she knew growing up, and Henry is frustrated that she expects him to already be that man. Their relationship is fraught, but when they sit down to lunch at a cafe, Clare is given a banana latte by a waiter while seated at a table near a painting of Lake Cuomo. This is the day that older Henry told child-Clare (Everleigh McDonell) he would open up to her and talk about what his own childhood was like.
When Henry travels back in time, for the most part he’s a bystander, the exception being his insistence on immersing himself in young Clare’s life. While he’s unable to choose exactly when the time travel occurs or where in time he ends up, Henry finds himself returning to the same moments in his life. He tells Clare that pivotal moments in his life have a gravitational pull of sorts for his time traveling. Some are so powerful that they can even simultaneously bring different aged Henrys to the same moment at the same time.
Henry’s mother, Annette (Kate Siegel), died on Christmas Eve when he was eight years old. The two of them had been driving to pick Henry’s dad, Richard (Josh Stamberg), up at the airport when a speeding car crashed into them from behind. A pickup truck in front of them was carrying a large sheet of metal, and the impact sent Henry and his mom forward into the pickup. The metal sheet rocketed through the windshield and decapitated Annette.
For obvious reasons, this moment became a gravity well for Henry. He returns to watch the horrific accident unfold time and time again. No less than ten versions of himself watch as the young Henry experiences the accident for the first time. They always lurk in the shadows and watch the tragedy unfold, but never make an attempt to change the outcome.
Henry as an eight-year-old travels back in time to six months before the car accident and wants to warn Annette. They end up getting into a screaming match because she thinks he’s skipping school. An older Henry is in the same time period and he tells his younger self that something will always stop him from telling his mother what happens. It feels like a haphazard excuse as to why Henry is so passive when he goes back in time and makes his jumps through time less interesting.
What is the effect that time traveling is supposed to have on the relationship of Henry and Clare? Is The Time Traveler’s Wife attempting to elicit the feeling of loss without actually having lost yet? It’s vastly less interesting to see these variously-aged Henrys all lurking around a car crash than it would be to see the effect his sudden disappearances have on the people in his linear timeline life. How can Clare love a man who is not around long enough to get to know? Is it simply enough to have known him when she was a child? When does that stop being enough?
All this talk about free will and trying to change the future feels futile, given the fact that Henry has essentially bent destiny to his will. Clare explains that everything she has learned about herself was through her desire for Henry. That is not free will. Clare was not given a chance to learn about herself naturally, through trial and error. She’s always had a finish line that was preordained. The issue isn’t that their destinies are intertwined and that they’ll marry, it’s that Clare’s future wasn’t hers to find. There’s a distinct difference between Clare growing up not knowing about Henry’s existence until they meet at the library, and Clare growing up being told that she will marry Henry. In the first scenario, the two could still have troubles to work through and opportunities to grow together, but Clare wouldn’t be trapped like she is now. Time and again she’s forced to give Henry the benefit of the doubt because he knows how the story ends and she’s stuck.
On their date, Henry mentions that while he has shaped Clare into the woman she is today, she now has the opportunity to do the same for Henry. It’s difficult to hear that and not immediately think of the power dynamics at play and the difference between shaping a 28-year-old man and an eight-year-old child. It’s laughable to say there is any similarity between the two. The more The Time Traveler’s Wife doubles down on Henry’s impact on Clare’s childhood, the creepier it becomes.
In no way should Clare’s life have been reduced to nothing more than waiting for Henry. There is a way to develop and create years-long yearning without forcing one of the characters to be so shallow. It seems like The Time Traveler’s Wife wants to talk about fate, destiny, and how some things are inescapable, but it has no interest in questioning Henry’s overbearing relationship with a child. No interest in having Henry, who is frustrated that life is planned out for him no matter what he does, face the fact that he is robbing Clare of her free will. Following the logic of the show, Clare is always going to meet and marry Henry, so why does he feel the need to essentially force the relationship upon her?
The writing also brings up the murky matter of consent. Does Clare actually want to have a relationship with Henry, or does she do it because she was told over and over again from the time she was six years old that he was her future? It’s uncomfortable, to say the least. None of Clare’s monologues about how desperately she wants to get to know Henry come across as romantic, given the circumstances.
The liveliest part of the episode comes from Siegel as Annette. She’s been a quietly commanding presence in many a Mike Flanagan horror outing. Siegel brings some much-needed warmth to the series. Even the brief flirtation between Henry’s mother and father shows more chemistry than Henry and Clare have. That statement is a critique of the two leads and praise for Siegel’s unwavering charm. Her final monologue about doomed love and happiness is the closest the show gets to reaching the romantic points it’s clearly striving for.