This second episode felt much more like a classic TV police procedural. Maybe too much so. What felt absent was any notion that these are two famous men. Not once does anyone have any reaction to the fact that Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle are suddenly standing in their living rooms. So the fun of the premise is somewhat missing this time. On the other hand, Constable Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard) continues to shine, and I couldn't help but think this series could stand up even if it was just about her.
This episode not only explores the idea of reincarnation, but also equal rights for women and female empowerment. It's a nice undercurrent, even if it all feels a little too contemporary to be challenging. Houdini is presented as being the more sexist of the two men...or maybe he's just trying to get under Adelaide's skin, which brings us to the next point.
As for who done it? Well, it turns out the boy is not a reincarnation, and once again Houdini is proven right and Doyle wrong. I'm thinking they'll need to change this up eventually. But what supernatural occurrence will turn out to be unexplainable? We'll have to keep watching to find out.
Just the facts
As mentioned above, this episode shows Houdini being skeptical of the idea of reincarnation. "It's mathematical," he says. "There's a billion more people on the planet than there was 100 years ago. Where's the giant soul factory?" (Good point.) This works well in the context of the show as it sets Houdini and Doyle at odds.
But in reality, Houdini was not only a believer in reincarnation, for a time he was a Doyle-like advocate. He even wrote, produced, and starred in a film, The Man From Beyond, which featured reincarnation as a core theme. It's been said Houdini believed he was the reincarnation of Friedrich von der Trenck, a German spy who had an uncanny ability to escape Prussian jails and who was executed in 1794. On the topic, Houdini wrote:
"But there is something--of that I am convinced--in the theory of reincarnation. Just how much, I cannot say, nor do I believe it will greatly profit us to try and tear aside the veil. In due time it will be lifted, and we shall see beyond with Milton--'the bright countenance of Truth.'"
I should add that later in his life there's evidence that Houdini may have changed his mind about reincarnation.
Besides the mention of his father (whom Houdini did indeed "love very much") the only other factual morsel for us to chew on came during the final scene with Houdini and Constable Stratton having dinner. Here Weston's Houdini mentions his disillusionment with his boyhood hero, Robert-Houdin:
"There's somebody I admired. Idolized even. Robert-Houdin. Greatest magician who ever lived. I named myself after him. The more I studied his act the more I realized he wasn't employing any real skill. Just relying on cheap tricks, juvenile props. In short, he was a fraud."
Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin and did name himself after the great French magician. It's also true that he later turned on his idol. But what disillusioned Houdini was his discovery that Robert-Houdin was not the great inventor he claimed to be; that other magicians were responsible for creating effects and establishing firsts credited to the Frenchman. In 1908, Houdini published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, an aggressive exposé of his former hero. It's not a book that was embraced by the magic world then or now, and Robert-Houdin's reputation as "the father of modern magic" remains intact. But Houdini never wavered in his belief that Robert-Houdin was "the prince of pilfers."
Interestingly, Houdini sent Conan Doyle a copy of The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin as a means of introduction in 1920.
Finally, what of Houdini's attitude toward women's suffrage and suffragette movement? While Houdini did not involve himself in politics, there is some evidence that he was sympathetic to the movement. In 1908, he accepted a challenge by a group of six Suffragettes to escape from sheets and ropes. After Houdini freed himself, he complimented the women on their abilities, noting that he had never been so securely tied and that it was one of his most difficult escapes.
Below is an original playbill from 1908 Suffragettes Challenge from my own collection.
Next Monday: Houdini & Doyle investigate a faith healer in "In Manus Dei." Houdini & Doyle airs every Monday at 9/8c on FOX. Past episodes can be watched at FOX NOW.
- Houdini & Doyle episode 2 (clip)
- Unpublished Houdini: From Beyond (reincarnation)
- Unpublished Houdini: With his baby
- The real story of Houdini & Doyle