This time Houdini (Michael Weston), Doyle (Stephen Mangan) and Constable Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard) investigate the sudden death of a man during a faith healer's ministry. Was he struck down by the hand of God for being a non-believer or was he murdered? Houdini, who is portrayed as the ultimate unbeliever in this episode, is himself struck down with a mysterious illness in the course of events. He even fails to escape from the Water Torture Cell (more on that later). Doyle also has a deeply personal experience that might be related to his own faith, as his wife, played by Stephen Mangan's real-life wife, Louise Delamere, suddenly revives from her coma.
The budding relationship between Houdini and Adelaide, set-up at the end of episode two, is only serviced with a few lines of dialogue this time. Will they or won't they? Something tells me it's going to take the entire season to find out. We again see Houdini's mother (Diana Quick) and Houdini's assistant Florrie (Jerry-Jean Pears), who has the honor of breaking the glass of the Water Torture Cell to save her boss. The faith healer, Elias Downey, is very well played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett.
This time the solution to the mystery was a nice surprise. However, the script employed a major cheat by withholding the fact that Downey's sister gave the victim "a refreshment" shortly before his collapse. This was later shown to the audience only in flashback, but Houdini and Doyle appeared to known it the entire time? Feels like a mystery series can only get away with something like that so many times (if ever). But, as I said, the personal aspects of this episode are what really drove it home. The ending, when Doyle's wife suddenly lapses back into her coma, is truly devastating.
Just the facts
There's a moment in which Weston's Houdini express an opinion that would suggest he's an atheist: "God was invented to explain things we don't understand. Now we have science." While the real Houdini was not overly religious (I like to say his religion was Magic), he was not an atheist. He even reaffirmed his belief in God while under oath before Congress. However, he was frequently accused by spiritualists that he was "attacking religion" and even today there are those who equate his skepticism with atheism. But this was not the case.
Houdini being chopped free of his Water Torture Cell has been dramatized many times, most famously in the 1953 film Houdini starring Tony Curtis, which had him die in the escape (a myth that persists to this day). This never happened. Even if Houdini had been trapped in the USD, as he called it, its unlikely the axe would have ever been used. The cell had drainage valves at the bottom of the tank that could be opened in an emergency.
Only once, as far as we know, did Houdini have an accident while doing the Water Torture Cell. While performing in Albany in 1926, he broke his ankle as he was being raised above the stage. And speaking of broken bones...
At one point Doyle examines Houdini's x-rays and notes his history of many broken bones. Says Doyle, "You must be in agony every single day." This is more Evel Knievel than Harry Houdini. Apart from the aforementioned broken ankle and a broken wrist while doing a movie stunt, Houdini did not break many bones during his career. However, he did rupture a blood vessel in his kidney while doing a straitjacket escape, and that injury did cause him lifelong pain. But in 1901, when Houdini & Doyle is set, Houdini was in top physical shape.
Finally, there's what I thought was a missed opportunity when Houdini's mother feeds him chicken soup during his feverish illness. Houdini claims it was the source of his sudden cure. Wouldn't Farmers Chop Suey have been better? This was a favorite childhood dish that Houdini asked for during his final illness in Detroit. Not only would this have been a nice nod to the real Harry, but it would have spared the audience the chicken soup cliché.
Next Monday: Houdini and Doyle tackle the legend of "Spring-Heel’d Jack."
Houdini & Doyle airs every Monday at 9/8c on FOX. You can also watch episodes at FOX NOW.