Tuesday, May 17, 2016

REVIEW: Houdini & Doyle (ep. 3): In Manus Dei

For my money, Houdini & Doyle episode 3, "In Manus Dei," is the best yet. The core mystery and personal storylines are very well integrated, making this episode both intriguing and moving (especially the end). For the first time, this series gripped me beyond just being a Houdini novelty.

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.

Spoilers ahead
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

Unlike episode two, in which the Houdini's attitude towards reincarnation is diametrically opposed to the real man, here his attitude towards faith healers is spot on. Houdini condemned them along with fake doctors and medicine show practitioners in his first book, The Right Way To Do Wrong (1906). But what about Houdini's own faith?

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.


  1. Of all the episodes, I probably enjoyed this one the least. It was a bit gorier than I was expecting, and I didn't really believe Harry's psychosomatic illness, nor the seizure in the WTC. I don't understand the fascination with hacking him out in every Houdini-related film (with the obvious exception of "FairyTale").

    Regardless, I am continually impressed by the level of acting from all the performers, including Mangan and Weston. I absolutely LOVE Diana Quick as Mama, and the chicken soup scene was definitely a highlight, even if it wasn't farmer's chop suey! Hope we get to see more of her.


    1. Diana Quick as Mama is great. It was a late discovery that she was even in the series. But a nice surprise.

    2. Even though the show plays a bit fast and loose with facts and dates, Mama would have been in Europe in 1901, so hats off to the writers for getting it right.

      I always thought it was ironic that Mrs. Rahner was so opposed to Bess marrying a Jewish entertainer, yet later she managed to get along so well with both Harry and Mrs. Weiss. Didn't the "two mothers" like going on shopping trips together?

      I get the idea that Mrs. Weiss was an extraordinarily accepting person. Though I've never read anything to confirm it, I've always believed that she and Mayer Samuel ascribed to Reform Judaism. It certainly fits with her more genial outlook on people of other faiths, not to mention her relatively relaxed attitude to her two sons running off to be stage magicians.


    3. And ALL her children marrying outside the Jewish faith.

      Cecelia and Balbina had a lot in common. Presumably close in age, they were both widows, immigrants, both spoke German, and had large families. Mrs. Rahner might have been more extreme and superstitious in her religious views (thinking Harry was the devil, etc.), but I think Mrs. Weiss was a very smart and a cosmopolitan woman (recall she spoke several languages). As you say, I think she was open minded. Not as "old world" as she is portrayed.

  2. I never put it together that the ALL married outside of the Jewish religion. So we do not have to go check it all out, could you delineate it for us.

    1. Well, of the kids who married, that is. Gladys never married. And think Bill remained a bachelor, right?

      So Ehrich, Theo, Nat, Leo (and I think even Herman) hooked up with shiksas! Of course, Nat and Leo hooked up with the same shiksa, so that helped.

  3. The two things I'm most enjoying about this show are Weston showing how much Harry loves being Houdini (a trait I assume the real Harry shared) and the uncommented-upon casual non-traditional casting.

    1. Yes, indeed, the love of being Houdini. Well put.

  4. Great review! I agree this is best so far. I love the brotherly bickering banter between Houdini & Doyle. Historical inaccuracies aside -it is great fun!

  5. But what is the deal with the opium pipe?!??

  6. I'd like to hit that pipe too.......Yeah Houdini


Legal Disclosure

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


Receive updates via email