Mayfair Witches Proves AMC’s Anne Rice Universe Has Supernatural Staying PowerPhoto: Courtesy of AMC Networks TV Reviews Mayfair Witches
Whether or not you’ve actually read Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles books, you’ve probably at least heard of her decadent, violent tale of the undead (or seen the 1994 feature film adaptation of Interview with the Vampire or watched AMC’s fantastic television version from last year). That’s likely much less true when it comes to Rice’s Lives of the Mayfair Witches trilogy, a sprawling and often completely unhinged tale of a powerful New Orleans family of deeply dysfunctional magic users that also includes everything from ghosts, demons, and god-like immortals, to a secret society of supernatural investigators who don’t do a terribly great job of staying distanced from the beings they’re meant to be observing.
The story of the titular Mayfair family spans centuries of history and crosses continents, with heaps of betrayal, murder, incest, possession, suicide, and sexual assault along the way. Yet their story also features some of Rice’s most complicated and intriguing female characters, a streak of strident feminism that’s lacking in some of her other books, and some positively scorching sex scenes. What I’m saying is, this is not a series that was necessarily ever going to be easy to adapt for a modern television audience, but after AMC’s immensely satisfying reimagining of Interview with the Vampire, it’s understandable if you got your hopes up that someone might finally do this messy epic justice.
And, in truth… maybe someone has? While the first season of Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches is ultimately a very different beast than the books upon which the show is based, it’s also in many ways, a better, more coherent experience. A slow-burn saga that is heavy on atmosphere and low on easy or immediate answers (at least in the five episodes available to screen for critics, out of the first season’s eight), the world of the show unfolds with the sort of slow deliberation that will delight book lovers and frustrate viewers who have no idea what words like Talamasca mean. It lacks some of the immediate and exuberant camp that made Interview so instantly compelling, but there’s a sense that these Witches hold hidden and disturbing depths.
The story centers on Dr. Rowan Fielding (Alexandra Daddario), a San Francisco neurosurgeon known for her immense talent and her intuitive style of medicine. (One of her colleagues actually calls it magic. Subtle!) But when her adoptive mother Ellie’s (Erica Fawn Gimpel) cancer returns, Rowan discovers that much of what she understood about her own history is a lie. It turns out that she’s the presumed dead daughter of a powerful New Orleans family known as the Mayfairs, who was essentially stolen from her mother Deidre (Annabeth Gish) as a child and who is the heir to a powerful legacy. Because the Mayfairs are not only wealthy and powerful, they’re rumored to be witches, with a mysterious supernatural being known as Lasher (Jack Huston) in their thrall. Or at least, so says the Talamasca, the secret order of supernatural researchers (originally introduced in Rice’s The Queen of the Damned) that’s been charged with keeping track of her and her power all her life.
None of these are easy truths for Rowan to swallow, and she spends the bulk of the series’ first five episodes struggling to accept the things Ellie purposefully kept from her, investigating the history of the family she never knew, and trying to come to terms with the strange powers she’s been displaying. (Sorry not sorry to the multiple mansplainers who feel the brunt of the potentially deadly abilities she can’t seem to control.) She journeys to New Orleans, where she finds her way to the family’s infamous First Street mansion, which is rumored to be haunted thanks to its long history of suspicious deaths on the property and was once a prime stop on local ghost tours (before the Mayfairs had it pulled from the schedules).
The Mayfair house is as much a character as any of its residents, full of dark corners both literal and figurative. Its decadent decor and overgrown feel evoke both luxury and oppression, and there are points at which the very walls seem as though they might be alive. It’s not a surprise that any members of the family born in this house are so messed up. But because this is not a place—or a story—that is particularly eager to give up its secrets, viewers learn about the family right alongside Rowan, from party-loving patriarch Cortland (Harry Hamlin) to the vicious Carlotta (Beth Grant), who serves as a comatose Deidre’s caretaker and keeps the younger woman doped up on Thorazine in order to keep her submissive. When Rowan discovers that she is the mysterious “13th witch,” and as such, the official “designee” in charge of the Mayfair fortune and legacy, we’re as confused as she is about what that likely means for her future, and just as unsure about whether to believe the family’s dire warnings or lavish promises about who Lasher is, what he can do, or how easily he can be controlled.
Asked to juggle a variety of competing emotions, Daddario makes for a compelling heroine, a reluctant witch at the best of times who doesn’t want to believe in the truth of her own abilities or her family’s dark secrets. Deftly balancing palpable grief, fierce resolve, and an almost desperate desire for a place to really belong, her Rowan is deeply messy and prone to making the sort of reckless decisions (like running off to her unknown relatives’ house in the middle of the night alone) that may make you question how she can possibly be smart enough to be a doctor. But, perhaps it is this messiness that makes her character feel so human, in a world full of would-be and actual monsters. Perhaps it also explains why she’s so drawn to the enigmatic Lasher, who is himself a strange combination of seductive, submissive, and inevitable. (Is he a demon? The devil? The show is reluctant to reveal any real details about this character, though by the season’s midpoint, he at last finally gets a chance to display some real power.)
As an adaptation, Mayfair Witches does its best to streamline some of the books’ more unwieldy, difficult, or downright bizarre elements, opting—much like Interview before it—to stay faithful to the spirit rather than the letter of Rice’s books. It tweaks multiple story and character elements, changing plot specifics, introducing characters like Ciprien Grieve (Tongayi Chirisa), who combine traits from several familiar faces from the books into intriguing new forms, and giving multiple supporting characters greater depth. The show smartly juxtaposes Rowan’s discovery of her own abilities with a flashback story detailing her mother’s teenage rebellion against Carlotta and seems interested in fleshing out the lives of earlier generations of Mayfair witches in similar ways. (The story of first witch Suzanne is doled out in pieces throughout these initial episodes, and one has to assume other notable Mayfair women will follow.)
It’s unclear whether—-or perhaps more accurately, how—the show will change or modernize some of the trilogy’s most uncomfortable twists, which frequently take a turn for the exceptionally dark and wildly nonsensical. How Mayfair Witches chooses to handle those revelations will ultimately determine whether it’s a great series or simply a pleasant, if shocking distraction, and though we’ll have to wait and find out that answer together, these initial episodes offer every reason to believe it might well be worth the wait.
Mayfair Witches premieres Sunday, January 8 on AMC and AMC+
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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