One cannot think of Anne Rice without thinking about vampires. Over the course of nearly 50 years, the author helped to radically redefine the bloodsucking creatures for generations of readers through her wildly best-selling Vampire Chronicles series. A whole new audience has flocked to the late author’s world thanks to AMC’s impeccable adaptation of “Interview With the Vampire,” and now, the network is hoping that Rice’s other paranormal creations will keep viewers hooked. Move over Lestat, the Mayfair Witches are in town.
Alexandra Daddario plays Rowan, a brilliant brain surgeon who suddenly realizes that she has the ability to kill people with a mere thought. Her fears over her growing powers lead her to uncover her birth family, the infamous Mayfair clan of New Orleans. Generations of women have found themselves haunted by a seductive spirit known as Lasher (Jack Huston), including Rowan’s catatonic birth mother Deirdre (Annabeth Gish), who is being kept drugged and captive by her aunts. To uncover her past, Rowan must embrace what it means to be a Mayfair, and the dangers her own abilities pose to the world.
“The Lives of the Mayfair Witches” might be the most ambitious thing that Rice wrote that didn’t contain a single vampire. The trilogy, comprised of about 2000 pages, details a centuries’ long history of a family of incestuous matriarchal witches who are haunted by a spirit that wants to invade humanity by assaulting their bloodline. It is dense, hyper-dramatic, heavy in historical detail, and not especially plot-driven. Adapting it into a somewhat linear TV drama that can compete with the more familiar and baroque styling of “Interview With the Vampire” is no easy feat for AMC. Vampire die-hards might not be as instantly drawn to “Mayfair Witches” as they are its undead sibling, but the potential on display is immense.
The thousand-page tome has been streamlined, with a few dynasties truncated into one and two major characters molded together into a new supporting player (Ciprian, the representative of the mystical investigators known as the Talamasca, is a welcome addition to the ensemble in this regard.) Like “Interview With the Vampire,” the plot changes become increasingly frequent over the season, although even the most ardent fans of the novels would have to admit their necessity.
Where the Vampire Chronicles are lush and sensual, the Mayfair Witches series is gothic, halfway between soap and opera. It’s a tone the adaptation does well with as the first few episodes jump between Rowan’s time, her mother’s troubled childhood, and the family’s origins in the Scottish Highlands (complete with deeply unnecessary subtitles.) As with “Interview,” this series understands that the only way to do Rice properly is to play it straight, with nary a wink nor a nod towards the often silly nature of the material. Like “Interview,” that also means embracing the beauty and allure of New Orleans, which looks stunning here in its modern-day iteration. One episode, featuring Rowan on a drunken waltz with a local funeral parade, gives focus over to the city’s rich culture, which Rice frequently wove into her books. Would that there were more of it.
Everyone here is committed to that ethos, with the possible exception being Harry Hamlin, who revels in unleashing his inner Benoit Blanc to play Cortland Mayfair, the sole patriarch of the clan and nefarious schemer. Daddario has a firm grasp on a tricky character, one who, despite being the protagonist, is something of a cipher. Rowan is all-powerful yet ignorant of her history, a genius in her field but a total novice to the world of witches. It makes sense for our audience avatar to feel so green, although this means Rowan can’t help but feel thin compared to her relatives, especially her aunts, including the always-welcome Beth Grant. She’s a pawn to a wider and fascinating tale of loyalties and power. The multiple points-of-view give room to the various conflicts at play. How much pain against your loved ones can be justified if it’s supposedly in the name of keeping them safe?
And at the center of that battle is Lasher, a demon who uses seduction to entrap an entire dynasty. In the books, he mostly does this through serial rape, which the show blessedly eschews. Huston is subdued, perhaps too much so, as he balances appeasing these women with manipulation. Here, he’s a more traditionally charming figure than the books, as the series aims to further focus on the theme of women’s power and the ways it is quashed. In contrast to the Vampire Chronicles, the Mayfair Witches world is almost exclusively feminine, and this adaptation is at its strongest when it delves into the generational bonds and trauma of this unique matriarchy. Women are in charge but it’s still a man (or at least a male-presenting spirit) who reigns tyrannical over them all. Under this stranglehold, even the kindest of witches becomes ruthless, and the Mayfairs can be mercilessly cruel. When centered on these moral complexities, “Mayfair Witches” shines, particularly as it relates to the push-pull force of Lasher. If you’d been kept prisoner by your own family for decades, wouldn’t you too fall into the arms of the biggest red flag in New Orleans?
As inviting and intriguing as the series often is, it might be tough for AMC to lure viewers to “Mayfair Witches.” It’s not the established property that Rice’s vampire books are, nor is it as lascivious as Lestat and Louis’ history. This is a slower burn, a larger family tale that takes its time without grinding to a narrative halt. There is much to establish and retell, although it’s all perfectly accessible to those who haven’t read the books. Yet “Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches” is also a welcome addition to our screens, a dramatic and sometimes sexy saga that fully believes in the story it wants to tell. The books go to some surreal and shocking places, and it seems that AMC is ready to take viewers there.
“Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches” premieres on AMC and AMC+ on Jan. 8.