Mayfair Witches Review: Anne Rice Series Casts a Subtle Spell

Mayfair Witches pops the veins of the patriarchy as the series opens the season of the witch.

Alexandra Daddario as Dr. Rowan Fielding
Photo: Alfonso Bresciani | AMC

This Mayfair Witches review contains NO spoilers.

Anne Rice has been casting a spell over horror fans for generations. While her Vampire Chronicles has become part of modern mythology, other magical creations sit in a darker corner. Mayfair Witches invites them to come out of the shadows. The AMC series is based on Rice’s trilogy Lives of the Mayfair Witches, and maintains the novel series’ spiritual nature, if not all the plot points, or characters.

Loyalists to Rice’s original unholy texts may worry how faithful the series will remain to the book series. Oh, ye of misplaced faith, Mayfair Witches commits only minor blasphemies. It restructures the storytelling for TV consumption, but maintains the atmosphere of slow metaphysical intrusions into reality. Rice’s personal style of horror doesn’t come from the supernatural incidents, but in horrors hidden in the mind, and the interpersonal relationships which can only occur in some kind of insular community. Mayfair Witches crosses these bridges, but we get the feeling they would rather be burning them.

The series stars Alexandra Daddario as Dr. Rowan Fielding, who has quite the arc. By day, she’s a neurosurgeon, steeped in the sciences, but at a loss to her background, and quickly set adrift. Allegorically, she lives on a houseboat in San Francisco when she is first introduced. Adopted by Ellie (Erica Gimpel), a distant relative of New Orleans’ Mayfair family, Rowan is revealed to be the “13th Witch” in a multigenerational tradition which carries severe responsibilities. Daddario is at her most vulnerable in almost every scene, giving in fully to the multitudes of confusion, elation, or discovery. Her grief is palpable in emotionally jarring scenes, her abandon during sexual exploration is contagious.

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Daddario’s biggest contribution is ambiguity and extremely conflicted emotions. Dr. Fielding is a reluctant witch, to put it mildly. Her gifts frighten her, the big changes are overwhelming, and she does not have the option of giving in to dark thoughts. One of the things which trigger the neuroscientist is the flippant condescension of her male co-workers, and don’t get her started on mansplaining. She sees it as an academic challenge, and uses all her knowledge of the inner workings of the human brain to cause internal bleeding at precise junctions. The series offers a unique depiction of this kind of intrusion.

Mayfair Witches was created by showrunner Esta Spalding and Michelle Ashford, who directed the pilot, and executive produced by Mark Johnson, who brings along the leisurely layout of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad. They take the ethos of the witches and The Witching Hour, and brew it like a midwife’s potion, making sure it simmers. Mayfair Witches wants very much to maintain its mysteries as long as possible, which make the teasing clues satisfying. The approach is very subtle, the magic comes across in slow increments, and ever-full cartons of eggs. When grievous wounds are inflicted, people don’t push things off tables for makeshift emergency rooms. Obstacles are picked up and placed down elsewhere, not broken underfoot.

Jack Huston is characteristically enigmatic as Lasher. Seductive and submissive, he tops from the bottom. Lasher only does whatever Rowan wants, but he offers tantalizing suggestions. Like cake. Who can say no to cake? Even as Rowan explains how she is no longer a child whose heart’s desire is chocolate, the pastry layout is irresistible. Jesus in the desert for 40 days couldn’t pass up the temptation of this dessert. Lasher may or may not be a demon, but he is a real devil. 

For Rice, interpersonal relationships are the key to scaring readers, not necessarily the horrific acts. Rice’s monsters are vulnerable, emotional, and sympathetic. This cannot be said for Carlotta Mayfair (Beth Grant), no matter how many chances Rowan gives her to make nice. And she’s the most religious. That doesn’t make her the most spiritual.

Annabeth Gish is a revelation in her short span as Diedre Mayfair. The most powerful witch of the family spends the majority of her screen time imprisoned by antipsychotic medicines, but is still able to communicate her dimmed clarity to the viewer. When Deirdre finally breaks free of the mental bondage, she blooms like a hothouse flower.

Harry Hamlin looks like he is having fun as Cortland Mayfair, the patriarch of the Mayfair family who lost his footing because he’s “an old softy, but don’t tell anybody.” He brings spirits to the funerals, and wears reconciliation on his lapel. But Hamlin really shines when Cortland is biting back his words. He lets loose with the perfect rejoinders, delivered with equal amounts wit and bile, but never loses his inherent bonhomie. This makes it seem like he’s always got something more to say, but restraining himself. This is a wonderful blend as his dealings with Lasher force him so deep into emotional subterfuge. Though not in full evidence in the first five episodes, we know bad things are coming from Cortland. He will serve them with a smile, and offer a chaser.

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The first magical working of the series isn’t done by the witches, but by an expert in The Order of the Talamasca, a secret society introduced in Rice’s The Queen of the Damned. The ancient order watches, researches, and investigates all supernatural-related activity. But they only get involved if plots need to thicken, and emotional collateral is on the line. As Rowan’s designated protector, Tongayi Chirisa’s Ciprien Grieves seems too good to be true, yet he is. He is an amalgamation of two characters, each of whom are altruistic, protective, and gifted. Ciprien’s particular gift is represented very closely to how Rice describes it in The Witching Hour.

The first season starts where the book starts, in the ghost story of the old Mayfair House in New Orleans. Renowned for murders, disappearances, and witches, the art department presents the manor like an insidious weed in the Garden District. Its owners, regarded as cold-blooded serpents whose power comes from sinister roots, pulled the home from walking tours. The Mayfair house is a character, with the same emotional architecture as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938).

The mansion mirrors its owners. Camera angles and special effects make it subtly unsettling, portraits occasionally have life, the walls on the stairways sometimes breathe, and reflections capture dark secrets. In the book, the rooms enclose dolls made of bone and hair, and human heads in jars. Slasher unveils, at one point, an autopsy table. By the middle of the run, we get the sense the mansion may house ghosts of previous owners.

The middle section of Rice’s first book, which tells the story of 13 generations of witches going all the way back to Donnelaith, Scotland, are doled out in small fragments. The flashbacks frame episodes with telltale clues which become important in the series’ present. The midwife ancestor Suzanne Mayfair knows all about herbs and tinctures, and Rowan has an innate gift of ad hoc healing, with or without utensils. We sense the connection without having to be told.

Mayfair Witches combines all the elements into a bewitching experience which pulls you in surreptitiously. The acting is uniformly sharp because the characters are the story. The plot, intriguing as it promises to be, is really a delivery system for the most intense personal growth regimen a person can maintain. Happily, for horror fans, that discipline starts to slip by the midway point of the season. Better than that, there are still mysteries being revealed in the increasing darkness.

Mayfair Witches premieres on AMC and AMC+ on Jan. 8.

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4 out of 5