The first thing that appears on screen for every episode of Mayfair Witches is the ornate, wrought-iron logo for the Immortal Universe, AMC’s burgeoning effort to turn the works of gothic horror novelist Anne Rice into a sprawling franchise à la The Walking Dead. It would be a hilarious act of Dark Universe-esque hubris if it wasn’t for last fall’s Interview With the Vampire — a clever, sumptuous reinvention of Rice’s most famous novel. Mayfair Witches, then, is the follow-up act that widens the scope of the supernatural universe to include the occult — and unfortunately mediocre television.
Mayfair Witches follows the blueprint laid out by Rice’s Lives of the Mayfair Witches trilogy, taking most of its material from the first novel, The Witching Hour. It introduces protagonist Dr. Rowan Fielding (Alexandra Daddario of The White Lotus), a gifted neurosurgeon who makes a horrifying discovery: In moments of intense anger, she can psychically rupture the blood vessels in others’ brains, severely injuring if not outright killing them. This leads her on a journey to discover the family history her adoptive mother hid from her — and unfortunately, the malevolent being she was being hidden from.
Despite the reminder of the wider universe the story is set in, Mayfair Witches is a relatively self-contained story, mostly focusing on Rowan’s journey to find her family in New Orleans and her slow discovery of their supernatural secrets. This is part of the problem: the show’s pace is glacial, and because its perspective is not limited to Rowan, the audience quickly learns the answer to every question Rowan has long before she does.
Before Rowan even appears on screen, Mayfair Witches introduces us to Rowan’s biological mother, Deirdre Mayfair (Annabeth Gish), a woman descended from a family attuned to the supernatural that’s stalked by a mysterious entity known only as Lasher (Jack Huston). While Rowan is slowly coming to accept the strange turn her life is taking, the viewer is being brought up to speed on her birth mother’s history, the odd dynamics of the Mayfair family, and piecing together Lasher’s goals. All of this makes for a story with an uncomfortably passive protagonist, which in turn means Mayfair Witches’ true conflict between Rowan and Lasher ultimately feels hollow, impossible to grasp or be invested in.
This is multiplied by the sense that, unlike Interview With the Vampire, Mayfair Witches does not open with a strong statement about what its updated take on Rice’s work wants to bring to the table. Interview immediately made an impression with its reinvention of Louis de Pont du Lac and his vampire sire Lestat, making the novel’s subtext text and using the vampire metaphor to explore queer desire and race.
If Mayfair Witches has as strong a thesis statement driving it, it’s hard to find. Creators Michelle Ashford and Esta Spalding seem interested in exploring gender and power dynamics in this story, as Rowan’s awakening to her Mayfair heritage comes from moments where men in power undermine her and Lasher’s frustratingly vague motivations seem to hinge on keeping women from realizing how powerful they are. But theme and genre never fully come together, and the performances from the show’s tight cast often read as lost as the viewer likely is. Mayfair Witches, at least in its early episodes, lacks specificity — both in the ways its supernatural powers and monsters work, and in how that might bolster its story about a woman of great power continually stymied by men.
It’s a frustrating feeling, and only partly because of the way Mayfair Witches fumbles the goodwill established by Interview With the Vampire. There’s a texture here that is worth sinking into, a story of a secret family in a bedeviled home in the United States’ most haunted city, where everyone is wrestling with the part they have to play in a story much older than them. There are moments of horror that are arresting in their swift brutality, and ghosts worth dancing with. It’s possible that Mayfair Witches can deliver on the promise that seems to haunt it in the back half of its eight-episode season, but realistically it might not get there until season 2 (if it makes it that far).
Mayfair Witches debuted on AMC and AMC Plus on Sunday, Jan 8. New episodes air on Sundays.