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On first impression, AMC’s Mayfair Witches appears as lush as the overgrown yard of the New Orleans bungalow where much of it takes place.
The plot, adapted from Anne Rice’s novels, centers on a preternaturally gifted surgeon named Rowan (The White Lotus‘ Alexandra Daddario) who discovers she’s heir to a dynasty of women with special powers. As she explores her family tree, each gnarled root seems to branch off into knottier tangles still — ultimately yielding a saga laden with sex, death and magic, spanning hundreds of years and thousands of miles.
But amid that sordid lore, creators Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex) and Esta Spalding (On Becoming a God in Central Florida) make the fatal mistake of prioritizing mythology and mystery over personality and plot. As a result, while there’s a great deal happening onscreen at every turn — secrets to uncover, murders to solve, dances to be had — we’re offered little reason to get very invested in any of it.
In fairness, some of that murkiness is purposeful. As the season begins, Rowan Fielding has no inkling of her true heritage, let alone the dark legacy attached to it. Once she does make her way to the Mayfairs, she finds a clan who’ve purposely kept their affairs in the shadows. Though they’re superficially welcoming, no member of the family seems to be without ulterior motives — not Cortland (Harry Hamlin) the bon vivant uncle, not uptight Aunt Carlotta (Beth Grant) and probably not her perky cousins Josephine (Jen Richards) and Tessa (Madison Wolfe) either.
Woven into the present-day narrative of Rowan’s hunt for answers are flashbacks to a 17th-century Scottish village, chronicling an earlier generation of Mayfairs whose gift for midwivery attracts dangerous suspicion from religious authorities. And sprinkled throughout the dialogue are allusions to other Mayfairs still, whose biographies seem to bolster the warning imparted to Rowan during her quest: “Things don’t end well for the women in this family.” Such hints, combined with a pretty visual palette of dark jewel tones, are enough to string a viewer along for a while, in hopes of a juicy payoff somewhere down the line.
There’s a point at which an alluring enigma begins to look like frustrating opacity, however, and Mayfair Witches crosses it sometime around halfway through its eight-episode season. As of its fifth hour-long installment (the last one sent to critics), the series is still treading the waters of exposition. It’s forever introducing new characters and concepts without explaining the ones it’s already established, or throwing out new plot twists without settling on any distinctive perspective or tone. The vivid personalities, overheated grandeur and wry humor of last year’s well-received Interview With the Vampire, also based on source material from Rice, are much missed.
Even Rowan remains a puzzle, and not by design. We’re given a handful of details about who she’s meant to be: a doctor who cares earnestly about healing others, a wanderer who lives on a houseboat, an adoptee aching to connect with her birth family. But the narrative renders her almost entirely reactive — an innocent reeling from shock or a pawn to be manipulated by others, rather than a heroine allowed to make choices of her own volition — and Daddario struggles to pull together this jumble of traits into a coherent personality.
Far more memorable, though used much more sparingly, is Lasher, a shapeshifting entity who’s been bound to the family for generations. Jack Huston is well cast as the being’s most common form, a graceful man with a cryptic smile and a smoky voice, and he’s able to conjure sparks with nearly everyone he encounters. He becomes the most potent manifestation of the desire coursing underneath so much of Mayfair Witches‘ story, his powers casting illusions that tap into the truest wants of his victims. Those dreams are often (though not always) romantic in nature, and much of the series’ most evocative scenes are sexual fantasies shot in a fevered haze, as if its participants’ senses have overcome their reason.
But if Mayfair Witches is tapped into its characters’ longing, it’s far less legible about what exactly they want and why. One subplot has commitment-phobe Rowan striking up a romance with Ciprien (Tongayi Chirisa), who’s been assigned by some arcane organization to protect her. Yet both halves of the relationship are so thinly written that it’s unclear whether we’re meant to be rooting for a rare and genuine love, or fretting that they’ve fallen under some kind of otherworldly influence. Oddest of all, there’s little sense of what’s at stake in any of these arcs — not even Lasher’s, though evidently his goals are vile enough that some of the Mayfairs will stoop to unthinkable acts to stop him.
Nowhere is the series’ vagueness more noticeable than in the otherwise intriguing fifth episode, in which Lasher tries his best to appeal to a trapped Rowan. “You want pleasure. Sovereignty. You want to be adored. You want cake,” he practically purrs. Not only is his analysis strangely generic (don’t most people want pleasure, adoration and cake?); it struck me that I had no idea if he was actually right about Rowan. Even after hours spent with her, I couldn’t have told you what she wanted beyond more information about her past.
Early in her journey, Rowan sighs, “I really miss the world making sense” — only for Ciprien to point out that it never did, she simply didn’t realize it didn’t. The moment comes just after Rowan’s started to realize how strange her family history truly is but before she’s begun to grasp what any of it means for her. Presumably, she’ll get a grip on this new “world behind the world” eventually, and find a way to bend it to her own will or be crushed by it in the process.
For those of us existing outside the Mayfair universe, though, the calculation is different. Absent characters worth loving or a plot clear enough to follow, what we’re left with is faint exasperation at a world that, for all its superficial and fleeting charms, seems to make no sense at all.
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