Rowan Fielding is a mess, and that’s before she inherits a dangerous power from a lineage of witches that she can’t control.
The San Francisco neurosurgeon at the center of AMC’s latest Anne Rice adaptation, “Mayfair Witches,” played by Alexandra Daddario, should live a charmed life. Instead, she’s unmoored and unsure of herself, numbing her wayward mind nightly with booze and boys she finds at dive bars, before retreating to the floating isolation of her houseboat until her next shift.
It’s just enough to subdue her primal instincts — that is, until she loses her adoptive mother, Ellie (Erica Gimpel), to a cancer recurrence in this week’s series premiere. The trauma of that unlocks something within Rowan, a power to kill with just her mind – something she unwittingly unleashes on two powerful and predatory men in her path.
Distraught and scared of even herself, she sequesters herself to her boat, only to be visited in the episode’s final moments by a devilishly alluring leech named Lasher (Jack Huston), a mystical figure who long ago attached himself to her magical ancestry.
“Mayfair Witches” is propelled by Rowan’s hunger to find out who she is, a journey that Daddario says audiences should know will be just as fraught and unpredictable as her character.
“You are dealing with a character that is already navigating real-life problems and extreme grief, and you don’t know what to expect from her,” she tells Variety. “Then she’s given all this power and control. It was really fascinating to dive into, because this is someone who is figuring out who she is, probably for the first time, and that can be a very volatile place for a person. It just gets crazy from here.”
The series is adapted from Rice’s “The Witching Hour” and serves as the second installment in AMC’s burgeoning Immortal Universe, an interconnected world of New Orleans-centric series adapted from the prolific author’s supernatural works. It follows last fall’s “Interview With the Vampire,” which featured subtle nods to the impending arrival of the witchy Mayfairs.
Despite being part of a larger universe, showrunner, executive producer and co-creator Esta Spalding said AMC was clear that “Mayfair Witches” could be its own aesthetic creation, so long as it honored the spirit of Rice’s story and kept Rowan at its center.
“We need that character as an anchor to enter the story of this family, this world, this city,” says Spalding, who co-wrote the premiere with Michelle Ashford. “Those guiding principles from AMC were important because this was daunting. It is such an enormous book, and there are so many generations described in it.”
Executive producer Mark Johnson, who also serves as the architect of the Immortal Universe, says reading Rice’s works or watching “Interview With the Vampire” aren’t prerequisites to enjoy “Mayfair Witches’” freshman run. But for those who do, expect to see the threads that connect the two shows — and future series — start to tighten.
“I’m hoping that as we go further in, we are going to see, not just Easter eggs, but significant influences from characters from one world coming into another,” he says. “Or somehow affecting somebody else.”
First, Rowan will have to see how the Mayfair pedigree of witches affects her life before she throws vampires in the mix.
She ends the premiere having been tracked by Lasher, the same menacing specter that has, throughout the episode, stood at the side of her birth mother Deirdre (Annabeth Gish), who is being kept in a vegetative state in New Orleans. Through flashbacks, a young and impressionable Deirdre (Cameron Inman) is shown to be a pawn used by her various family members, as well as a target of Lasher. After a raucous party thrown by her uncle (Harry Hamlin), she finds herself pregnant with Rowan, whom Lasher warns will change everything.
Fear of the yet-to-be-born child and her dark alliance with Lasher leads Deirdre’s Aunt Carlotta (Beth Grant) to tell her that Rowan died in the moments after her birth, before secretly giving the baby up for adoption.
Who Rowan has become since being separated from her mother is perhaps the biggest question lingering over the series as she begins reuniting with her past in the second episode.
“Rowan has this incredible power to hurt people if she wants, or help people if she wants, which works nicely as a doctor,” Daddario says. “Is she going to use her power for good or bad? Is she a good person who does bad things, or a bad person who is capable of good? Is she under the delusion she is a good person who is just making bad decisions? All of it, the relationship between good and evil, is entrenched in this show and how she is going to harness these new powers.”
Rowan and Deirdre don’t reunite in the premiere, nor does Rowan make the inevitable trek to New Orleans to discover the roots she has been yearning to find. For now, the only connection they share is Lasher, a character on which Spalding worked closely with Johnson to get right.
“Mark would read a draft of the pilot and say we need a little less Lasher, because less is more,” she says. “He’s frightening in the pilot, but you also had to know he was seductive. He does, in some ways, have a real connection with Deirdre and deeply cares for her. So what will it mean for Rowan that he is now in her life? Lasher was always a riddle. We want him to terrify the audience, and a minute later seduce them.”
He will also be key to unlocking Rowan’s lineage, since he’s been with the Mayfair women for generations (as audiences will come to learn).
Spalding confirms the series will gradually peel back the layers of the generations that precede Rowan – one group of Mayfairs in particular, whose story will be seen in prologues that open each episode beginning in Episode 2.
“This one generation is the origin story of Lasher, it is the origin story of the Mayfair Witches, and we elaborate on that one story,” she says. “It is a piece of every episode and then it becomes integral to the plot by the end of the season.”
By the finale, Spalding teases that Rowan will find herself in a place where she “experiences all 13 generations.”
Rice, who died in December 2021, was not part of the making of “Interview With the Vampire” or “Mayfair Witches,” even though she is credited along with her son, Christopher Rice, as an executive producer. What she left behind is a densely packed, brick-sized book – the first in the “Lives of the Mayfair Witches” trilogy — from which Spalding, Daddario and company have now launched Rowan’s story.
But the longer Daddario stays in the perilous place that is Rowan’s mind, the more she longs to pick Rice’s brain. “I wish I had met her,” she says. “I have a lot of questions.”