A beginner’s guide to A Discovery of Witches

Matthew Goode as Matthew Clairmont and Teresa Palmer as Diana Bishop - A Discovery of Witches _ Season 1 - Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky/SKY Productions/Sundance Now
Matthew Goode as Matthew Clairmont and Teresa Palmer as Diana Bishop - A Discovery of Witches _ Season 1 - Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky/SKY Productions/Sundance Now /

What is A Discovery of Witches, who stars in it, where and when can you see it, and why should you be watching this excellent series?

If you like fantasy but think you’ve outgrown the genre, or if you’ve grown tired of the forbidden-relationships-between-species trope, A Discovery of Witches is guaranteed to change your mind. The British show, produced by Bad Wolf and Sky Productions, offers a mature outlook on the politics and intricacies of feuds between supernatural creatures whose existence is a secret from humanity.

If this reminds you of something you’ve already seen or read in other series, don’t be fooled. While many people are quick to call ADOW a sort of “Twilight for grown-ups,” the only thing this story has in common with Twilight is the existence of vampires. Far from being a tale about teenagers — the protagonist is in her’ 30s — the show does not conform to Young Adult canons. Rather, it sets its own pace, style and terms. No offense, but this isn’t The Vampire Diaries either.

A Discovery of Witches may on the surface appear to be only a (terrific) love story, but it primarily seeks to investigate humanity even against the backdrop of the supernatural. It is a tale of Otherness, of community, of politics, generational conflict, legacy and evolution. If you are a lover of romance or fantasy, or dark academia, or if you have a passion for history and anthropology, this show is definitely for you.

For some inexplicable reason, ADOW fell terribly under the radar despite its high production values and the many big-name cast members. The show holds a stellar score of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, and an average of 8 on IMDb.

What is A Discovery of Witches about?

At the center of it all is Diana Bishop, played by the phenomenal Teresa Palmer (I Am Number Four, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). To everyone around her, Diana is an American historian, a tenured professor of the history of science at Yale who is conducting research on alchemy at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. What most people do not know, and what she wishes she could herself forget, is that she was born a witch. A rather powerful magic-wielder, yet fully untrained due to her reluctance to have anything to do with the supernatural.

Every story starts with an unwilling hero, and Diana soon learns she can’t run from what she is. To face the deadly challenges that await her and fight the enemies closing in, she will have to accept the power of her bloodline… and to make alliances with other creatures.

Enter Matthew Clairmont, a brilliant professor of genetics Diana crosses paths with at Oxford. They both need to find the Book of Life, an ancient manuscript that had been lost for centuries. Matthew Goode (The Crown, Downtown Abbey) plays this stoic, brooding, wine-loving male lead of the show majestically. However, Matthew’s charm masks a secret: he is a millennia-old vampire and a member of the powerful de Clermont clan. To Diana, this is clear from their first, very tense, conversation. To us… well, it’s not hard to believe, when Matthew Goode plays him so spectacularly. I do sincerely believe his performance deserves Emmy recognition, and that’s a hill I will die on.

It’s impossible to take one look at any promotional picture from the show and feel indifferent to the electric chemistry between Palmer and Goode. It’s so palpable that it feels like a character of its own. Matthew and Diana’s love blossoms against all odds and everyone’s better judgement, as if predestined, all while a budding war bubbles up in the background. The two must challenge notions and traditions that have been in place since, well, the beginning of time if they are going to be together.

“It begins with absence and desire, it begins with blood and fear, it begins with a discovery of witches.”

Very dramatic, I know. It’s odd how these creatures have managed to escape human attention for thousands of years when they can be so over the top. But it’s actually quite simple: the Congregation, the nine-person judiciary assembly of creatures based in Venice, Italy, upholds the Covenant. This ancient pact was stipulated eons ago between vampires, witches, and daemons to protect them from being found out by humans. They are not supposed to intermingle, and it’s strictly forbidden to enter romantic relationships with someone from another species.

The world-building in this series is very cohesive and leaves no room for plot holes. At the same time, it’s not overwhelming. That is entirely thanks to the brilliant intellect, research and imagination of author Deborah Harkness, who created a universe that feels new and refreshing while still grounding itself in our reality. Dr. Harkness carefully wove her story and her characters around real-world history and literature. As a scholar, she can’t change the facts, so she molds her characters to fit into the cracks of history. She solves historical mysteries and fulfills prophecies with a little bending and twisting. Imagine writing dozens of immortal characters — and worse, a few time-traveling ones — and have them leave their marks at various points in history, all the while staying consistent.

For example, the lives of Matthew and his family intersect cleverly with history. Mathieu de Clermont was a real Frenchman who died in the Crusades in 1291. In Elizabethan London,  on the show, our Matthew goes under the name Matthew Roydon, a member of the School of Night, a clandestine group of poets, revolutionaries, and free-thinkers. The group included Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe, whose life stories are perfectly accounted for; the only elusive member is Matthew Roydon. That’s where Harkness struck.

Now for a bit of fantasy. The vampires in A Discovery of Witches tend to be very refined, elegant, and ambitious. They gather in clans and follow a strict pack mentality. As the only immortal species, they can be really patient, they like to namedrop, and they are fond of art and culture. They have very few characteristics of vampires from folklore or even from more recent popular culture. They eat food (and they can be picky about it), they sleep (although rarely), they have a heartbeat (very slow), and they certainly do not sparkle or shudder before religion. They’re closer to humans than you’d think; they can even inherit genetic diseases like the terrible blood rage, an old threat to their species. At the beginning of the series, vampires note growing weakness in their ranks, observing that new vampires often aren’t able to make more vampires, or that the younglings do not survive.

Harkness’s genius comes into play again as she finds rational ways to explain the supernatural through science. Rather than putting her hands up and using “fantasy” as an excuse, ADOW runs every phenomenon through genetics. In present day at the time of Diana’s story, witches are also far less powerful than what they once were. It’s because modern day witches are born with fewer genetic markers for magic than in the past. Some witches can cast spells or brew potions or practice witchcraft, some are connected to an element, some are inclined to the higher arts, some even get familiars. What type of witch is Diana? You’ll have to watch to find out.

The most similar species to humans, Daemons distinguish themselves mostly by their intellect. They are, for lack of a better term, geniuses in anything they set their mind to. That, of course, often tends to lead to madness. Many daemons are ticking bombs, supernovas always erring close to chaos. They’re extremely creative, they can be very focused or very distractible, and they are often highly erratic and unpredictable.

When and where is A Discovery of Witches set?

ADOW takes viewers on many wonderful journeys: one geographical, through the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Central Europe, and the United States; one chronological, on a little detour through time (if you’re a fan of period dramas, you’re in luck, because the episodes spent in 1591 are as close to a time machine as you’ll ever get); and one inward, as the story demands that the innermost realms of the protagonists’ souls be laid bare, and the viewers in turn must explore their own.

The show is certainly plot-driven — the story is too well constructed for it to be anything else, and a lot happens in the world outside of Diana and Matthew — but the characters are so magnificently written and perfectly portrayed that sometimes when the two of them share the screen you could almost forget about the war raging outside. The relationships between characters — be they platonic, familial or romantic — are so rounded and grounded in the texture of the story that the show would hold its own even if everyone was locked in a room simply discussing the weather and absolutely nothing else was going on.

Suspense is perpetually high and the show really keeps you on your toes regarding what it is that those witches discovered. Ready to find out?

How many episodes of A Discovery of Witches are there, and who is the cast?

The show’s first season premiered in 2018. It covered the events of the first book over the span of eight episodes. The second season premiered in January 2020 with 10 episodes covering the second book in the trilogy, somehow outdoing the splendor of season 1.

Season 3 will premiere in January 2022 and it is rumored to have seven episodes, as production had to be cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The show only has 18 episodes so far, which means you’ve got time to watch season 1 and 2 before season 3 comes out. Do you need more reasons to watch it? Well, there’s the incredible cast.

Accompanying Theresa Palmer and Matthew Goode are Alex Kingston (Doctor Who) as Sarah Bishop, Diana’s aunt; Owen Teale (Game of Thrones) as Peter Knox, a powerful witch who sits on the Congregation; Steven Cree (Outlander) as Gallowglass, everyone’s favorite member of Matthew’s family; Edward Bluemel (Sex Education) as Marcus Whitmore, Matthew’s son; Aiysha Hart (Atlantis) as Miriam Shephard, a vampire geneticist; the iconic Lindsey Duncan as Ysabeau de Clermont, Matthew’s mother; and Tom Hughes (Victoria) as Christopher Marlowe, among others.

Where can you watch A Discovery of Witches?

If you are in the United States or Canada, you have many options to wach: you can find all the episodes of A Discovery of Witches on Sundance Now, AMC and Shudder. In the UK and most of Europe, the show is on SKY. In other European countries, it’s on HBO.

For information on where to watch in other countries, you can check out this page on Deborah Harkness’s website; she’ll soon post an update for season 3 airing dates as well. For now, we know season 3 will premiere in January and that all the episodes will likely be released on the same day like season 2.

How many books is A Discovery of Witches?

If you want to delve deeper into this world, which I passionately encourage you to, you can check out the All Souls series of novels by Deborah Harkness:

1)    A Discovery of Witches (2011)
2)    Shadow of Night (2012)
3)    The Book of Life (2014)

After the success of the trilogy, the author has been working on more novels centered on other characters. For now, only Time’s Convert (2018) is out, but she is working on at least three more.

If you’ve made it this far, go watch the show and then let us know what you think! If you’re already a fan and were here to brush up your memory, enjoy the recently released new trailer for season 3!

Remember, in every ending there is a new beginning.

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