Ascribing to a gender is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows to establish certain norms right from the opening credits. But, on the other hand, it makes it difficult for a series to claim its differential feature and attract attention. Just think, for example, how many works stem from the murder of a young person, within a small community and how their death reveals the structural evil that plagues the town.
In this sense, ‘Cardinal’ is a slice of text-book Nordic noir. The police officer who gives the title to the series, John Cardinal, is a hostile being, obsessed with his cases and suffering from personal trauma. When he is assigned a young, attractive, tactful new partner, he initially gives her the cold shoulder, or at best, treats her with indifference, letting her know constantly that he’d be much better off alone at the police station. And in the world. All of which is well-travelled territory.
But if this series, now available in its entirety on Filmin, manages to avoid excessively recreating the conventions of the genre and the suit fits quite comfortably, it’s thanks to several elements that, while not exactly groundbreaking or disruptive, do at least give it an air of its own. Starting with the location: ‘Cardinal’ is Canadian, and this makes the presence of nature even more ominous than in its European counterparts.
The cast is also compiled of unfamiliar faces, at least to us here in Mediterranean latitudes, so the charisma of Billy Campbell, the interpreter who gives life to the series title’s detective, is one of its greatest attractions, a feat that wasn’t easy to pull off, because, as his name implies, John Cardinal is acutely rational and capable of keeping it together in the midst of chaos and confusion. But he’s also a sad character who has disappointed almost everyone around him. A lone wolf; an injured animal if you like. In the first episode, our Cardinal’s newly appointed partner is offered some advice from a veteran on the force as to how best to handle him: “First, whatever you do, stand up to him and don’t be a yes man. And second? Never disagree with him”. And this is precisely what Lisa Delorme’s character does. She tries to find alternative paths and gain authority without destabilizing him. Despite Campbell being the initial star, Karine Vanasse’s more subtle yet equally potent performance also affords her headline ranking.
The other grand character, and here we return to the conventions of the genre, is the landscape. Or, more specifically, the cold. Our story unfolds in northern Ontario, in the fictional enclave of Algonquin Bay, and the harsh conditions soon become a determining factor that affects both the victims, the murderers, and their persecutors alike. It’s the cold weather that keeps corpses horrifyingly well preserved. And it is the cold that forces the kidnappers to have a fleece coat ready for their victim, because otherwise they’d die of hypothermia before they could even demand a ransom.
As such, the omnipresent snow goes far beyond tinting the palette of every shade of white and to give the series an artistic quality. Here the cold really acts an element that works against the characters, as was the case in another polar series, ‘Fortitude’. However, the true coldness of ‘Cardinal’ is not that found in the icy atmosphere, but rather the freezing personal relationships. Again, and in following with conventions of the genre, there is the classic unresolved sexual tension between the two detectives, with audiences probably preferring to see at least a little warmth in the middle of all that permafrost.
Based on the novels of Giles Blunt, series creators filmed four, six-episode seasons, so that each case is narrated without too many digressions, a feature that enhances the end result greatly, since it thus avoids suffering from that devilry of other shows which end up shooting superfluous storylines and plot twists, solely to comply with the precept of the 12 episodes. For season one, the producers allocated a budget of $1.8 million per episode and this has allowed a remarkably well-constructed production with umpteen exterior scenes to take full advantage of the Canadian white. In comparison, a typical episode on the Catalan TV network, TV3, would come in at around the €160,000 mark, while Movistar would splash out around €500,000. (Exceptions can be found of course depending on the series, so these can be taken as ball-park figures). As such, ‘Cardinal’ cannot be considered to be in the major leagues when it comes to series budgets, capable of competing with the blockbuster titles promoted by the principal pay to stream platforms. Nevertheless, it does manage to stand out in a league of its own thanks to a fairly well-crafted aesthetic and a psychological expansion of the characters that furnishes the whole with an authenticity. In this sense, it’s the ideal formula for those off-peak times when series-lovers are left feeling orphaned by the available offer. Consequently, we’re not expecting this one to become anyone’s favorite series, but it will certainly deliver its fair share of heat – or cold – during those long waits.