We welcome back Cardinal to the BBC’s Saturday night crime slot for its much-anticipated third season, having concluded its original Canadian run in March. The series follows on directly from the shocking conclusion of the second season, this time merging elements from author Giles Blunt’s novels By The Time You Read This and Crime Machine.
The story opens directly after the previous season’s close, with Detective John Cardinal lost in shock from his wife Catherine’s untimely demise. Her death has a clear impact on the entire investigation unit and with Cardinal crestfallen, his partner Detective Lise Delorme has to push aside her personal feelings to work the case like any other suspicious death – but a note in Catherine’s bag seems to confirm the cause as suicide.
When Catherine’s doctor later confirms her mental health was improving at the time of her death, Cardinal feels he cannot accept his wife would end her own life in such a way. This is only compounded when he begins to receive anonymous notes blaming him for her demise, triggering hallucinations of her around town and leading him to have her suicide note analysed by a forensic expert. Subsequently, he begins his own private investigation into what he increasingly suspects to be foul play – a convenient outlet for somebody who secretly blames himself for being unable to cope with his wife’s mental health struggles in previous seasons.
With the funeral over and his wife’s case ruled officially as suicide, Cardinal reluctantly returns to investigate a series of ATM gunpoint robberies whilst Delorme takes the lead on a double homicide at a local holiday home. The only issue is despite the ample evidence of a violent murder spree, there are no bodies. Their investigation leads them to sleazy local realtor Randall Wishart, who had been using the site of the murders to conduct a secret affair with teenager Sam Duchene. Randall provides a hilariously shaky alibi to the detectives which covers up the fact Sam witnessed the murderer at the property and barely escaped with her life.
It’s clear the emotional repercussions of family bereavement will be writ large in this season, as outside of Cardinal’s struggles we also see his boss Noelle deal with the fallout of her sister’s death from cancer – an unspoken trauma cleverly extracted through a tense scene where she tries to talk down a suicidal gunman in a sort of high-stakes therapy session. It’s these second story-lines which Cardinal borrows from the Nordic Noir handbook that really elevates it above being a standard procedural (it’s no mistake each episode is named after a character in the show), with a strong ensemble cast that work hard to engage you beyond the core plot.
When the bodies are eventually discovered tethered to a sunken boat, the real work begins to find out who they were – despite the murderer getting busy with a fish hook to disfigure them beyond identification (ouch). Further investigations lead them to the names Roman and Irena Barstow, wealthy patrons of the local boat show. Whilst the detectives attempt to trace the couple’s movements prior to their murder, Sam is brazenly stalked around town by their killer who happens to have found her phone – with their tense interactions echoing Eric’s similarly predatory behaviour around Edie from Season One. But our expectations are transformed somewhat as we conclude the second episode, when it seems his actions are dictated by others in a scene that is reminiscent of horror movies like The Strangers and Martyrs.
It didn’t feel like a whole lot happened here, but Cardinal is never the most action-packed drama to begin with – and the glacial pace that dictates the opening of this third season felt in keeping with the weight that Catherine’s death would bring. After a largely uninspired second season, it’s encouraging to see the show return to form in re-capturing some of the eerie magic that imbued its inaugural series. Billy Campbell anchors the show as John Cardinal with a performance that is deceptively somnambulistic in its delivery, with Karine Vanasse left to do the heavy lifting as the show’s emotional core in Lise Delorme. Equally, it’s great to see the larger cast get to expand their roles somewhat, with Kristen Thomson as Noelle really shining in these opening episodes after being largely a bit player in the previous season. Despite its grisly content, Cardinal remains great comfort-food crime drama television.
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