We’re already halfway through the new season of Cardinal and things are just starting to heat up, with the dynamics of family life once again at the forefront of these episodes.
One family that seems to be forged from fractured lives is that of Sharlene ‘Mama’ Winston and her brood of runaways. But Mama’s not happy with her “warriors”. She berates her teenage assassin Jack for murdering the Barstows before acquiring their hidden cache of weapons, and accordingly takes a belt to him as punishment. It seems Mama is working her way through the local area, gathering collateral to furnish her dream of an off-grid compound called Northaven. There’s an eerie echo of the Manson Family in their oddball interactions as they play at normality around a dinner table before Mama brutally tortures their hostage Lloyd Kreeger, whom she seems to have some unspoken history with.
Elsewhere, another fractured family explores their bereavement in different ways when Cardinal’s daughter Kelly comes home for Thanksgiving. Kelly is still harbouring anger at her mother’s suicide, intent on moving on with her life whilst her father obsesses over the nature of her death. When Cardinal shakes down an ex-con who he believes is behind the accusatory notes he’s been receiving, Noelle tells him to immediately drop his covert investigation and holds Delorme accountable for not managing him properly. But when has a stern warning ever stopped Cardinal from pursuing a case? His slightly unhinged tenacity pays off when he receives an invoice for Catherine’s funeral with a printing error that matches those on the anonymous cards. This leads him to Roger Felt, an accountant who Cardinal put away for fraud several years prior. Felt folds under interrogation to confess he was behind the campaign, but his bitterness at John doesn’t extend to murdering his wife. The fallout from Felt’s arrest engenders a rift between Delorme and Cardinal, a development that felt a little forced for the sake of filling out the missing tension between them from the previous seasons.
With Randall’s prints all over the show house, the detectives correctly hypothesize he was using the building as a place to conduct his affair. Aaron Ashmore does an excellent job at sleazing it up as Randall, only concerned with his own self-preservation when he discounts Sam’s worries to ensure he is kept out of her account to the police of what happened on the night of the murders. We get a fairly weak bait and switch to pad out the third episode when Sam is pursued by a masked assailant and drops him with a hastily racked crossbow, only to find out it was Randall’s loser friend Troy trying to scare her into silence – but at least we are treated to a satisfying denouement to this scenario when Randall is led away in cuffs at his partner’s office party.
As the case progresses it’s clear the Barstows weren’t just wealthy patrons of the yachting scene, but were also international gunrunners – and it’s their stockpile that Mama and her crew are desperately searching for to arm themselves for their oncoming self-proclaimed apocalypse, which they enthuse over around a campfire. Whether we feel truly invested in Mama’s half-baked prophecies of nuclear war or the silly histrionics of her psychopathic pet killer Jack is another thing, and their maternal relationship feels like a poorer counterpart to the similarly skewed dynamic of Brady and Deborah in Mr. Mercedes. Certainly the element of threat they are supposed to exude to us as viewers feels diminished, and the additional coincidence of all the cases the detectives are investigating converging into one unit of people feels more a convenience of the duration of this season than a natural part of the script. This feels equally apparent in the narrowing of the suspect pool ahead of the final run of episodes when Jack murders Lemur, predicating Mama’s most likely fatal inability to truly control his rage and presumably setting up a final act of redemption for Nicki, the most normal member of their micro-cult.
It’s the compact nature of Cardinal’s seasons that can be both a blessing and a curse. Whilst the narrative flows easily enough and the stories are always solid, we also don’t get a lot of time to really explore the characters beyond a surface level of detail. Likewise the truncated nature of the series means we also get some sticky plot issues that would require a bit more scrutiny in a longer run – Delorme’s solo foray in pursuit of Lemur being one of them, or Jack’s ability to locate Lemur immediately under the police cordon without detection another – but Cardinal somehow seems to retain enough dramatic goodwill to keep you watching, even when the plot has almost run out.
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