Cardinal has always been a bit of an outlier in the crime drama world; it’s a show that has shifted through a number of different styles but never seemed to really feel comfortable in any one of them. A touch of Nordic Noir there, some high concept villains there; a dash of police procedural and a ‘will they won’t they’ cop duo certainly makes for a solid set-up – but as the show reached its conclusion this week it got me wondering if this series ever got away from its exemplary first season, or if my expectations were set too high.
In context, that first season may come with the considerable caveat that it was broadcast in the UK during 2017 – a specific sweet spot of broadcast time when viewers, spoiled on the best of the original Nordic noir shows, were looking for similar riches further afield. That first season seems like a bit of a fever dream now, not just in its eerie tone and compelling setting, but also in the treatment of its titular star, who had a far different composition to the same man we see in later series. Back then, we didn’t even know if we were supposed to like Cardinal – a man haunted by rumours of corruption whose grim stoicism within the Algonquin Bay PD almost felt like a burden to his fellow officers. Lise Derlorme was originally brought in to investigate him, and this counter-play around his possible guilt drove the narrative along beautifully. It was, and still is, the best season of this show.
But crucially, one of the most interesting character arcs the show produced was also done by the season’s end. You could argue the source material was at its strongest with the debut novel Forty Words For Sorrow – and in returning with a second and third season, the elements that were there initially wore a little thin. Gone was the complex nature of Cardinal’s internal struggles, and instead he just intimated a facsimile of sadness. The series-wide sub-plot around his wife’s potential suicide seemed largely there to give him a purpose outside of the crushing repetition his day job provided – without his work, Cardinal didn’t seem to exist. Even when we experienced him in peace at home, when his wife was well, he never seems actually happy or fulfilled. It felt like the trope of the tortured detective stretched to its limit.
That’s not to say Billy Campbell isn’t terrific in the role. His face can articulate a lot without uttering a single word, and whilst the spark between Cardinal and Delorme was largely put on the back burner for the middle seasons, the interplay between Campbell and Karine Vanasse has always been the central reason to watch the show. So it was rewarding to see that spark finally ignite in these final two episodes, and sensibly close out the show’s run with a little bit of happiness for the pair before the curtain fell and that narrative road ran out.
Arguably that second story was the more engrossing element to this finale. Whereas the middle two episodes were frankly over-stuffed with narrative leap-frogging to wrap up Neil’s story, this concluding part felt a little thin as we finally got to unravel the conspiracy that led Scott to exact his vengeance. And frankly, there wasn’t much there to be told – and what was there, didn’t really hold up to examination. In essence, Barry and Sheila worked for a rival forestry business to Ken’s – and sold him secret information that logging rights were due up on a piece of land. But that land also happened to be the home to an endangered species of bird (the peregrine falcon no less – hence the feathers left at the crime scenes), and so they needed to be shot and removed from the land to prevent it being labelled a protected space (and therefore no logging allowed).
Quite why Ken enlisted his corporate spies to do this dirty work with him that day is purely plot convenience as it makes no sense otherwise, or why Taj Roy was there also (or at least we guess he was, it’s never explicitly stated he is the fourth person present). Either way, their actions are discovered by a young Scott and his girlfriend Rebecca, who are in the forest tracking bird movements. An altercation leads to Ken accidentally hitting Rebecca and his team leaving the pair to freeze to death in the middle of nowhere. Again, this was never explained fully – both to the extent of her injuries or how Scott survived and she didn’t – but the upshot was Scott was eventually convicted of her murder. One long prison sentence later, Scott is out and fired up for revenge.
A considerable amount of single scene exposition dumps lead our detectives to the final endgame, where they searched the area of Rebecca’s death to find Scott, who had abducted Taj and his daughter Mena. The scenes of him trying to speed up their deaths were a little silly, and it felt like the writers couldn’t quite figure their villain’s motivation out in the final jump – was he the man who quite happily crippled one guy and killed two others with a thirst for murder, or was he a sympathetic figure tormented by decades-long grief that deserved some (albeit bloody) justice? Or both? It was hard to tell and as a result, Shawn Doyle’s performance was a little uneven given the script and distracted from the final dramatics.
Dramatics, it has to be said, which were largely redundant. Cardinal as a show has never shied away from displaying violence and whilst the core characters have experienced plenty of personal peril over the years, there’s never been any doubt they would die – it’s just not that kind of a show. So when both Cardinal AND Delorme are gunned down through Scott’s sniper scope, it’s a bit of a damp squib in terms of shock value – and bulletproof vests are the trusty plot device to ensure they live to see another day. Bonus points are awarded here to super-cop Jerry for busting it across acres of land on his sledge to deliver the single – and fatal – shot to Scott at exactly the right time in exactly the right place (I should point out Jerry has been doing this from the first season and gets zero thanks – he just saved your life Cardinal, cut him some slack!).
With the day won, the perp put down and another pesky court trial avoided, Cardinal and Delorme look longingly at each other across the crime scene before the eventual epilogue brings us home. Lise leaves for Toronto PD, John stays behind to build a new house, and with the inkling of a burgeoning long-distance relationship between them, he returns to the grim task of his day job and another murder case. Is he happy? Sad? It’s hard to decipher Campbell’s inscrutable reactions, as he slides into the eternal loop of all TV detectives, forever on shift and never, ever fulfilled.
So long Cardinal, we hardly knew you.
READ MORE: OUR EPISODES ONE AND TWO REVIEW
READ MORE: OUR EPISODES THREE AND FOUR REVIEW