Cardinal: Introducing “John Cardinal”

At last, the long-anticipated Cardinal has arrived. The screenplay adapted by Aubrey Nealon (Orphan Black, Saving Hope), from the Giles Blunt bestseller and award-winning novel Forty Words for Sorrow, nicely captures the aura of the novel. This has the feel of a full-length feature film rather than a TV series. CTV knows it is competing with other cable productions, they took a chance, and they delivered with Cardinal; a captivating, gritty experience for its viewers.

Filmed in Sudbury, Ont., Cardinal is set during a Canadian winter, albeit without the grimy, roadside snow banks. We are frequently reminded of the deafening quiet quality of a snowy Canadian winter, and in winter, we pause, with shortened days, and colder nights.  The pace we set is slower, and Cardinal does that too. And it broods, which is, of course, suitable for a story about a serial killer, but it is also characteristic of our eponymous lead character. There is a great deal of internal dialogue provided by both the setting and Billy Campbell, most recently of Helix. But there are no gaps to fill in dialogue despite the many prolonged silences.

The cold open features the discovery of a body and a case which sets off an investigation that will span six episodes. A local fisherman makes the grisly discovery of an ice-encased body of a child at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft.

Then we are introduced to Detective John Cardinal as he conducts surveillance at the local big box electronics store. His new partner Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse) steps in to notify him that Sergeant Noelle Dyson (Kristen Thomson) wants Cardinal back in Homicide. Without yet knowing the identity of the child, Dyson suspects this may be the same case that nearly destroyed Cardinal’s career.

We head out to the crime scene in the middle of a frozen lake. The wide shot aerial footage here is really breathtaking. I am from the extreme southwestern tip of Ontario and I am not a huge fan of winter. I have never actually seen a vehicle drive on ice, or even ice huts out on a lake. It just doesn’t get that cold here for that long. I’m sure viewers not familiar with this type of cold were equally captivated by these scenes. Those who are familiar, will no doubt very quickly locate themselves into the story. At any rate, once Cardinal arrives on the scene he establishes his authority. He efficiently demotes the first to scene OPP foot patrol, and literally “de-boots” him for contaminating the crime scene.

The crane lifts the remains from the shaft; a lingering shot of the body, showing signs of animal activity, and we cannot turn our gaze. Special effects do not spare on the gore factor here. After forensics does a preliminary examination, of which we are thankfully spared, the Katie Pine file is reclassified from missing person to murder. With the discovery of her body, Cardinal’s early suspicions of abduction and murder are confirmed. We are told by Forensics there is evidence of ligature marks on her wrists and legs, and abrasions to her remaining eye socket. Katie Pine was forcibly restrained and the killer made use of a speculum to force her eyes open. The killer made her watch him.

Not trusting his new partner, Cardinal assigns Delorme all of his outstanding B&E cases to follow up on. Will these cases provide any clues relevant to the Katie Pine case? I think it is safe to assume so, otherwise, why write them in? Additionally, Delorme may have reason to distrust Cardinal; seems the detective has a little stash of something. Drugs? Intel? Cardinal makes a drop in the dead of night to “Francis” (Lawrence Bayne) for cash.

Delorme begins to earn Cardinal’s respect, albeit begrudgingly, and he shares his theory of a repeat killer. Cardinal believes the drowning of another child, Billy LaBelle, labelled accidental, was anything but. Lise, and it turns out the entire department, are all highly sceptical of Cardinal’s theory. However, after a thorough survey of unsolved missing person cases spanning the last two years, Cardinal’s theory pans out with the discovery of another body in an abandoned home, that of missing person Todd Curry. This confirmation sets us up for the remaining episodes. If there is a serial killer, there must be another victim!

In the closing scenes, Delorme asks the question that founds a secondary storyline: “Did he?” Did John Cardinal take money in exchange for information from Sudbury crime lord Kyle Corbett? We know his artistic wife, Catherine (Deborah Day, most recently from a guest appearance on CBC’s Four in the Morning) has been institutionalised for depression, but what other burdens are torturing Cardinal? Has he compromised himself? Delorme, it seems, is under the direction of RCMP Corporal Musgrave (David Richmond Peck) along with Detective Hansen (Kevin Louis) to investigate Cardinal.

So far, Cardinal is following the novel Forty Words for Sorrow, but thankfully, leaving out the inherent weaknesses I found when I read it. I found the book predictable. I will tell you why later should future episodes follow the same pattern. However, if Episode 1 is any indication, this may be the rare case that the book translates better to film than it appeared in the text.

Billy Campbell was the perfect choice for the role of John Cardinal. He captures that quiet brooding that this character emotes. Campbell must demonstrate this early on. In the scene in the squad room he shares with Delorme and McLeod, Cardinal hears the details of Katie Pines forensic report. As the camera slowly closes in, we can read everything Cardinal/Campbell is thinking in this long silence. Any dialogue in this scene would have been redundant; Campbell’s eyes told us everything we needed to know.

A couple noteworthy changes, from the original text: Delorme is not from Special Investigations, but rather transfers from the Financial Crimes Unit and Sergeant Adonis Dyson has been re-imagined as Sergent Noelle Dyson. We’ll wait to see how or if these changes play out in some significant way in upcoming episodes.

A very solid start to what I would call an atmospheric crime drama, and I look forward to how this will all play out! Other than Fargo the movie and the series, and the first season of Campbell’s earlier series Helix, I don’t think the use of winter has been used quite so effectively to drive a storyline. The Canadian winter is a character unto itself.

What did you think of this episode? Let me know in the comments below.

Cardinal airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CTV.

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Carolyn Potts
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Carolyn Potts

Teacher. Writer. Mom. Masters' Candidate, Faculty of Education, Western University. Studying Pop Culture Media as a Decolonizer of Education Policy and Practice. I also volunteer as a Girl Guide leader in my spare time.
Carolyn Potts
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4 thoughts on “Cardinal: Introducing “John Cardinal””

  1. I enjoyed it. Some of it was filmed in North Bay so it was cool to see those scenes. The church is the Pro Cathedral in North Bay where my daughter was baptized and married, so it was interesting seeing it captured on film. I will be watching the whole series.

  2. Hi Isabel!

    How special for you and your family to get to see your church featured in a television show! I am looking for ward to the rest of the series too. This show really captures a very “Canadian” feel.

    Thank you for stopping by.

    ~c

    1. Hi there Stevie.

      I have only read book 1, and I only just read it before watching e1.

      However, i think it is translating really well to video. I am already hoping that they will give this the green light and do subsquent books in the series!

      Take care,

      ~c

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