Cardinal: Writer Noelle Carbone reviews “Roman & Irena”

After a stellar beginning to this cycle of Cardinal, Thursday’s latest, “Roman & Irena,” vaulted the A-story forward while exploring the life of Noelle Dyson (Kristen Thomson) in a shocking way.

While Cardinal (Billy Campbell) was able to confirm his suspicions that Catherine didn’t commit suicide, Dyson was plunged into an awful situation when a young man walked into a local laundromat with a gun. Despite her best efforts to stop him, he killed himself there. The scene between Dyson and Cardinal, two people wracked with guilt and confusion, was stunning. Meanwhile, the discovery of Roman and Irena’s bodies was just plain gross. And, as it turns out, wasn’t the way it was originally written in the script.

We spoke to the episode’s writer, Noelle Carbone—whose resumé includes co-executive producing credits on Wynonna Earp, Rookie Blue, Coroner and Saving Hope—about this week’s episode.

Congratulations on being part of Season 3 of Cardinal.
Noelle Carbone: Thanks! It’s really exciting to finally get to show people what we made so long ago.

You’ve worked with Patrick Tarr before on Saving Hope. Was that the key to you signing on? How did you become part of the Cardinal franchise?
NC: Patrick was definitely the reason I signed on. We worked really well together on Saving Hope even though our creative instincts differed. And this was his first time out as a showrunner so I really wanted to be there to support him for that. But he also warned me that the tone of the show was much darker than what I’m used to writing. So he sent me a sneak peak of Season 1 and as soon as I saw the pilot I was completely invested in these characters, which sealed the deal. I did have a slight worry coming in that I might not be the best writer to capture the tone of the show. But Patrick seemed to have complete confidence in me. And he’s the boss so … [Laughs.]

What excited you about being on the writing team?
NC: There were so many things I was excited about. One, I’d never adapted anything for TV before so that was a cool prospect. Two, I’d never done a show where the audience spends time outside the point of view of the main characters—like in the bad guys’ POV, or in the victim’s POV—so that interested me.

What is Patrick like as a showrunner?
NC: He’s a wonderful showrunner. And not just because he bought me a hot dog toaster (you heard me) as a wrap gift. He’s that rare balance of super creative but also impeccably organized. He knew what he wanted and knew how to organize the workflow to make the most of our short time together. At one point we had, like, five charts going at once tracking all the different timelines and POVs that were in play. He also made a decision early on that I think the entire success of the season hinges on: combining two of Giles Blunt’s books to make one season. There was a great crime story in one of the books and a great personal story for Cardinal in the other book. So Patrick pitched the producers on combining them, which gave us so much rich material to draw from when we were breaking the season. It gave Cardinal this compelling personal story, which allowed Delorme to take command of the compelling case.

Aubrey Nealon created this world and Sarah Dodd expanded it. What did the Season 3 team do to leave their mark on the franchise?
NC: We tried not to screw it up? (laughs) I think Aubrey—and Russ [Cochrane]— did extraordinary work in Season 1. Aubrey took a lot of risks with pacing and tone and character development. And the audience, myself included, really responded to it.

I thought it was really cool how Sarah and Patrick worked together to make sure the seasons flowed nicely together and that we weren’t repeating or missing anything, or using anything that would be better in Season 2 and vice versa. It’s rare that you get an opportunity to collaborate that much with the person showrunning the season before you. I think they really made the most of it and helped and supported each other.

In terms of Season 3, I think the biggest thing was calibrating the Cardinal and Delorme dynamic. In Season 1 she’s investigating him and that was a great dynamic and super compelling. Then in Season 2 they’re working together and learning to trust and respect each other immensely. So for Season 3, we had to figure out what the third point on that arc was—to find a new and fresh dynamic for them, but stay true to the first two seasons and how far they’ve come individually and as partners. That’s the heart of the show right there. Hopefully, we did it right.

I’ve read all of the John Cardinal books. Now I can ONLY picture Billy Campbell and Karine Vanasse in these roles. They are that good. What was it like writing for and working with them?
NC: I remember hearing an anecdote from the House of Cards showrunner, Beau Willimon. He said that any time there was a scene with Robin Wright, she would ask to cut 90 per cent of her lines because she knew she could act the rest. That’s how I feel about Billy and Karine. They can communicate all the emotion and intensity of a scene without ever talking about what they’re feeling. That’s a gift for the writers and the actors. But you have to trust that the audience will go along for the (silent) ride. So as I was writing a scene I was kind of thinking, ‘What’s the least amount of dialogue I can get away with here,’ and pushing myself to make sure that the stage directions were precise—where and when people sit or stand, what they do in their hands, their furtive glances. All of that stuff matters. I know a lot of shows where the stage directions are glazed over and rarely followed because all that matters is the talking. And here it matters so much, so you have to write it like it matters. That was a lot of fun as a writer. But also kind of scary when you’re first getting used to it. But really rewarding. There’s a scene in Episode 2 that I’m particularly proud of. It’s between Cardinal and Dyson at a café and it’s a great example of what I’m talking about. And of course, any scene between Cardinal and Delorme is gonna give you that.

I love that the writing and direction from Podz allows for scenes to breathe. There is no rush. That’s so rare on conventional television and I applaud CTV for allowing something like that to exist. It must be so rewarding to see the scenes acted out that way.
NC: I also applaud CTV for allowing something like this to exist! I wish we could have more of this on our screens. But I understand why that’s a scary proposition for a broadcaster. The way audiences watch TV has changed so much—people are generally doing other things while they watch a show. And a show that has minimal dialogue, and one where every silent beat and every look and every breath counts, you can’t fold your laundry or be on Tinder (that’s still a thing, right?) while you’re watching a show like that. You have to just watch otherwise you miss so much. It’s asking a lot more of an audience. But the gamble seems to have paid off for CTV and I’m really happy about that. I know a lot of Canadian writers are really happy about that.

Do you get chills when actors and actresses say the words you have written on the page?
NC: Sometimes. Like sometimes you think you know how a scene is gonna play out and then when the actors do it, they elevate it to such a height that you can’t even believe it’s the same scene you wrote. That’s an amazing feeling and really makes you realize how collaborative this job is. And yes, I’m always completely in awe when something I’ve written makes it on screen. That feeling never goes away. It’s the coolest thing in the world.

Let’s get into this episode, ‘Roman and Irena.’ You had the luxury of writing a pretty gruesome scene: the murder victims being cut from the boat seat and the autopsy in Toronto. It was pretty gross; well done!
NC: The funny thing is, the ‘discovering the bodies’ scene I wrote was completely different than what ended up in the show. But maybe equally as gruesome? You’ll have to ask Patrick. The original idea was that the victims were discovered on a burial platform in the woods, pecked to pieces by turkey vultures. Like a sky burial ritual. For story reasons—and I think production reasons—Patrick ended up changing it. When he sent me the cut of the new scene, and those bodies come up from the lake, I literally yelled ‘HOLY S**T!’ at my computer and then immediately sent Patrick a string of alternating vomit and thumbs up emojis. It was just a gorgeous sequence. But I’m with you, Greg, totally gross at the same time.

How do you approach writing a limited-run series of six episodes as opposed to a 10- or more episode season? IS there a different approach?
NC: Write faster! Seriously though, I think a story expands or contracts to fit the amount of time you have to tell it. Plus with six you have the ability to go, ‘OK. This is just a three-act structure, times two.’ And for some reason that makes writers feel better even though half of us don’t actually know what that means or how that’s helpful. With a super serialized show like Cardinal, and especially when you’re using source material, I think six is a good number because you have to keep the details of every episode in your head at all times while you’re breaking—in case you get to Episode 5 and realize things are moving too slowly and you have too much story left to tell. Or you realize nothing happens until Episode 3 so you have to pull up a bunch of story elements and re-break everything. Or you realize that some small detail in Episode 4 actually makes Episode 3 much better. I personally am not smart enough to keep 10 episodes in my head. I barely had enough brain capacity to do that with six.

The character of Noelle Dyson has gradually expanded in the last two seasons. Now she really has her own story, concerning the death of her sister and then Perry at the laundromat. Why was that decision made, to include more personal stories of the supporting characters?
NC: It’s impossible to tell everyone’s story at once, especially when you’re only doing six episodes. With those first six (Season 1) episodes you really have to focus your energy on getting to know your two leads and cementing their dynamic. You need the audience to fall in love with Cardinal and Delorme otherwise you’re sunk. Once you get into later seasons—like if the whole series was one season, we’d only be on episodes 13-19 by now—there’s room to dig deeper with the rest of the ensemble. And Dyson is such an integral part of the team that she seemed like an obvious choice for more personal stories.

The parallels between she and John are chilling. Neither of them want to go home. The scene between them in the restaurant was so sad.
NC: That’s one of my favourite scenes I’ve ever written. And Billy and Kristen made it even much better than I imagined. Apparently, the napkin ripping was a HUGE pain in the ass for the post production people but I was looking for something Cardinal could be doing with his hands since I knew he wouldn’t be doing much talking. He doesn’t want to talk about his grief so he doesn’t expect her to talk about hers. All they have to offer each other is proximity. I thought they played it beautifully.

By the end of the episode, you unveil Mama. Who is she??
NC: Let’s just say that everything you need to know about that woman is in her name.

What have you learned, as a writer or otherwise, from working on Cardinal?
NC: That less is more. Don’t overwrite. Trust your actors and director to convey and deliver what’s left unsaid — and trust your audience to pick up on the nuances. And if they don’t, have enough murdery bits to keep them invested and entertained.

Want to score the ultimate Cardinal contest? Visit CTV.ca to enter for a chance to win an on-set experience by watching the latest episode of Cardinal, Season 3, and visiting CTV.ca to submit your answer to the trivia question.

Cardinal airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on CTV.

Images courtesy of Bell Media.

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