Cardinal: Writer Aaron Bala dissects “Mama”

Aaron Bala’s journey into writing television is an interesting one. His first gig after attending Humber College for writing and production was managing the social media account for CTV’s sitcom, Satisfaction.

“It was really awesome,” Bala recalls. “I got to be on set all the time and I got to help them shoot some videos and edit some stuff for all of their web content.” Attending the Bell Media Diverse Screenwriter Program was followed by internships at 19-2 and Saving Hope. The latter put him under the mentorship of Patrick Tarr. So, when Cardinal was greenlit for a third season, Tarr called on Bala to join him. And what an episode for Bala to be credited with. In addition to giving us some background on Mama, it propelled the story towards its conclusion next week.

Here’s what Aaron Bala had to say about “Mama.”

Congratulations on joining the Cardinal team and being a part of the franchise. With it airing not only here in Canada but sold around the world, you must be pretty excited to be a part of it.
Aaron Bala: Oh for sure. I saw the first season and I fell in love with it. And getting to be a part of it is probably one of, if not the greatest writing experience I have ever had in my career so far.

A quick question about the writing credit on ‘Mama.’ The story idea came from Noelle Carbone. And then it says teleplay from yourself and Patrick Tarr. Can you explain how that all worked out?
AB: When I got hired it wasn’t a given that I was going to get to write anything. But, Patrick was outfitting for me to get something and Noelle Carbone was originally supposed to write this episode, which was the preface to the finale. And then what happened was she wrote the outline for it. Hence the story by credit, and then she had to go. And so, it kind of fell into our laps and Patrick was like, ‘Here, you’re up on deck. Let’s go do this.’ It was great to have these two great writers that I got to work off of, Noelle who had the outline. To look at and build off that, then hand off to Patrick to finalize it. And, then hit it out of the park.

This was a big episode. We were getting a little bit more background into Mama and her affect on this family that she has. Was this daunting at all for you? A bit of jitters? 
AB: Oh, for sure. Always. Writing is always daunting. It is never not daunting. But you know, I think the great thing about the show is, it’s six episodes in and we can really build it so that you are left with mysteries with characters that we can start closing those mysteries sooner rather than later. And, as much as it can be terrifying, it’s also really gratifying when you get to write those scenes that explain what the audiences have been wondering for so long. And, especially, when you can write some scenes that are explaining things that audience doesn’t realize it yet that’s going to get explained in the finale, and some of that stuff is super cool too.

One of the scenes that struck me in this episode was the ghost of Catherine, and Cardinal saying, ‘I don’t want to see you anymore.’ I thought that was a beautifully shot scene. 
AB: That is certainly the brilliance of this show, is saying as little as possible and yet saying so much. I remember that scene. That is something Patrick really, really pushed for and just this moment where [Cardinal] has been pushing this case for so long and you know, he finally finds the guy who has been sending the letters. And it is over. But she’s still here. And, I think it is a meditation on what grief is like for all of us and still stuck with seeing people that have passed on and moved on from us. I think it is also potentially in the back of his mind like maybe this case isn’t over yet.

Maybe there is a little more to this. But he is still broken and he doesn’t want to push anymore. You see him get so angry and I think it is great because you have that scene with his daughter just before and see how their grief is manifesting in different ways.

We also got more insight into what Dr. Bell is like and the control he has had over his patients over the years. That verbal chess match back and forth at Dr. Bell’s house … Cardinal walking forward and then he’s walking back. Man, just so well done. 
AB: I think that is probably my favourite scene in the entire episode. I just love it, love it, love it so much. In the books, Dr. Bell was always my favourite character.

I just thought he was so different than the other books had and he was a real cerebral character and I really liked that. It was funny because we left the room one day and were talking about our favourite characters and we all had someone different we really liked. And I thought that was so emblematic of what you want in a writer’s room. So for me, that scene is just so beautifully acted and written. You said, ‘chess match’ and I think that is the perfect word because you come off that scene with the woman that has been talking to Catherine on her computer. You walk out of that scene and you say, ‘Dr Bell did this, he is responsible.’ Then you walk into this Dr. Bell scene and Cardinal is coming with fire and fury. But, Dr. Bell, he almost prepared in a way.

But not in a, ‘I know I am guilty’ but, in a way that he knows that anyone commits suicide that he knows someone is going to come and believe it is him in the end no matter what. He just diffuses all of Cardinal’s beliefs that Dr. Bell is the guilty party and Cardinal leaves that scene and I’m like, ‘Yeah no, Cardinal is chasing ghosts. Dr. Bell didn’t do this, he needs to move on.’ Then you have the whole tag scene with his wife at the end and we kind of just pulled the rug just a little bit out.

I would agree with you about being a favourite character because nothing scarier than a guy who is in your mind and messing around. 
AB: And yeah, we’ve seen a lot of the characters who have guns and we happen to this season as well. I also just like the appeal of this character who may be just as menacing as those other characters but from a totally different way. You know, bullet wounds can heal sometimes, but some of the mental scars don’t.

What have you learned about yourself as a writer? Again, you from Saving Hope to Cardinal now, what have you learned about the whole writing thing and yourself? Have you figured out what your strengths are?
AB: I think I am starting to learn where some of my strengths are, and I am leaning towards structure and themes. I think as the more shows I work on the more that is revealed, and the more you see others do it as well as you, you learn from them. I think what Saving Hope and Cardinal have really pushed me towards is finding the emotional cords of the characters and pushing them emotionally in ways. It is easy for me to say, ‘and then they do this crazy thing at the end.’ But, it is harder for me to say, ‘and then this thing effects them so deeply to their core.’ But, that is what television is. We don’t watch television for what happens. We watch for how it happens to our characters.

Anything you are working on that you can tell me about?
AB: I am on Private Eyes, which I think is on my resumé. Which, you know, has been a great fabulous show. I like staying in the crime space.

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

Images courtesy of Bell Media.

Greg David
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Greg David

Prior to becoming a television critic and owner of TV, Eh?, Greg David was a critic for TV Guide Canada, the country's most trusted source for TV news. He has interviewed television actors, actresses and behind-the-scenes folks from hundreds of television series from Canada, the U.S. and internationally. He is a podcaster, public speaker, weekly radio guest and educator, and past member of the Television Critics Association.
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