In many ways, Cardinal isn’t all that different from the Arctic noir, or Scandi-noir, that has come to dominate television in recent years. First and foremost, it takes place in a remote, high-latitude setting – Algonquin Bay, in northern Ontario – where a grisly crime is uncovered – the murder of a local teenage girl – that requires an uneasy collaboration between two police officers – Detective John Cardinal, played by Billy Campbell, who’s a local to the area, and Detective Lise Delorme, a Quebecoise who has come from a posting in Toronto to assist him with the case. That rural-urban divide is complicated, a little, by the fact that Cardinal himself worked for a while in Toronto, and that Lise is in fact investigating him for a crime that he may have committed there, while helping him with the murder as well. Still, the pieces are all pretty familiar, especially when it emerges that this isn’t a stand-alone murder, but forms part of a pattern that stretches some way into the past, but whose perpetrator may also strike again in the near future as well. Finally, we meet the killers midway through the series – Eric (Brendan Fletcher) and Edie (Allie Macdonald), presented here as a pair of perverse fetishists trying to gain some control over a chaotic world with one elaborate crime after another. Between them, and the bayside setting, the series often mines tropes from recent quality crime drama more generally, especially Top of the Lake and The Fall, even if the style as a whole is very much packaged in the Scandi-noir aesthetic.
Yet to say that Cardinal is “generic,” as most lukewarm reviews have done – and the reviews have mainly been lukewarm – is merely to concede that this brand of high-latitude noir has been consolidated into a genre by this point in time, replete with its own set of expectations and conventions like any other. Within those conventions, however, Cardinal works quite beautifully, and in fact works best when it embraces them as conventions, playing fairly fast and loose with many of its major plot points to craft an experience that is more about refining a certain kind of atmosphere and ambience than trying to self-consciously innovate in the manner destined to receive critical acclaim and attention. As might be expected, much of that ambience has to do with the setting and time of year, with one aerial shot after another outlining an icelocked world in which the distinction between land and water has entirely dissolved, and whose endless expanses are only broken by the occasional railway lines, which turn out to play a critical role in the narrative. Time and again, these establishing shots turn and twist the landscape a different way, while the action on the ground also seems designed to emphasise all the different ways in which light and snow can play off one another, as well as the challenges at stake in a detective investigation in which the continuous presence of ice, snow and sleet is simply taken for granted as an occupational hazard, something Lise only incompletely grasps before arriving from Toronto.
Given the extent to which this kind of high-def aerial tracking shot has come to dominate crime television in the wake of True Detective, however, it’s to Cardinal’s credit that it doesn’t rely on it too heavily or exclusively. Instead, the plot proceeds through strange, indeterminate spaces between city and country – spaces whose contours might be clearer without snow, or during the warmer months, but which take on a more muted and muffled anonymity in the depths of winter. Accordingly, the killers’ modus operandi involves taking the cell phone of each of their victims, driving out to one of these empty, in-between zones, taking a photograph of some nondescript bit of scenery – twigs on snow, the side of a fence, an empty field – and then sending that photograph to someone in their victim’s address book, before disposing of the phone on one of the many freight trains moving through the area. Much of the forensic investigation involves looking into these odd dispatches, and visiting the places – or non-places – where the messages are sent, offsetting the cosy “regionalism” so typical of this kind of crime drama with a more pervasive sense of placelessness and spatial freefall that imbues the story with a particularly suspenseful edge.
Yet the atmosphere of Cardinal isn’t one of unmitigated bleakness or brutality either, since part of the beauty of the series lies in the way in which it pairs these winter landscapes with the lighting and orchestration of its nocturnal sequences. For the most part, the series’ interiors don’t do much to work against the cold palette, partly because the winter light is so harsh and omnipresent, and partly because most of the interior scenes take place in and around the police station, which is lit with fluorescent bulbs. Instead, that burden of interior space is taken on by the lighting schemes through which we view the town at night – the car interiors, the street lights, the bus stations and the few night venues that we glimpse, the most prominent of which turns out to be the point where we meet the killers for the first time, and where they encounter their last victim. Arguably the “cosiest” and most domestic space in the series actually belongs to one of the killer’s grandmother, a cosy, “Canadian” two-story house that nevertheless also houses the basement where the killers hold their main victim under a bright fluorescent bulb, and proceed to progressively torture him as the series proceeds. All in all, these torture sequences are probably the weakest part of Cardinal, especially at the beginning, where they threaten to grow as visceral and graphic as the torture scenes did in Fortitude, a clear point of reference here. As the series proceeds, however, the action gradually shifts away from physical violence, to the unremitting fluorescent light beaming down on the latest victim, who seems to gradually freeze under it.
In short, then, the series paints a looming and expansive exterior environment, but never quite pairs it with a proportionate interior environment, both stylistically and narratively, since we never glimpse Lise’s home town or family, and Cardinal’s home is conspicuously vacant, with his daughter at college in Toronto and his wife institutionalised for bipolar disorder at a local psychiatric institute. That absence of an interior is all the more pronounced for the fact that the series traffics in exactly the kind of dichotomous palette – snow-blue and sodium-yellow – that usually separates interior and exterior in dramas of this kind, only for that interior to be dispersed into a fantasy that can only fleetingly be glimpsed as night descends on the town. In doing so, Cardinal brims with a deep, plangent and even romantic yearning for a safety and security that is perpetually promised by its palette, but just as continually held in abeyance – a yearning not only for the mise-en-scene to disclose some inherent homelieness, but to transmit that homelieness to the viewing process itself. Time and again, Cardinal fails or refuses to quite do that, disclosing some kind of deeper and richer yearning subtending the more casual investment that this kind of crime drama typically seems to offer, in what often amounts to a meditation upon the genre as a whole.
Nowhere is that clearer than in an evocative scene in which Lise trails Cardinal to a local casino as part of her investigation into his activities in Toronto. Occurring at the exact moment at which Lise starts to weigh up her comparative allegiances, and taking place at the very threshold of the town, this sequence provides us with the one interior space in the film that fully embraces and communes with the warm, sodium-lit palette of its fleeting domestic moments. Yet the fact that this warmth serves a very functional purpose – to draw people in from the snowy world outside and encourage them to invest in the gambling tables – perhaps suggests how dexterously the series refrains from offering a promise of homelieness, or the possibility of a reprieve from its arctic wastes, that might seem too trite, escapist or exploitative. In that gesture, and the way in which it ramifies across the palette of the series as a whole, lies the peculiar respect of Cardinal for the Algonquin Bay region within which it is shot and filmed, along with one of the more memorable and atmospheric riffs on sub-arctic noir to be released on the small screen in the last few years.