Cardinal: Season One

by Logan Gion

The Basics

Cardinal (Season One)


Created by Aubrey Nealon

Adapted from the John Cardinal crime novel series by Giles Blunt

Starring: Billy Campbell, Karine Vanasse, Glen Gould, Kristen Thomson

Why is Cardinal considered obligatory?

Cardinal seems to be Canada’s pride and joy, winning six Canadian Screen Awards (their equivalent of an American Primetime Emmy) in its first season and seven in its second. American critics loved the neighborly import, The Wall Street Journal calling it “a consistently intriguing thriller” and USA Today praising its “emotional depth.”


Why did you decide to watch Cardinal now?

This review marks my final entry in “Foreign Television My Family Recommended Me” month. This pick comes from my parents: my mother loving long-form murder mysteries and my dad loving stories that reveal the human condition.

Looking back at the month, I realize that I only hit the U.K. and Canada, so I’ll have to have a future theme that hits Australia, South Africa, and Ireland. (Though I’ve already reviewed something from New Zealand in the past…)

What’s Cardinal about?

John Cardinal is a homicide detective in the fictional Algonquin Bay, located about four hours outside Toronto and near an indigenous reservation. He’s been demoted to solving robberies because of the sensational murder of a native girl in which he couldn’t even find the body.

Six months later, a man looking for scrap in an ice shed stumbles across the victim. Newly enthused, Cardinal teams up with rising Quebecois investigator Lise Delorme. Together, the two begin to connect dots previously unseen… and begin linking the original body to a larger kill count.

Cardinal and Delorme’s partnership is tenuous, however, as both are hiding a secret from each other. If either matter comes to light, their partnership will be as dead as the killer’s next victim. 

Meanwhile, the killer is evolving their methods, experimenting with new timelines and torture techniques. They’re looking to strike again, so Cardinal and Delorme need to solve the crimes of the past together before another one arrives in their present.


Do I have to actually watch Cardinal?

If you’re a fan of the sub-genre into which Cardinal falls, do not miss it. Otherwise, this case will leave you cold.

Cardinal hits a specific type of detective thriller—chilling murder in a seemingly idyllic Northern country set during winter, revealing the coldest aspects of humanity. These stories usually start out as a novel series that sells well in airport bookstores: you can pick it up while waiting for your flight, then absorb yourself in an enthralling gaze at the nadir of human nature. The most famous example of this sub-genre would be The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but other notable examples include The Snowman and Gone Girl.

If those are “A” tier examples of the bunch, Cardinal comes in only a tad behind them, with a long list of pros–the killer is a proper mirror reflection of Cardinal, the clues and red herrings are properly paced, the rising stakes keep the action taut, and the stories dovetail with proper resolution. In the cons column, unfortunately, is the climax, which gives a character motivation that fails to connect. A side character also becomes flattened into a one-note jerk in order to speed a subplot along. 

In the grand scheme of things, though, these cons feel like minor quibbles. As someone long obsessed with mystery thrillers, I was surprised how seriously I evaluated this show.


Isn’t Cardinal just another murder show?

Broadly, yes, but I found the characterization far more thoughtful than the average cop thriller. John Cardinal is, at first glance, a rugged, world-weary detective, but the show’s characterization deftly avoids falling into cliché. Cardinal’s aforementioned secret swerves away from the direction I was afraid they’d go, while his frayed relationship with his family stems not from the obsessive nature of his work, but rather dealing with life’s challenges.

Meanwhile, Delorme’s character gets agency to investigate the case her own way, which grants a different, equally valid perspective to Cardinal’s experienced viewpoint. By the end of season one, I believed that they were partners and close friends–ones who inhabited a show smart enough to never pursue a romantic angle. 

The structure and pacing also feels approprite–a must for any genre. Cardinal is based on the John Cardinal book series, with each six-episode season covering one of the novels. This Limited Series format fits the adaptation’s needs like a forensic glove; the plot has time to breathe, giving time to each moment the character needs to show their arcs. A simple movie would’ve truncated the necessary development and would’ve left fans of the book disappointed that certain plot threads or moments were cut for time. Conversely, even a 12-episode standard season would’ve stretched the material too thin.

As such, this show plays like a quick binge of a show like The Killing or Mare of Easttown. Fall is creeping its way in, so if you’re in the mood for thrills and chills, you’ll be able to see your breath in front of you by the time you finish this one.


Who’s the audience?

  • Crime thriller enthusiasts
  • Viewers who want to watch a Canadian show, but don’t want to hear them say “Sorry!” or mention hockey
  • People who like cinematography of birch forests, but wish it was accompanied by less Christmas music.

Where can I watch Cardinal?

You know what else is "must-see"?

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