• Cardinal, Mary Kills People and Tin Star (SBS)Source: SBS
With ‘Cardinal’, ‘Tin Star’ and ‘Mary Kills People’, those nice Canadians are proving that Scandinavia doesn’t have a monopoly on murder and morbidity.
Travis Johnson

21 May 2020 - 8:40 AM  UPDATED 21 May 2020 - 8:40 AM

Flurries of blinding sleet almost obscure the sparse, bare tree trunks of a midwinter forest. Bright blood stains an otherwise immaculate snowbank. A gruesome discovery. A driven detective. Dark deeds, horrific revelations and a sinister conspiracy pulling the strings.

You know the drill – it could be any one of a dozen grim European police procedurals and perilous thrillers that we pile up under the rubric of Nordic Noir, from early trailblazers like The Killing and The Bridge to fresher offerings like Twin, Wisting and the brand new Deliver Us and Seizure.

But recent years have seen a fresh crop of Canadian crime dramas spring up in parallel to their continental cousins. While the points of similarity are obvious – the snow, the isolation, the labyrinthine plots, the brutal body counts – the stuff coming out of the Great White North offers both its own unique flavour and welcome diversity of tone.

Coming into its fourth and final season this year, Cardinal is the obvious jumping-on point for Nordic Noir fans. Based on the mystery novels by celebrated author Giles Blunt, the moody, cerebral series follows the titular dour Detective John Cardinal (Billy Campbell of The Rocketeer and Bram Stoker’s Dracula) as he delves into some of the nastier crime to plague the small city of Algonquin Bay, a fictional burg based on North Bay, Ontario.

True to its literary roots, each season of Cardinal unfurls like a well-structured novel, and while the crimes our protagonist and his partner, French–Canadian Detective Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse) investigate are fascinating, it’s Cardinal’s complex character that’s the real draw. A perpetually sorrowful intellectual, Cardinal juggles investigating the worst the wintry city has to offer with shielding his family from the same.

He’s cut from the same cloth as Se7en’s William Somerset as played by Morgan Freeman, or Millennium’s Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) – a good man trying to fight a rising tide of evil. The upcoming fourth season promises to make Cardinal confront the sometimes dubious choices he’s made in doing so, as a missing persons case leads to a serial killer who leaves his victims to freeze to death in remote wilderness, and inevitably to the sins of the past.

Seasons 1 - 4 of Cardinal is now streaming at SBS On Demand:

By contrast, Tin Star’s lead cop, Jim Worth (Tim Roth of Reservoir Dogs and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) is a bad man who occasionally, and generally inadvertently, does good. A former London undercover cop who has taken up a job as the Police Chief of the tiny Rocky Mountains hamlet of Little Big Bear, he finds himself butting heads with Elizabeth Bradshaw (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks), the local face of North Stream Oil, the resource company whose economic pull gives them the run of the town.

A botched assassination attempt resulting in the death of his young son gives the alcoholic Worth the excuse he needs to fall off the wagon and unleash the hyper-violent cover persona that kept him alive in his undercover days, and we proceed from there.

Tin Star is Breaking Bad by way of Fargo (whose wintry environs make it a good companion piece for these titles, come to think of it): stripped of the need for civility, an awful man tears into the underbelly of a small town, largely heedless of the damage he does in the process. It’s a wilder, more theatrical ride than Cardinal, aiming for high melodrama and grand guignol rather than grim reality. Season 2, streaming now, opens with Worth recovering from a gunshot wound inflicted on him by his own daughter at the climax of season 1 – an indignity John Cardinal never had to suffer.

Seasons 1 and 2 of Tin Star are now at SBS On Demand:

But if you want to talk morally complex characters, Dr. Mary Harris (Caroline Dhavernas) of Mary Kills People takes the cake. Successful doctor by day, Mary is an angel of death by night, helping the terminally ill shuffle off this mortal coil for ten thousand dollars a pop. It’s a comedy of sorts, but certainly drawing from the darker side of the humour spectrum; with the help of disgraced cosmetic surgeon, Des (Richard Short), Mary contends with a dogged cop (Jay Ryan) who aims to arrest her and the moral implications of both her side gig and the increasingly parlous acts she has to commit to keep her secret.

Yet she’s more John Cardinal than Jim Worth; at the end of the day, Mary helps by harming – or at least she aims to – more than she harms by helping, and does a better job of shielding her two daughters from the fallout of her crime connections than either of the aforementioned intrepid cops. Still, all three stand at the forefront of the new wave of Canadian Crime, a televisual trend that offers something for everyone whose tastes run to the macabre. 

Season 3 of Mary Kills People is now streaming at SBS On Demand:

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