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Billy Campbell and Alanna Bale in Cardinal.

It’s not big and cinematic. Neither is it surface gloss and routine characters spouting routine dialogue. Instead, it is subtly, quietly emotional while still being a gripping thriller.

The third season of Cardinal (Thursday, CTV, 9 p.m.) is about a murder, a search for a killer. Or maybe several killers in cases that might be linked or might not. But at its core, it’s about about haunting and the haunted. As with the superb first season, there is remarkable stillness in it, a quality of quiet intensity. As much as it is about a brutal murder and brutally evil intentions, it’s about unspoken obligations. The six-part series is drenched in the muted colours of fall in Northern Ontario and the muted colours help illustrated the muted lives lived there: the despair and the lust for vengeance, or lunge toward nihilism, that despair can ignite.

The story combines the Giles Blunt novels By the Time You Read This and Crime Machine, and opens as officers John Cardinal (Billy Campbell) and Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse) are dealing with the immediate aftermath of the Season 2 finale – Cardinal is at the scene of his wife Catherine’s (Deborah Hay) death from an apparent suicide.

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Benumbed but troubled by the specifics of his wife’s suicide – in particular a note she left – Cardinal goes back to work quickly. He should be grieving but the work situation allows him to covertly probe his wife’s death. Besides, there is a new case, and evidence that two people were shot dead in a beautiful lakeside home that was for sale.

The dramatic handling of the circumstances around that killing help illuminate the skill behind Cardinal. A young woman, student Samantha Duchene (Devery Jacobs, who is superb) is having an affair with married real estate agent Randall (Aaron Ashmore) and they meet for trysts in the empty house. It’s a banal affair, the young woman anxious for some passion and adventure. Then she happens to be alone in the house when something terrible happens. It’s the mundane quality of it all, from Sam’s ordinariness to Randall’s weasel attitude, that stand in sharp contrast to the sheer viciousness of the killer or killers. Like the first cycle of the Cardinal dramas, this one doesn’t aim for Grand Guignol horror to keep you gripped. It is beautifully grounded.

The characters are superbly drawn and fathomable in their weaknesses and strengths. Obligation is everything. The police officers are obliged to investigate, to put themselves in danger. But others, ordinary people, are accountable, too. It’s just that some people try to dodge that. What unfolds is not just about evil people and the terrors they unleash. It’s about the trepidation and sadness that is pervasive when it is clear that ordinary people will let you down. That’s part of the haunting quality.

The series is wonderfully cast. Billy Campbell is again faultless as the soft-spoken, reclusive John Cardinal, a tough man made sensitive by personal life experience. And Karine Vanasse now has a lovely, easy rapport with him, playing a character who is his opposite, a much more open person than John Cardinal is. But what is immensely impressive is the entire cast. It’s wonderful to see such experienced actors as Susan Coyne, Stephen Ouimette, Kristen Thomson and Deborah Hay – many from the theatre world – at work here. Part of the emphatic template of Cardinal is that it always looks like ordinary Canadians are the central characters. And the engine that drives it is the texture of the characters and the storytelling.

Mind you, again, the visuals are stunning. The fictional Algonquin Bay setting is the canvas on which everything is painted and there are long, expressive shots of the landscape that are breathtaking. They inform as much as the muted dialogue does. Rarely has the Canadian landscape been used so effectively and, if that quality helped make the first season of Cardinal landmark TV in this neck of the woods, this season is its match. Daniel Grou has returned to direct, and it shows.

This season is highly, highly recommended. It’s an excellent, compelling mystery and it’s that rare Canadian drama with the ambition to transcend format and become beautiful, disturbing and philosophical about the lives and crimes it depicts. Perhaps most important of all, it trusts you, the viewer, to embrace it fully.

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