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It's there in the stillness, the cold and snow. It's there in the subtle emotional shifts and quiet intensity of the responses. It is there in the unsayable being left unsaid. The viewer is trusted to connect, to respond without being led by the hand through the tangled storyline about bereavement, brutality and anger that's as icily cold as the setting.

I'm talking about the sheer quality of Cardinal (Wednesday, CTV, 10 p.m.). Make a point of seeing it. You'll be stuck to it. Cardinal is a gripping, superbly made crime drama. At times breathtaking, it is so good it is landmark Canadian TV.

Based on Giles Blunt's excellent 2000 novel Forty Words for Sorrow – but subtly and deftly shifting away from the last third of the novel – the six-part drama is an austere but utterly entrancing story about two cops, John Cardinal (Billy Campbell) and Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse) determining there is a serial killer in their midst and the search to find him or her. It's set in a place called Algonquin Bay, Blunt's version of North Bay, and was made in and around North Bay and Sudbury.

The landscape is important. It is at once gorgeous and threatening, a place where nature enthralls and betrays. The drama opens with the discovery of a dead body. A teenage girl, only 13 years old, had gone missing months earlier and now she's been found dead, her body encased in ice. The dead body is an eerily wondrous sight, simultaneously grotesque and beauteous.

John Cardinal is on the case but not without complications. He was working the original disappearance of the girl and went too far in his intense devotion to it. He was demoted. And he's an oddball, this Cardinal – reclusive, soft-spoken, but tough and giving away little about his personal life and feelings. (Billy Campbell, perhaps best known for a leading role in the U.S. version of The Killing, a series not unlike Cardinal, does astonishing work here, absolutely faultless.)

It soon becomes clear that Lise Delorme is anxious to work the case, not merely because it's an attention-grabbing murder, but because she's keeping tabs on Cardinal. Somebody thinks there is something rotten under the cop's quiet exterior.

As the story unfolds, the suspicions about John Cardinal flow under the main story. Cardinal is correct in determining that there is a serial killer at work and someone is preying on young people in the community. He finds a pattern, with the dogged determination of someone looking for something he's lost, both physically and emotionally. In the wintry atmosphere, this cop seems frail and the task brutally hard.

There is heat in this town, though, and it is the heat of rage, frightening perversion and nihilist anger. Brendan Fletcher plays the terrifying Eric Fraser, source of the nihilistic anger, with a restrained intensity that builds and builds to a climactic zenith that is formidably searing. Eric has a sidekick, too, one Edie Soames (Allie MacDonald, who's fiercely good), a young woman whose suffering needs a reactive outlet in brutal violence. This pair will make you deeply, hair-raisingly uneasy.

There is a mystery, a search for a killer and a desperate race to save a possible victim. In that, Cardinal is a good serial drama. But it aims for and reaches a much higher level.

It is about duality. The two cops, Cardinal and Delorme, opposites yet united. One's an Anglo, the other is Québécois. There is Cardinal's personal life and his public life. There is a series of contrasts between couples who are bound together for different reasons, a schematic device that spirals toward the illumination of the macabre connection between Eric and Edie. There is the fundamental contrast between the landscape and the people who occupy it.

In part, it's the use of the Canadian landscape that makes Cardinal landmark TV in this neck of the woods. It is steeped in the texture of "North," it is character driven, but the characters are of this North, anchored in it, in every fibre of their being.

The series (adapted by Aubrey Nealon and directed with great skill by Daniel Grou) assumes the audience is familiar with the pace and tone of the best of contemporary TV drama. It is gripping but doesn't rush anywhere. So much TV drama made here assumes the viewer is only familiar with CBS police procedurals and cannot cope with subtlety. Here, there is a giant leap forward, a confidence in putting ineffable truths into the drama and letting the audience absorb that.

Make no mistake – it is edge-of-the-seat thrilling, too. A must-see and an adult drama you won't easily forget.

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