[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
I’m a big sappy sucker for “stranger in a strange (quaint village) land” stories so I was excited when Three Pines popped up on my radar thanks to a Tweet. Back in the day, I was all in on Northern Exposure and as a teen I returned often to the Scotland-set Local Hero with its haunting score by Mark Knopfler.
The four two-part-episode/eight-episode first season of Three Pines is based on Louise Penny’s series of novels about a mild-mannered Sûreté du Québec Chief Inspector and very good man, Armand Gamache, played by Alfred Molina, and his two Sergeants, the simmering low-on-effs Jean-Guy (Rossif Sutherland) and the empathetic Isabelle (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), plus the eager loaner rookie agent, Yvette Nichol (Sarah Booth).
They get called outside the city for the odd case, and over the course of this season’s four mysteries, the trio find themselves in or adjacent to the titular small town of Three Pines (where they pick up Agent Nichol).
The picturesque village and its assortment of unique residents harbors a dark heritage as the home to a former residential school.
In the first two episodes, they are trying to figure out who murdered an eccentric and self-centered writer for whom there is no shortage of detractors and suspects. Compounding the ill will is the fact that she had purchased and converted the school into the family home she shared with her husband and teenage daughter.
While Gamache heads up that investigation, he’s also drawn into the ongoing crisis of missing Indigenous women and in particular that of Blue Two-Rivers (Anna Lambe), a young single mother whose own mother, Missy (Crystle Lightning), is sure she’s dead but wants to find her nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Missy’s mom, Arisawe (Georgina Lynn Lightning), and younger daughter, Kara (Isabel Deroy-Olson), are doing what they can to placate Missy and take care of Blue’s baby. When the second case of the series follows up the first several months later with a murder at the now-abandoned former school, Gamache must grapple with that and his lingering engagement with Blue’s family.
The third case is a set piece that takes place on the grounds of a Montreal hotel where one of the Three Pines residents is visiting his family. The fourth case drops a murder back on the doorstep of Three Pines itself.
I’ve watched the first six episodes and am all in on its slower, easier vibe, something I’ve talked about plenty with my love for Canadian procedurals (this one also has a British creative team involved alongside the Canadian directors and cast/crew). Think of it as a kinder, gentler Cardinal, if you will. While a murder mystery by trade, it pulls back from onscreen violence (except for some lingering scenes from a hunt in episodes 5 and 6), focusing instead on the aftermath.
That said, it shines a much-needed light on the historical and still ongoing crimes against the Indigenous population.
I adore Molina’s portrayal of Gamache as a deeply decent man committed to righting wrongs while periodically haunted by things he can’t quite yet decipher. He’s also still very much in love with his wife, Reine-Marie (Marie-France Lambert), on whom he leans when the ghosts creep back in.
The ensemble cast is strong across the board, including Pierre Simpson and Frédéric-Antoine Guimond as Gabri and Olivier, the owners of the bistro; Julian Bailey and Anna Tierney as married artists Peter and Clara; Tamara Brown as bookseller Myrna, Tantoo Cardinal as Bea, the owner of am Indigenous art gallery that becomes the inspectors’ field office; and Clare Coulter as Ruth, a renowned but reclusive poet devoted to her pet duck.
The two-part structure with the continuous throughline of Blue’s case means you can pick up each mystery independent of the others and still be teased enough to go back and watch one that you missed. Sam Donovan, Tracey Deer, Daniel Grou split directing slots and series creator Emilia di Girolamo shares writing duties with Jamie Crichton and Catherine Tregenna. It’s gorgeously filmed and Toydrum’s score is its own emotional trigger.
There are 18 books in the series, so plenty more stories to be mined. I hope Prime Video decides to tell them.
Three Pines drops the first two episodes Friday, December 2nd, on Prime Video in Canada and the US as well as Australia, the UK, Denmark, Finland, Greenland, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden. Here’s a sneak peek.