Well, I’m a big fan of Buffy and Angel. For the most part they have gripping stories and a lot of characters that I love. And there are a lot of things about them that are very feminist! But that doesn’t mean the show doesn’t have issues, and the way Tara and Cordelia ended up is one of them.
Let’s start with Tara. Now, Tara was one of my favorite characters. She’s a sweetheart, a great friend/steady caring figure to Dawn, and she’s the kind of understanding friend Buffy needed in her depression, and the kind of girl who would be a great girlfriend for Willow if they worked out their issues. She’s come a long way from her abusive home, and she was happy. Not only that, but she was in a (for the most part) healthy lesbian relationship with one of the main characters for a good portion of the show, which wasn’t something you saw on TV that much, especially back then.
And she’s killed off as a cheap plot device.
Not only does this have larger ramifications in terms of the trope of killing off gay characters (seriously, its a thing writers need to stop doing), but the effects of this don’t impact the story in a good way, and I don’t just mean that it makes everyone sad. What does her death cause? Well, it makes Willow almost destroy the world, kill someone, and be basically consumed by black magic. This lasts for, what, three episodes? Then the new season starts, and its true that Willow greatly misses Tara. But the rest of her actions - murdering someone, almost destroying the world, seriously hurting people she cares about - aren’t given that much attention in the story. There’s a few times (such as the episode where she turns into Warren) but ultimately the dark things she’s done aren’t given the same weight, and they even result in some jokes. Compare this to how the narrative treats Andrew. He says funny things, but for the most part the characters can’t stand him and they regard him as pathetic, and it takes up to the last episode for him to truly find his courage and fight and try to right the wrongs he’s done. Willow, however, is hardly changed by the experience. Buffy struggles for an entire season with her darker side, but Willow gets one episode, and a few offhand mentions, and some minor concerns about her using too much magic. But even that in the end amounts to nothing, as she uses the most magic she has EVER used to call all of the potential slayers around the world. A great moment, for sure. And had it shown her truly struggling the rest of the season, it would have been a great moment of character development. But it wasn’t. Tara’s death caused some drama about whether or not she would date someone else, but the rest of it? All of that still could have happened without Tara dying. So her death was a sudden, vicious, out-of-nowhere move that ultimately did little justice to her character, or the characters that should have been effected by it. Hell, we hardly saw reactions from Buffy, Giles, Anya, Xander, or even Dawn (beyond the initial three episodes), who was one of the people that loved Tara the most besides Willow.
But, you may be thinking: Willow was supposed to have gone down that dark path! What would you suggest happening instead of Tara dying to push her down that path? It was the logical narrative choice!
To which I say:
Nope. There was a better choice, if one wanted to go the route of character development through the death of a loved one. Xander. He’d been around longer. He was the only one to get Willow out of her dark mindset. He was a main character loved by everyone, and his death would not only potentially push Willow down a darker path, but it would have had a profound impact on EVERYONE. And you can bet if this had happened, there would have been episode upon episode of people dealing with his death. He would have been mentioned constantly. There would have been close-ups on pictures of him every other episode. They would have likely done some kind of before-the-battle speech saying how they would do it “for Xander”. It would have been a heartbreaking death (and that’s from someone who doesn’t like Xander much) but it would have come after a lot of character development, and it would have huge consequences.
But we didn’t get that with Tara’s death. Instead, she’s killed off in the only episode where she’s credited as a main character. She’s killed for the sake of drama, and to set off a three episode arc that has little to no effect on the later story. They did it to pull a shocker at the end of the episode, to make people feel sad, not for the sake of storytelling. And it shows, and her character (her wonderful, sadly unfulfilled character) suffers from it.
Now, let’s move on to Cordelia. Now, unlike Tara, Cordelia was on the show long enough to get a good story arc. She started out very spoiled and a bully, and then she grew into a genuinely kind person, and that was without losing any of her personality, strength, wit, or assertiveness. She’s a great character, and she had a huge impact on the story. She also, unlike Tara, got a great farewell episode.
Then season four happened. Or more accurately, Joss Whedon decided to act like a child and blame an actress for getting pregnant and punish her by turning her character into a villain.
For three seasons, Cordelia was one of the main characters. She was closer to Angel than anyone, and arguably just as important -if not more important - to him than anyone else. She was best friends with Gunn and Wesley and Fred. And she was turned into a hammy, over-the-top villain in a way that feels like an asspull and doesn’t even make sense in the story. And she spends a good portion of the rest of the show catatonic, and she’s mentioned, what, three times? There were no episodes showing them desperately working on a way to wake her up. There were no episodes solely about Angel brooding over his guilt about Cordelia. Fred didn’t try to come up with a scientific solution. Gunn wasn’t shown visiting her in the hospital. Wesley didn’t pour over his books to see if there was a magical solution. She was all-but forgotten, and all because Joss was being immature.
In fact, the only mention Cordelia gets after she dies is a general, not-even-by-name one. It’s in ‘A Hole in the World’, when Angel says he “wouldn’t lose Fred too”. That’s it. Her character was first hijacked, turned into one of the worst villains in BTVS/Angel canon (and no, I’m not actually talking about Jasmine, because the last few episodes were good and Gina Torres is amazing), then she’s forgotten for pretty much an entire season, comes back for ONE episode, is promptly killed off, and it has no direct impact on the plot whatso-god-damn-ever. Hell, we don’t even see the reactions of the other characters to her death. Add Fred’s death on top of hers, and the only two main female characters were killed off. Obviously, we still get Illyria, but it still doesn’t change what happened, and she then becomes the only main female character on the show for the rest of the series.
TL;DR: no, not all of Buffy and Angel is terrible (and I’m a huge fan of both). But its narrative treatment of Tara and Cordelia was.