Essay: The Assassination of Cordelia Chase

As any good writer knows—and the writers at Mutant Enemy, the company that produced Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, were usually very good writers—the first law of characterization is “Never violate your character’s core identity.” You can play all the variations on her psychology that you want, you can show her growing and regressing, making huge mistakes and taking huge maturation leaps, but you cannot violate who she is at heart. As a centuries-old and wise Darla tells Angel, “What we once were informs all that we have become”(“The Prodigal,” A 1-15). The choice between honoring character to show growth and mutilating character to serve plot spells the difference between the delighted reaction, “I can’t believe she did that!” and the betrayed protest, “I don’t believe she’d do that.” The writers at ME have played fast and loose with character before (let’s not talk about “Doublemeat Palace,” B 6-12) but they never sinned so deeply as they did when they destroyed the character of Cordelia Chase.

From the moment Cordelia appears in “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer , she is a clear-cut character, smiling a wide, bright toothpaste smile that disguises the calculating glint in her eye. Her first act is to beam at Buffy while sharing her history book, an overt kindness that disguises Cordy’s covert motive: finding out if the new girl in town is a potential acolyte or a potential threat to Cordy’s kingdom. She alienates Buffy by committing the worst of all possible crimes in the Buffy verse, being cruel to Willow (“Good to know you’ve seen the softer side of Sears,” she tells Willow after surveying her dress), but she doesn’t care because Buffy’s opinion is irrelevant to her. If Buffy can’t admire Cordelia for who she is, she’s obviously not worthy of being a Cordette and will just have to dwell in outer darkness, away from Sunnydale High’s social galaxy, a place Cordy dominates with her implacable will and indestructible smile. Cordelia may not be Miss Congeniality, but nobody ever calls her weak.

Cordy’s solipsism could easily be mistaken for stupidity, but it comes coupled with a keen intelligence and a fixity of purpose that makes her almost invincible. “I have to have the most expensive thing,” she tells the Cordettes, “not because it’s the most expensive but because it costs more”(“The Harvest,” B 1-2). This seems like a lovely bit of airhead-speak, but it isn’t. “Expensive,” as Cordelia knows, is subjective: that new detergent might be expensive and that flawed diamond cheap. “Costs more” is finite, measurable, and therefore attainable. Cordy has to have the thing that costs more than anybody else can afford, the thing that’s impossible for anybody else to get, because her world is about measurable things and she intends to be the material girl at the top. And since Cordy is living in the very material world of American society that the rest of us also occupy, she’s usually right: often overlooked in the outrage at the Sears comment is the fact that Willow really does look like her mother dressed her from the you’ll-never-get-a-date department, and that Willow’s later demonstration of her maturity and strength is shown to a great extent in her choice of a much more adventurous wardrobe. Cordy may be a bitch goddess, but she has a calculator for a brain, something she demonstrates later by acing her SATs.

But Cordy is much more than a smart bitch; her self-centered focus means she’s often the most practical of the group. When she finally catches on to the Hellmouth, her reaction is exactly what it needs to be to make her valuable: she fights back, indignant that anyone or anything can threaten her, to the point of biting a vampire who tries to drag her through the library door (“Prophecy Girl,” B 1-12). When Willow and Jenny are threatened by a street full of vampires in “Prophecy Girl,” Cordelia saves them by picking them up in her very cool car and then delivering them to the door of the library, via the school’s central hall. Even her lack of depth becomes a strength: When Buffy hears the thoughts of the others in “Earshot” ( B 3-18), most people’s insecurities show how weak they are and in turn weaken her with their pain; Cordelia’s thoughts, however, are identical to the things she says out loud and don’t hurt Buffy. Not even the trials she faces toward the end of her life in Sunnydale–her loss of status because she falls in love with Xander, her betrayal by Xander (with Willow in a hot black dress), her fall into poverty because her father is nabbed by the IRS–can derail her from pursuing what she feels she deserves. By the end of her time on Buffy, she’s stronger, she’s wiser and she knows how to use a flamethrower, but she’s still a self-centered beauty with a blazing intelligence, a focused practicality and a keen eye for the bottom line. She’s still, in short, Cordy.

This means that she fits perfectly into selfish, superficial Los Angeles, so it made great sense for ME to send her there to pursue an acting career in the dark noir world of Angel. L.A. is Cordy’s trial by fire: Like so many wannabee actresses, Cordelia may have been the most beautiful girl in her home town, but she’s one of the crowd now. Surrounded by other gorgeous women, some of whom even have talent and training, Cordy is reduced to living in a roach-infested slum and stealing tomorrow’s dinner from party buffets. When she finally reaches bottom and agrees to see a famous producer in his home, she’s clearly if reluctantly planning on trading her body for her career, her focus as fixed as ever. But even in the midst of her distress over what she’s going to do, she’s smart enough to notice a key decorating flaw: no mirrors. Her exasperated accusation, “You’re a vampire!” momentarily slows her predator, who’s used to disbelief not annoyance, but she’s still running for her life when Angel bursts in to save her (“City of ,” A 1-1).

Other women would be grateful, and Cordy is, but her eye, as always, is on the bottom line. Angel is depressed, of course, and helping people, of course, but how is he paying the rent? More important, how can he help her pay her rent? In a better place? With better clothes? Before Angel has time to protest, Cordy is printing business cards and making commercials and, no small thing, generating real income for him. Angel may be the Romantic Hero, spiritually and literally saving others, but Cordy is completely in character as the Enlightened Heroine, making sure that the bills are paid and the electricity stays on. She grounds Angel the way her character grounds the series Angel , by saving them both from strangling on his darkness and nobility. The elegant part of this narrative move is that by saving Angel, Cordy saves herself, discovering that she is more than a beautiful face, a hot body and a killer fashion sense. L.A. almost destroys her by making her doubt the only thing she has–herself–but Angel and the occult give it back to her, most vividly in the episode, “Rm w/ a Vu” ( A 1-5). The vicious ghost of Maude Pierson, haunting the apartment where she walled up her son alive, taunts Cordy into almost hanging herself by telling her that she’s a nobody, tapping into the one belief that will destroy her core identity. But then the ghost goes too far, calling Cordy “a little bitch,” reminding her of who she is, the Bitch Goddess of Sunnydale come to conquer L.A. When Cordy rises up saying, “That’s right, I am a bitch, ” the ghost is toast, and Cordy’s back–sadder, smarter, darker and more human, but absolutely Cordy, the natural evolution of the Sunnydale Queen, made mature and implacable flesh in haunted Sodom on the Pacific.

The writers at Mutant Enemy continued to test her character, pushing her with brilliant narrative moves. They first send the visionary Doyle to be the third in the Angel triumvirate, and while Cordy rejects him in the beginning, saying “I’d rather be dead than date a fixer-upper [like Xander] again,” she grows to appreciate him after he saves her from a demon while her high-rent boyfriend runs away, forcing her to realize in disgust that “All of a sudden, rich and handsome isn’t enough for me. Now I expect a guy to be all brave and interesting” (“The Bachelor Party,” A 1-7). Her first approach to him—“Maybe you don’t have zero potential”—is cut short by his sacrifice of his life, a sacrifice that he makes her a part of when he transfers his prophetic gift to her in a farewell kiss. His death changes her, not just because she’s now stuck with excruciating visions, but also because she truly did love him and amazingly for Cordy, mourns for him when he’s dead, watching the terrible advertising videos he made for her with sobering intensity and regret, finding within herself a new level of humanity.

But her newfound depth does not mean she accepts the visions. Cordy is still Cordy, and the goal of her life is still to help Cordy, not a bunch of unwashed people who show up screaming in her head. She does her best to pass on the visions, kissing everyone who walks by—“I don’t care, I want it out of me, and if kissing is the only way to get rid of it, I will smooch every damn frog in this kingdom”—because, as she declares, she doesn’t have anything to atone for. Her last kiss is with Barney, the empath demon, who reads her mind and sticks a knife into her soul, the second test the writers send her. He tells her that she knows she does have things to atone for, that she knows she’s self-absorbed and full of regret and, the unkindest cut, that she’s fully aware that she’s a terrible actress: “You feel it,” he tells her. “You’re entire being is whispering it to me right now.” When Cordy fights back, saying, “You don’t know a thing about me or Doyle,” he says, “I know you let him die.” Whether it’s true or not, it feels true, and when Barney adds, “If only for one freaking second, you gave a damn about anything besides yourself,” he’s condemning the source of her strength, cutting into the core of who she is (“Parting Gifts,”A 1-10). Cordy, of course, does not give up, rallying an auction house full of demon collectors to bid higher for the visionary eyes they plan to rip out of her head by extolling her many real and imagined virtues in a scene that is the epitome of Cordelia-ness. The end of the episode is a mixed blessing: Barney appears to give Cordelia empathy as he dies, an attribute that’s as toxic to her character as Kryptonite, but Cordy has also faced her inner demons—with the help of an outer one—and survived, gaining even more self-knowledge and moving into adulthood.

And she’s gained something else, too. Angel saves her again, the one constant in her life now, and he takes her back to his basement apartment where he fixes her breakfast. As she tells the new third partner, Wesley, as they invite him to the table, breakfast is “one of the perks of the job. After an all-nighter of fighting evil, we get eggs” (“Parting Gifts,” A 1-10). The empathy Barney has cursed her with makes it possible for her to connect to others without losing her basic self-interest and distrust of humanity–without losing, that is, her core identity. As she explains in the last scene in “Expecting” (A1-12), when she faces a concerned Angel and Wesley the morning after her ordeal:

Cordelia: I learned that all men are evil. Oh, wait, I knew that. I learned that LA is full of self-serving phonies. No, had that down, too. Sex is bad?

Angel: We all knew that.

Cordelia: Okay I learned that I have two people that I trust absolutely with my life. And that part’s new.

It’s clear, too, that Cordelia is not alone in perceiving her community. She’s the one that Angel turns to with his greatest fear, that he will turn into Angelus again. When he asks her, “If the day ever comes,” Cordelia says promptly, “Oh, I’ll kill you dead,” and he thanks her, knowing full well that she will, that he can count on her enlightened practicality to murder him without blinking. It’s one of many exchanges that cement an extremely unlikely relationship, something Angel acknowledges in “Expecting,” when a friend of Cordy’s says, “You the boyfriend?” and he replies, “No, I’m family.”

It would have been so easy for the Mutant Enemy writers to slip at this point, to make Angel and Cordelia lovers, to make Cordelia a do-gooder, to even make Cordelia less selfish, but they stayed true to her character: Cordelia might be empathetic, she might have attached with real emotion to a man who can’t give her diamonds, but she’s still Cordelia Chase. Or as she sums it up in “She”: “Well, this is great now we’re really—do I have to take a pay cut?—a team.” The empathy and visions that lesser writers might have made A Very Special Growth Experience continue to be a pain in the brain, as Cordelia complains, “I don’t just see, I feel, okay?” adding, “I hate this gig” (“She,” A 1-13).

It was the perfect balance of self-centeredness and responsibility, but it couldn’t last because story, like life, is fluid. While Cordelia’s relationship with Angel grows stronger, and her life grows richer, the visions grow more violent until they’re literally killing her. When Skip, the demon sent by the Powers That Be, offers her a choice of two futures, one becoming part demon so she can stay with Angel and continue to help others and the other becoming the Mary Tyler Moore of the twenty-first century, Cordy picks being Mary and leaves the others to rot while she revels in success. But like most choices offered by the Powers, it doubles back on her, and when she’s led back to Angel, now made insane by the visions, she kisses him and takes them back, because it’s Angel, and she loves him, and because, at a deeper level, she can’t bear the guilt that failing to save another man who loves her will bring (“Birthday,” A 3-11). This isn’t Cordelia the Saint, it’s Cordelia the Practical, risking a demon tail to go back to the place where she has someone she trusts absolutely. It’s both the right thing to do for others and the right thing to do for her, and Cordy needs both as motivation now. She stays, growing even closer to Angel, accepting his son as her own and finally acknowledging her attraction to him which, entirely in character, comes long after he’s admitted his attraction to her. Her brief flirtation with Groo, the uncomplicated cartoon Angel who loves her the way Angel will always love Buffy, isn’t enough for the Inner Cordy who now, as always, accepts no less expensive substitutes. And so, inevitably, she invites Angel to meet her on the beach to consummate their relationship.

It’s at this point that the ME writers evidently lost their minds.

For on a busy highway, time stops, a blue light shines down and the Powers That Be invite Cordy up to be a Higher Power. And Cordy, in one of the lamest scenes in Mutant Enemy history (and my deepest sympathies to Charisma Carpenter for having to act in it), accepts without much protest (“I know it’s right, I know somehow it’s gonna be all right”), setting aside the fact that she was about to have cosmic sex with a supernatural hero, not even asking first if there’ll be little blue boxes and great shoes in Heaven (“Tomorrow,” A 3-22). The Material Girl, even after great spiritual awakening, does not go where she cannot shop, but Cordelia leaped at the chance as thousands of viewers frowned at the screen and said, “I don’t believe she’d do that. Must be a joke,” and waited in vain for the punch line.

From there, things only got worse. Cordy came back dressed like Elvira Queen of the Night and slept with Connor, Angel’s sulky son. (A good topic for another essay: Why do the Good Girls Gone Bad of the Whedon Universe–the Bad Willow, Buffy from Cleveland, Cordelia the Beastmaster, and Blue Fred–always wear too much eyeliner and dress like dominatrixes? Where’s the subtext, the humor, the subtlety?) That Cordy came back with bad fashion sense was a real betrayal; that she came back and cuckolded Angel with a boy she’d considered her son was just gross. Whatever hope I had of Cordelia’s Ascension being a bad mistake that could be forgotten died when she rolled in the sheets with Connor while Angel watched from a nearby rooftop (“Apocalypse Nowish,” A4-7). I’ve been a fervid Whedon fan from the beginning, but I almost stopped watching the show at that point, convinced that Mutant Enemy had been devoured by demons, probably masquerading as network vice presidents. I tuned in again for and was delighted with “Awakening,” a perfectly executed Gotcha episode, but it wasn’t enough to balance what the writers had done to Cordelia, and it only got worse when the writers flashed what they evidently thought was their winning hand: The whole Cordelia-and-Connor outrage had been a Gotcha, too.

Here’s it’s necessary to discuss good and bad Gotchas in order to understand the depth, breadth and height of Mutant Enemy’s mistake. The Gotcha is a trick that writers play on readers and viewers and it’s a very dangerous move to make. Much of what makes reading or viewing enjoyable is the understanding that the reader or audience is in trusted hands, that the writers will not lie to them, make them feel stupid, or fail them in any way, so any story that relies on fooling the reader walks a very fine line. Readers want to be surprised; they don’t want to be betrayed. The brilliance of the Gotcha in “Awakening” rests on two important things: There are plenty of clues to show what’s really happening, and the Gotcha is revealed at the end of the episode.

“Awakening” begins with the attempt to turn Angel into Angelus to get information that only the demon has. The surefire way to do this is to give Angel one moment of perfect happiness making love with a woman he loves, and since Buffy is in Sunnydale and would probably reject the idea of sleeping with Angel to bring back the worst serial killer in history, they turn to a shaman who tries to put Angel into a deep sleep. But Angel disarms him—the shaman is evil of course—and reveals secret writings tattooed on the shaman’s torso (there have been stranger things in the Whedon universe) which lead them to search for a sword to kill the Beast (a little standard for ME but still possible within its boundaries), which draws them all through a Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark -like maze (too on-the-nose, but I still bought it) to the sword which Connor gives up to Angel, calling him Dad and reconciling with him long enough to kill the Beast together (oh, come on ) and ending with all the Angel crew reconciled and happy, and Cordy telling Angel that she’d always loved him best and giving herself to him, at which point I hooted and said, “What is this, Angel’s wet dream?” which, by damn, it was. That is, the shaman had given Angel the dream so he could achieve his moment of perfect happiness—his friends reconciliation, his son’s love and Cordy in his bed—and as a result turn into Angelus. It was one of the most perfect Gotchas I’ve ever seen, the kind that earns my highest praise: “Why can’t Iwrite like that?”

Why was it so good? Because the first time I thought, Oh, come on, should have tipped me off that things weren’t real, should have prompted me to take what I knew of the Whedon universe and put together exactly what was happening. The clues were all there, which is why it was such a delight to be Gotcha-ed; they’d played fair. More important, they hadn’t destroyed character to get their effect. That is, they pushed the limits of credibility past the breaking point, but Angel was still intrinsically Angel and Cordy still intrinsically Cordy; like hypnotized subjects, they might be doing things they wouldn’t choose to do, but they weren’t doing things that their characters could not do. No character was harmed in the making of the “Awakening” Gotcha, so we could all return to the reality of the season without any damaging memories and with, in fact, a much deeper understanding of Angel, who has Raiders fantasies.

The Beastmaster-Cordy Gotcha, however, was the worst of all possible Gotchas. It piled inconsistency on obscenity, it disgusted the viewer, and it destroyed Cordy’s character and viewer trust, all without giving a clue that there was something else going on. To use Agatha-Christie-mystery-ese, it didn’t play fair with the viewer. Which meant that when, ten weeks later, it was revealed that the Thing in the Black Bustier was not Cordy, it was too late. The Beastmaster had spent too much time in our heads as the real Cordy, we’d spent too much honest revulsion on the debasing of her character, for us to go back to the Cordelia we once loved. It’s not that she stabs Lila; the real Cordy could have done that if pressed. It’s that she betrays the man she trusts above all others and who trusts her absolutely; it’s that she seduces a boy she once diapered; it’s that she dresses like a drag queen and talks like a Dynasty reject. It’s that she’snot Cordy, and what might have been fun to watch had we been let into the secret before the Beastmaster seduced Connor becomes the extended rape and death of a much-beloved character.

The result of a bad Gotcha is devastating to story: I was angry at the writers for what they’d done to Cordelia, and that’s a break in the willing suspension of disbelief that’s vital to the survival of any imaginary world. The much-too-delayed revelation that it wasn’t Cordy only made me angrier. I’d been jerked around, Gotcha-ed in the worst way, and the continuing presence of Cordy’s face and body on the show were a continuing violation. Sending Cordy into a coma was the best thing they could have done, but it didn’t make up for the betrayal of trust, and I didn’t really return to that universe as a believer until the writers resurrected the real Cordy in the fifth season episode, “You’re Welcome” (A 5-12).

“You’re Welcome” is an episode about loss, not only Angel’s but the viewers. Cordelia wakes up, self-centered as always, still caring deeply about Angel, taking a last kiss at the end because she wants it, and because oh, yeah, there are those visions to pass on. She still tells Harmony to torture Eve (and let it be said that Harmony wasn’t the only one hoping Eve would make a break for it so she’d die), she still does an angry fluster when confronted with occult technology and she still says the blatantly rude but honest thing; she is, in fact, our Cordy again. Her tragic ending in no way cheapens her return because the writers play fair, foreshadowing the Gotcha to come. Cordy’s in a private room, yet she gestures to a body in a bed half hidden by a curtain, and says, “That chick’s in rough shape.” She watches Doyle’s tape and says, “First soldier down,” implying there’s a second. She tells Angel that Doyle “used his last breath to make sure you’d keep fighting. I get that now.” And at the end she tells him, “I can’t stay. This isn’t me any more… I’m on a different road.” All of these moves not only keep the Gotcha from undercutting the emotional impact of the story, they reinforce character: This is what Cordelia would do. Because of that respect for her core identity, Cordy ends as the real thing, the character who had grown to be a vividly believable woman over eight years of stories, who acts in character and still surprises everyone with a last, honest Gotcha. I am grateful to Mutant Enemy for giving Cordelia a Good Gotcha, but I’m even more grateful that they gave her a Good Death, one that honors her character.

Watching the old episodes of Angel for this essay brought back to me how important character truth is to any story, but especially to episodic story that spans years. The growth of Cordelia Chase’s character was exemplary over six years, a creation of a flawed, complex, selfish character who was at the same time admirable and lovable. She grew and changed but she was never anything but Cordelia Chase until the writers were corrupted by the Beast and betrayed her and the viewers who loved her. As a cautionary tale, the Character Assassination of Cordelia Chase is tragically invaluable. As a great, great character, Cordelia is sincerely mourned.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published as “The Assassination of Cordelia Chase.” Five Seasons of Angel: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Vampire. Ed. Glenn Yeffeth. BenBella Books, Oct 2004.

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