Plague of Geeks

The iconic television geek takedown of nice geeky guys is the Trio from Buffy season six‑a group of hapless science/magic nerds whose amusingly ineffectual schemes slide bleakly towards rape and murder. Cute nerdy guys who feel women don't appreciate them aren't really cute at all; smart boys with a grudge can be as misogynist, or more misogynist, than the frat boys. Warren (Adam Busch), the Trio's leader, is a particularly nice portrait of unassuming, charismatic Beta male sliding over the line into MRA resentment and violence. 

Warren and the Trio are one of the highlights of Buffy—but I may like Penny Dreadful's Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadway) better. 

Victor, like Warren, is a science nerd. He's also, like the Trio, a nerd stereotype. Victor is thin, slight, and, we learn over the course of the series, a virgin. He's shy, intense, and generally likable—not least because he's quite good-looking.

In Buffy, the Trio's slide into evil is chronicled fairly straightforwardly. They are pests at first, then, led by Warren, they dabble in sexual assault and ever increasing violence. They make a series of choices leading towards damnation. Warren is corrupted by rage and anger; he becomes a worse person as we watch. The arc is, at least to some degree, a cautionary tale about bad choices and peer pressure.

Victor's storyline isn't quite so linear. We first see him bringing to life a zombie corpse named Proteus, who is innocent and sweet, and who Victor loves like a father. But then Proteus is murdered by another monster—Victor's first creation, Caliban (Rory Kinnear). The monster at first seems like…well, a monster. But it turns out that he hates Victor because, after creating him, Victor abandoned him. Frankenstein does not go from being a weak person to being a bad person. His worst act of hubris and callousness occurred before we meet him.

Victor could be a Warren in reverse—a man who has learned his lessons and is seeking redemption. But Victor hasn't learned lessons, or not really. Caliban demands that Victor create a bride for him; under threat, Victor complies. He then instantly falls in lust with Lily (Billie Piper) the woman he raises. Even before she is animated, while she's a corpse, he caresses her breasts, indulging in both necrophilia and anticipatory incest. After she's raised, she is traumatized and amnesiac; he nonetheless pursues her and sleeps with her. When she tells him that she knows he abused her, and rejects him, he shoots her. Then he shoots her new boyfriend, Dorian Grey. Neither of them die, because they're both mystical monsters. But he wanted them to die. He was jealous and spurned, and so he resorted to murder.

Victor is always horrid—but he's also, in general, sympathetic. He risks his life for his friends. He feels he is in love with Lily, and pours his heart out with sincere pathos to his friend Vanessa (Eva Green.) Victor is a genuinely horrible person, but there's no one moment where he starts acting like a supervillain. He's abusing his ward one scene, and the next he's treated as a trusted member of the band by the good guys. And then, he's back to scheming with his buddy Dr. Jerkyll about giving Lily some sort of shot to turn her docile and make her his again. Better sexual abuse through science.

This isn't the standard issue alpha male quality television antihero; Victor isn't Walter White or Don Draper. He's not swaggering and appealing but awful; he's sometimes charming, sometimes pitiable, and awful. He doesn't break bad; he's always a power mad jerk, obsessed with power and control and glory, who sees other people as tools and things—dead bodies for him to manipulate and fuck with. This Frankenstein's sin isn't pride, but sadism; the reduction of other people to objects for his own pleasure. Even his guilt is self-serving; he is anguished that his creatures do things that he didn't expect and doesn't want. There is little evidence, at least by the beginning of season 3, that he realizes he treated them badly.

And yet, despite his cruelty and his selfishness and his general awfulness, there's no sudden moment of moral recognition of his evil. His self-regard, his self-pity, and his desire for control, fame, and power blight everything he touches. But he has friends.  People worry about him and care for him. His geeky harvest of cruelty and pain doesn't make him a villain in his own eyes or anyone else's. Which is, I think, a truer and a bleaker message than even Buffy managed.