Two very different brothers from Edinburgh (okay, Leith) are driving one night and accidentally hit a pedestrian.  What follows in the BBC Scotland series Guilt (2019-2023) is, unsurprisingly, more about the emotion than the legal definition of guilt as we see the crimes being committed and know that the brothers are guilty of it and the subsequent cover-up.  But what the series actually seems to be illustrating, especially in the two subsequent series, is less about guilt and more about shame.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Guilt begins with Jake (Jamie Sives), the underachieving younger brother who is driving stoned and uninsured and actually hits Walter (unnamed), the pedestrian.  The car belongs to his older, wealthy, high-flying lawyer brother Max (Mark Bonnar) who encourages Jake to leave the scene.  Jake, being overcome by guilt, first removes Walter’s body from the street and then he and Max carry the body into his own home nearby.  They stage the scene to look like a death from natural causes as they find a letter stating that Walter had terminal cancer.  Jake inadvertently leaving his wallet at the house leads to an exacerbation of the cover-up and Jake, along with Max’s business associate Kenny (Emun Elliott), Jake’s girlfriend/Walter’s faux-niece Angie (Ruth Bradley) and Walter’s girlfriend/ ‘black widow’ murderess Sheila (Ellie Haddington) all conspiring to fit Max up for the crime.  While the series can be critiqued and/or analysed in a number of ways (e.g., the frequent references to class and control connected to location throughout all three series) in this particular blog I shall discuss how Guilt and its characters define and relate to Max, especially in later series.

Series 2 and 3 expand upon characterisation rather than the actual RTA of series 1.  Having been released from prison early as part of a sting operation to take down Roy Lynch (Bill Patterson/Stewart Bowman), whose money Max had been laundering, Max notes that he tried ‘guilt’ while in prison but, instead, settled on a desire for revenge.  He also has begun working with Kenny as a business partner and he then works briefly with Jake running a pub.  The running theme, however, is Max’s attempts to reclaim his former life and the various schemes he, Kenny and Jake engage in which ultimately lead to Max being cut out yet again by Jake in series 3.  The implication is that all characters move on to better lives; Jake even argues in 2.4 that the answer to all of Max’s problems and (psychological/moral) damage was to leave Edinburgh, which both he and Max ultimately do in 3.4.  That is, however, a rather facile interpretation and solution– which, given Jake’s frequent lack of strategic understanding may be the point.

Regardless, this brings up two main points with the series.  The first is the diegetic references to the desire for simplicity (‘black and white,’ as both Max and Roy state they seek in series 2) in contrast to the moral grey in which they both work.  Jake’s solution above is a simple one– leave– but we see Max and Jake both attempting to do that repeatedly and fail, generally through Max’s machinations and/or Jake’s incompetence and machinations. Max repeatedly attempts to find ways to express his humanity in both dialogue and action, a fact emphasised by Bonnar’s skilled performance.  These attempts include e.g., apologising to Kenny, donating money to ‘sad kids’ and telling his paramour, Erin (Sara Vickers), that she had a different father to the one she’d thought and explicitly doing that for love and the hope of her healing, rather than in order to hurt her putative father, Roy (2.3-4), all of which occur while Jake and Kenny sink further into the moral grey, generally through acting against Max in some way.  The pretext for both Kenny and Jake doing so is, explicitly, because of ‘the way [Max] is,’ as both put it.  Jake goes slightly further, saying in 3.4 that Max ‘infects you with the way he sees the world.’  In addition to being blamed for all their problems, Max is literally pathologised here, i.e., analogised to an infection or disease. One can also read Jake and Kenny’s actions and attendant displacement of their own responsibility onto Max as a form of scapegoating him for their actions and/or misfortunes, up to and including Max being forced from the city as opposed to leaving of his own accord.[1]

What these multiple readings illustrate is that the series seems to be constantly subverting itself with regard to what it is attempting to say about morality.  Max’s repeated attempts at reclaiming wealth can be read as an addiction, paralleling Kenny’s alcoholism, and that both Kenny and Jake betray Max with limited to no self-reflection can be read as illustrating how Max’s initial fall into white collar crime and corruption came about. But the overall messaging is unclear; none of the main characters explicitly attempt to take responsibility for what they have done.  In addition, key decisions by various characters are made off screen which does help surprise the audience but is done at the expense of character and motivation. Thus the series professes complexity but continually oversimplifies its characterisation in favour of its plot.

This structural issue does more than impact the characterisation, however.  It also impacts the series’ representation with regard to morality, mental health and the complexity of its characters. As noted above Max is pathologised, with Jake also referring to him as ‘sociopathic’ in 3.3.  When writing of BBC’s Sherlock, MalynndaJohnson (2020: 87) notes that ‘Sociopaths…are found to have a sense of morality and a sense of right and wrong [which] reflects that they have beliefs about the social world.’ Thus sociopaths have empathy and morality.  This leads to the question of the inciting event of the series, the RTA that kills Walter in which Jake was driving Max’s car, particularly with regard to viewing the accident and subsequent actions of the various characters in the context of whether or not they would be considered as a morally injurious event (MIE).

MIEs, or moral injuries more generally, are poorly studied and of those handful of works they all focus upon MIEs which occur in a military context.  That said, Kruger states that

…moral injury is identified as “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations” (Litz et al., 2009). This is thought to result in concurrent negative emotional responses and dysfunctional behaviors that result in long-lasting psychological impairment…by way of either indirect exposure (i.e.,witnessing) or directly participating in the conflicting event. […]  There is no threshold for establishing the presence of moral injury; rather, at a given point in time, symptoms of moral injury may be experienced on a continuum (Kruger 2014: 137).

Thus hitting a pedestrian while driving under the influence and covering it up would generally be considered to be a transgression of  deeply held moral beliefs.  What happens in the series, however, both calls into question the moral aspect of the various events as well as examines how moral injury is and is not represented.  Both Litz et al (2009) and Kruger (2014) note that shame and guilt (Litz et al 2009 also include anxiety) are key indicators of moral injury.  Kruger in particular notes the difference, stating that

following experiences of shame, an individual has a sense of being a bad, immoral person. Unlike guilt which focuses on specific thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, shameful experiences represent failures that reflect on the core or ideal self in a negative way…  Shame… focuses inward on the self as opposed to the behavior. As such, it is associated with a sense of personal deficiency and is more closely linked to a feeling of moral violation.  (2014: 139).

The guilt of the series title clearly refers to the hit and run and subsequent cover up.  But as the series continues, what is addressed far more often is Max being a ‘bad person’ in the eyes of his brother Jake and his business associate Kenny.  The clear attempt by those around Max is to shame him or at least to try and awaken a sense of shame in him. This, like the guilt he tried to feel while imprisoned, does not seem to  remain in him long, which can potentially be read as illustrating what happens when an MIE happens to someone amoral. If there are no deeply held moral beliefs to transgress then the moral injury would be minor if it occurs at all.

Litz et al (2009) note that perceived personal agency is a protective factor against moral injury.  The series illustrates, however, that Max has very limited personal agency.  In addition to being betrayed by the majority of the other characters, there is very limited expressed interest for Max to reform.  Though he is clearly tempted to do so in series 3, it is only when Jake forces Max to leave Edinburgh for Erin in Dundee that Max seems at all interested in finding a new life rather than a resumption of his former life.  This occurs at the end of the final series, so we do not see whether or not this new life flourishes, but one of the keys to lasting behavioural change is motivation (Davis et al 2016, Kwansnicka et al 2016).  A person has to want or actively choose to change, rather than having it forced upon them.  While there are suggestions that Max wants to change scattered throughout all three series, his personal agency is routinely taken from him.  This implies that, not only can the potential for moral injury occur or increase but also that any change is doomed to fail.

Currier et al (2015) also note that perceived changes in identity or morality can predispose to moral injury, which we can also see in Jake and Kenny’s routine shifting of responsibility and/or blame for their own decisions onto Max, again connecting those shifts to Max being ‘bad.’ One can perhaps argue that the intent was for the series to be heteroglossic (Bailey 2015), with the other characters’ perceptions of Max contrasting to that which he himself expresses and allowing the audience to evaluate matters for themselves, but there is little direct engagement with either Max’s amorality or the escalating amorality of the other characters.  It is certainly possible that this is the intent, to leave the audience to question and/or empathise with various characters at various times, increasing audience engagement overall.  Litz et al (2009) note that numbing is a consequence of moral injury so one can perhaps read this as an example as well.  It is also possible that the changes in morality seen in the majority of the characters can be read as consequences as well as predispositions for moral injuries; if Jake’s motives for cutting Max out of money in 3.4 were genuinely believed to be for Max’s benefit (i.e., so that he and everyone else could start a new/better life elsewhere) then that may not be an MIE as it was not transgressing any moral beliefs.

The series takes a very shallow approach to mental health, MIEs/trauma and in many respects characterisation in order to prioritise the conspiracy/betrayal aspects of the plot. But for a series titled ‘Guilt’ it seems much more concerned with shame (both the noun and the verb) and about avoiding engaging deeply with the personal reckoning(s) of that guilt, shame and/or transgression of a moral belief by simply eliding or erasing moral beliefs from the characters in favour of the more nebulous ‘starting new lives.’  And that really does seem a shame.


Dr Melissa Beattie is a recovering Classicist who was awarded a PhD in Theatre, Film and TV Studies from Aberystwyth University where she studied Torchwood and national identity through fan/audience research as well as textual analysis. She has published and presented several papers relating to transnational television, audience research and/or national identity. She will be joining the American University of Phnom Penh in August 2023 as an Assistant Professor of English/Humanities. She has previously worked at universities in the US, Korea, Pakistan and Armenia. She can be contacted at



[1]     Early scapegoating rituals involved the transfer of blame or perceived-blame (I.e., illnesses) to a literal goat which was then chased out of the city.



Bailey B (2015).  Heteroglossia. In The Routledge Handbook of Multilingualism. Edited by Martin-Jones M Blackledge A and Crees A. London: Routledge (epub), n.p.

Currier J M et al (2015). How Do Morally Injurious Events Occur? A Qualitative Analysis of Perspectives of Veterans With PTSD.  Traumatology 1(2): 106–116.

Davis R et al. (2015) Theories of behaviour and behaviour change across the social and behavioural sciences: a scoping review. Health Psychology Review 9(3): 323-344.

Johnson M (2021). Psychopath, sociopath, or autistic: Labeling and framing the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes. In Normalizing Mental Illness and Neurodiversity in Entertainment Media: Quieting the Madness. Edited by Johnson M and Olson C J. London: Routledge, pp. 83-95.

Kruger L E (2014). Is There More to the Experience of War Trauma than PTSD? The Development of Moral Injury and its Impact on Soldiers. Journal of Military and Government Counseling 2(2): 136-145.

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Litz B T et al (2009). Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy. Clinical Psychology Review 29(8): 695-706.