Oh, so you thought things couldn't possibly get more emotionally draining than The Last of Us episode 3, did you?
Well, it looks like we were all wrong about that.
After a tense, action-packed Kansas City escape followed by a violent showdown with Kathleen's militia and a erupting sinkhole full of Infected, it finally seemed like Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) — along with their new companions Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard) — were due a happy ending in episode 5. Their little band of two would now be four! Joel would have have a grown-up companion he'd grudgingly grow to respect! Ellie would have a friend to read comics with!
But no. It was, of course, too good to be true. And after the episode abruptly ends in tragedy, Ellie writes a simple note by Sam's grave – "I'm sorry" – that says a huge amount about her character.
But what exactly happened, and what does the note signify? Let's recap.
What happens at the end with Ellie and Sam?
With the door shut to the room they're sharing in an abandoned motel, Sam, who is deaf, uses his magic eraser board to ask Ellie a question.
"Are you ever scared?"
After a bit of back and forth and a joke about scorpions that doesn't land, Ellie turns serious.
"I'm scared of ending up alone," she writes. "What about you?"
"If you turn into a monster is it still you inside?" is Sam's response.
At this point he pulls up his trouser leg and shows a bloody bite mark. In an instant we, and Ellie, all know that the worst has happened — during the showdown earlier, without anyone else realising it, Sam was bitten by an Infected. And although Ellie likely knows what this means, she doesn't run out of the room and tell Joel. Maybe she's in denial about the fate of her new friend, or maybe she genuinely believes what she says next. But either way she shows Sam her own, healed bite mark and writes, "My blood is medicine" on the board. She then cuts her palm and smears blood on Sam's leg wound. The last thing Sam writes is "Stay awake with me," to which Ellie responds, "I promise."
Tragically, it's no good. Ellie wakes upright in her chair the next morning to discover that Sam has succumbed to infection. He attacks her and is shot dead by his older brother, Henry, who then turns the gun on himself.
Why does Ellie write "I'm sorry" on the board?
After Henry and Sam are buried, a blank-faced Ellie places the boy's magic eraser board by the mound of earth. When Joel picks it up after she's walked off, he sees that she's written two words: "I'm sorry".
On the surface, there are many ways this could be interpreted. The most simple explanation, of course, is that Ellie is sorry that Sam has died. But digging a little deeper, I think her message links back to a conversation Joel has with Henry just before Ellie and Sam's written exchange.
"Do you think they'll be OK?" asks Henry as the two adults watch the kids reading a comic in the other room.
"Yeah, I think it's easier when you're a kid anyway," responds Joel. "You don't have anybody else relying on you. That's the hard part."
The line about people relying on you is key. When the door was shut and Ellie and Sam were on their own in the motel, they were no longer just two kids. They were now friends. Sam confided his secret in Ellie, and for better or worse she temporarily took on the "adult" role in the situation — she reassured him and offered a solution, telling him she could make him better before promising to stay awake with him.
Ellie writing "I'm sorry" on the board could mean a few different things. It could mean she's sorry her blood didn't help save him, or that she's sorry she didn't keep her promise to stay awake with him.
More than anything, though, it signifies a tragic coming-of-age moment for her character. Ellie's no longer just a kid being told to follow Joel's rules; with Sam, she had someone else relying on her, and, in her own mind, at least, she failed him.
In writing the note, it's possible she's also grappling with the wider implications of what Sam's death might mean. Every risk they've taken so far has been about transporting Ellie because she's immune from becoming infected. She's special. But what if her gift can't actually help anyone but her?
What if it's all for nothing, and Sam's just the first of many that she's unable to save? It's another huge weight of responsibility resting on her young shoulders, another thing pushing her to grow up faster than she should have to.
The Last of Us is now streaming on HBO Max. New episodes air every Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.