You will need a pitcher of wine after you see the debut episode of The Handmaid’s Tale series two. Or at least a bit of a lie-down.
The dystopian epic is back with a renewed sense of ferocity, and plunges straight into scenes of institutional group torture and utter human depravity as we rejoin June (Elisabeth Moss) on her journey of defiance.
We last saw June being wrenched from the Commander’s house after she lead a protest against the stoning of fellow Handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer). After a barely-reassuring whisper from Nick (Max Minghella) to “just go with it, trust me”, June was man-handled into the back of a black van with no idea whether she was heading to her death, the colonies or to freedom. Margaret Atwood’s novel ends on the same cliffhanger, with the line “into the darkness within, or else the light”.
The new series continues from the moment the van doors slam shut behind June. What follows in the first few minutes is an excruciating, watch-from-behind-the-sofa scene where June’s fate – and that of the other girls who refused to stone Janine to death – hangs in the balance. I won’t reveal any more about that, except that it’s all set to the perfect soundtrack of This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush and is a thing of haunting beauty.
There was something quite hair-raising about watching the show’s return at the UK press screening – in a women’s members club, attended by Channel 4 chief executive Alex Mahon who was sporting a “It takes tits to do that” T-shirt. Each collective gasp of the audience and sudden flinch at the violence was felt in the room.
In the new series, Moss has managed to expertly maintain that sense of knowing, that feeling of sharing a private joke that delighted viewers last year. After one of the most distressing scenes in the first episode, she recites: “Our father. Who art in heaven. Seriously? What the actual f***.” Just like in series one, we are made to feel like June is telling her story to us as one individual, one friend, with a wink and a nudge to off-set the bleakness of it all.
Something new we see in the show’s return is Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) in tears – tears! – which would have been unthinkable in the first series. I expect this means the show will delve into the character’s back story, revealing what turned her into such a savage tyrant and perhaps giving her some humanity.
There are also more flashbacks to life before the regime. In their apartment, June’s husband Luke (OT Fagbenle) is exasperated by the absurdity of having to sign off his wife’s contraception order, plus we witness the couple’s horror as they watch a terror attack on the White House unfold, which we can assume is when the Republic of Gilead overthrows the government.
During these little moments I am reminded of June’s poignant words in series one: “When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then either.
“They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
Despite all the despair, the overwhelming feeling which is likely to stay with you long after you watch this episode is one of hope, which refuses to die even in the Handmaids’ most harrowing moments.