There will be no reprieve. Picture: Take Five/Hulu
There will be no reprieve. Picture: Take Five/Hulu

Most emotionally wrenching nine minutes of TV

TAKE a deep breath, walk outside and let the warmth of the sun wash over you. Remember that you don't live in Gilead, and exhale. Rinse and repeat until your fast-beating heart slows down to its normal pace.

If an hour after the end credits roll on the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale's second season you're still feeling anxious, don't be surprised. It is that intense.

One of the best and buzziest TV shows of 2017 is back next week week with a second season that promises to be every bit as chilling, emotionally resonant and phenomenal as the first. Politically relevant and provocative, The Handmaid's Tale is fuelled by a perfect command of its craft (those beautiful, muted tones) and extraordinary performances, including from lead actor and executive producer Elisabeth Moss who has cleaned up on the awards circuit for playing June Osborne.

A quick refresher for those of us who binged the show months ago: We last saw a pregnant June being bundled into the back of a van by the secret police, unsure of whether she was facing damnation or salvation, urged by Nick to go along with it. Elsewhere, Moira has reunited with Luke in Canada, Commander Waterford may be facing political pressure and Aunt Lydia promised retribution after the Handmaids refused to stone Janine.

Under his eye. Picture: Hulu
Under his eye. Picture: Hulu

Based on Margaret Atwood's acclaimed novel, the series set in a dystopian future in which a merciless patriarchal theocracy exerts total control over women's bodies finds itself on unfamiliar ground - that is, it ran out of source material.

The first season took it all the way to the end of Atwood's book, save for an epilogue, and with the blessing of the Canadian author who also serves as a producer on the series, the show is now on its own. If there was any doubt the show would be lost without Atwood's tome, that's gone within moments of the first episode.

The episode opens exactly where we were left, with June in the back of that van, two bullet casings rolling around on the ground, the metallic scraping an ominous sign of what came before, and maybe of what's to come.

Not wanting to spoil what happens next, let's just say that the show charges out of the gates strong, its first nine minutes stomping over you with a brutally effective sequence, all coming to a crescendo to Kate Bush's haunting This Woman's Work. It's some of the series' most wrenching scenes, unexpectedly visceral and poignant.

Brutally effective and gut-wrenching. Picture: Hulu
Brutally effective and gut-wrenching. Picture: Hulu

What we should expect this season is the fight for your identity and sense of self in a society that seeks to rob you of even your name. (Who is June? Is she Offred? Is she June Osborne? Is she Mrs Luke Bankole?) There's also the personal fight for her unborn child and for the daughter already captive - how do you save the next generation from these horrors?

Expect to see more of Mayday, the resistance group whose presence was ramping up towards the end of the first season.

The second episode gives us the first glimpse of the colonies, a contaminated wasteland where undesirables are sent, conditions that resemble Siberian labour camps. Here, we find Emily (Alexis Bledel, who won an Emmy award for her role last year), formerly Ofglen, and the story lurches us into her backstory as a college professor whose wife and son managed to escape to Canada. She told that story to June last season but to see it rendered is a gift.

There's an emphasis on connecting the past with present day Gilead, of those days after the fundamentalists first struck to when they seized control. It's the small things in these scenes - of the judgment on motherhood or someone recoiling at a photo of a same-sex family - moments that aren't unfamiliar to us today, that are the most chilling. But then, almost everything in The Handmaid's Tale is an emotional gut-punch.

The first two episodes made available for review were a confident return, a vengeful approach that offers no reprieve from the stark intensity of its cocoon. With characters postulating on "freedom to" versus "freedom from" - ie more bulls**t paternalism - or the continued infantilising of women ("You'll have to be my very good girl") means you never forget this monstrous world.

The Handmaid's Tale season two premieres on SBS and SBS On Demand on Thursday, April 26 at 8.30pm.

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