*Spoilers for The Handmaid's Tale season 2, episode 1*
Praise be. The Handmaid's Tale is back on British screens - and the dystopian drama shows no sign of letting up when it comes to its nerve-jangling blend of harrowing torment and glimmers of hope.
Season two's opening episode is an eventful one, full of thought-provoking exchanges, surprising turns of events, and typically upsetting moments - along with the odd dose of wry humour.
As Elisabeth Moss's Offred continues to struggle against an oppressive, brutal regime, here are all the most pressing talking points.
A harrowing beginning
What other TV show's season premiere would kick off with a mass, mock execution in a sports stadium, soundtracked by Kate Bush's 'This Woman's Work'?
Oh, Handmaid's Tale. How we've missed you.
Even by Gilead's standards, this is twisted (Photo: MGM/Channel 4)
While many viewers will doubtless have predicted the bluff (Gilead is hardly going to kill off dozens of fertile women over one act of insubordination), the sight of terrified, crying, urinating Handmaids bundled out of vans, ushered onto gallows, and admonished by Aunt Lydia with nooses still around their necks, certainly makes for grim viewing.
Our Father, who art in heaven - what the actual f*** indeed.
True horror in Gilead is a trip to the kitchen
Of course, the torture doesn't end there. Aunt Lydia warned there would be consequences when the Handmaids refused to execute Janine last time around.
She really wasn't lying.
Tears in the rain: before the stove, came the outdoor stress torture (Photo: Hulu/Channel 4/MGM)
In perhaps this episode's most stomach-turning, hideous act of cruelty, the women are lined up and forced to watch as the first is led to a kitchen cooker, handcuffed to it, and then burned slowly and agonisingly as the hob is turned on. The others know they will be forced to endure the same.
While this is going on, Offred calmly sits and eats her soup - shielded from further physical torment due to her pregnancy.
Offred's conversation with Aunt Lydia is the crux of the episode
Offred initially attempts to continue her air of defiance. But Aunt Lydia - newly fervent despite previous signs of uncertainty - hits her with a terrible home-truth.
"Your friends will suffer the consequences. But not you."
Offred's decision to stand up to the regime will see others tormented and brutalised, while she is protected due to her condition.
Their conversation in the dining room is a riveting highlight of the episode. And it hints at anÂ internal battle that is in some ways even more troubling than the torture.
Offred faces some painful home truths (Photo: Hulu/Channel 4/MGM)
Offred is torn between selflessness and selfishness. Between standing up to the regime and self-preservation. As last season's finale drove home, there are hundreds of women trapped in Gilead, suffering and displaced from their loved ones.
The idea that rebelling will only hurt others, and the harsh reminder that her actions have consequences that extend far beyond herself, raises some compelling moral dilemmas that are sure to be explored further this season.
A certain character's fate
Aunt Lydia also berates Offred for sparing Janine from stoning at the end of season one.
"She would have died quickly, surrounded by her friends," scolds Lydia, a mite disingenuously. But the suggestion that Janine faces a fate worse than death certainly gets Offred - and our - attention.
Janine has been through more of an ordeal than most (Photo: MGM/Channel 4)
Janine is being sent to The Colonies. Which raises the question of whether we too will journey there with her. Is she to be our eyes and ears in those feared, long whispered-of places?
The revelation is also a further warning to Offred's thoughts of rebellion. And an additional attempt to play on her empathy and guilt.
Offred escapes - but at what cost?
In the end of course, Offred manages to free herself from the clutches of Lydia and Gilead's enforcers. And it is a daring, nail-biting escape.
Handed a key after undergoing an ultrasound, allowing her to flee the room and follow a breadcrumb trail to the building's basement, she's soon huddled in the back of a meat van - fitting for someone who's been treated as a piece of meat for months - and transported to a waiting safe house. Nick, it transpires, has seemingly followed through on his promise after all.
After burning her Handmaids robe and ripping the tracker from her ear in a wince-inducing act of self-mutilation, Offred is finally, painfully reborn as 'June' - the very title of the episode - standing triumphant and resolute even as blood gushes down her neck.
There are shades of Carrie in Offred's rebirth as June - will her own vengeance be forthcoming? (Photo: MGM/Channel 4)
Offred is finally free. Or is she?
A tense time on the run seemingly awaits. And then there's the matter of those she's left behind. Those who, as Aunt Lydia warned, suffer the consequences of her actions.
The Handmaids may face further punishment in her absence. But could Serena Joy, robbed of 'her' baby, also seek vengeance by hurting June's daughter Hannah, as she previously warned?
The slow drip, drip of oppression
It seems flashbacks are set to play as integral a role in season two as they did in the first. And the look back at the rise of Gilead that we get is certainly revealing.
When June's daughter is taken ill while at school, the authorities use this as an excuse to question the legitimacy of her decision to work full-time. Already, back then, the place of women in society was being placed under a microscope; their choices subject to an oppressive scrutiny.
June/Offred faces even greater danger in season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale (Photo: Hulu)
It was starting to become official and ingrained in law. But perhaps, in essence, not so different to the way in which women's life choices are questioned in our society now.
The Handmaid's Tale seems to be offering a cautionary note. If rights are gradually eroded, freedoms curtailed and the simple things we take for granted stripped away, the future could be bitter indeed.
Further talking points:
We only see the Waterfords briefly this episode. How will they react to Offred's escape? And is Nick still working to bring down Fred for the Eyes?Is Aunt Lydia's emotional breakdown before she rings the bell a private display of remorse and guilt, or simply tears of joy at Offred's pregnancy?Last we heard, Luke and Moira were looking to aid Offred and Hannah from Canada. What form will their plan take?Is Offred's escape purely down to Nick and his contacts, out of a selfish desire to protect his baby, or is Nick also working in tandem with 'May Day'? If the latter, is Offred going to aid the rebellion?
The Handmaid's Tale is on Channel 4, Sundays at 9pm
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This article originally appeared on our sister site, iNews.
[Main image: MGM/Channel 4]