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The secret messages hidden inside every song on The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid’s Tale is all we can think about at the moment. However, heeding the advice of Elisabeth Moss (who plays titular handmaid, Offred), we’re trying not to binge-watch. Partly because each episode is so emotionally draining, but also to make sure that we don’t miss out on any cultural references, sneaky extra details, and hidden symbolism.

It’s definitely been working: taking the time to reflect on each and every single episode, to mull over all we’ve seen, has given us the chance to explore and analyse every last bit of it. And, as it turns out, the soundtrack to the show is the biggest Easter egg of all, hiding clues and more under our eye (or ear) throughout.

From Blondie’s Heart of Glass to Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me, we’ve taken a look back to bring you every single musical reference you missed – and highlight exactly why each song is so crucial to the plot.

Spoiler warning: we have made sure to clarify which episode each song appears in throughout, to ensure that both UK and US audiences can enjoy this article. Be sure to take note of each title, and only proceed as far as you have personally viewed up to, so as to avoid any spoilers.


Episode One: You Don’t Own Me – Lesley Gore

In the very first episode, we’re introduced to Offred and offered our first glimpse into her life of sexual servitude and surrogacy. But, while they may have torn her away from her loved ones, stripped her of identity, and forced her to take part in a monthly ceremony (or rape, if we’re going to call it what it is), Offred still harbours hopes of freedom.

Her internal monologue tells us as much: she holds the past in her head, and recites her own name – June. Silently, she fires expletive-laden comebacks at those who annoy her. She tears down Gilead’s regime, thought by thought. And, most of all, she forces herself to push on and survive.

No wonder, then, that the episode ends with Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me.

“Don’t tell me what to do, and don’t tell me what to say, and when I go out with you, don’t put me on display…”

 A song that roars with defiance in the face of socially ingrained sexism, this may be an obvious choice for the first episode – but it’s perfect, nonetheless.


Episode One: Wildfire – SBTRKT

In a flashback, we are hurled backwards through time and land smack-bang alongside Offred and her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) as they enjoy a laidback college party. They drink, they laugh, they talk about sex. And, all the while, SBTRKT’s Wildfire (with vocals by Little Dragon) perfectly plays out in the background.

“Would you save me?” it sings. “It’s a crime if you don’t. You’re the spy by the throat… you’re like a wildfire [and] you got me rising high.”

It’s a song of friendship, love, and freedom. So, when the flashback suddenly cuts into Moira and Offred’s silent reunion at the brutal Red Centre, it underscores exactly how much they’ve lost since they last saw each other.


Episode Two: Three Little Birds – Bob Marley

After giving birth to a healthy baby girl in a seriously twisted birthing ceremony, Ofwarren/Janine (Madeline Brewer) is tasked with breastfeeding the newborn. And, in this rare and tender moment alone with her child, Janine quietly sings a very familiar lullaby…

“Don’t worry about a thing,” she hums to her little girl, “because every little thing is gonna be alright…”

This beautiful and heart-breaking song is one that Janine probably heard her own mother sing, many years ago – so, in a very real sense, it’s a relic: a leftover scrap from better times gone by. In echoing the immortal words of Bob Marley, the Handmaid makes futile promises for a better future – and speaks to the story of Gilead, and the past. She reminds us that life was not always this way for the Handmaids, that these women have had their entire sense of reality shaken. That everything they know and love has been torn away from them. That all they have left are bitter memories.

But, above all else, she speaks to us, the viewer, on the other side of the screen. In this 40-second acapella, we’re filled with bitter-sweetness from tip-to-toe, and reminded that, if we speak up for our rights now, we can avoid the dark dystopian world that this show speaks of.


Episode Two: Don’t You (Forget About Me) – Simple Minds

It’s the ultimate eighties ballad – and, thanks to its inclusion at the end of The Breakfast Club, a song associated with rebelliousness, triumph, and overcoming the odds. But the lyrics, when applied to a world populated by Handmaids without pasts, are incredibly poignant:

“Don’t you forget about me,” it pleads. “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.”

And then, calling to mind those anonymous red gowns, white caps, and interchangeable names, it continues: “Will you recognise me? Call my name, or walk on by?”

With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that, at the song’s peak, Offred bounces up to greet her friend Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) – only to discover that she’s been replaced with someone else. “I am Ofglen,” the usurper says stonily, when quizzed as to what happened to her predecessor.

We guess the rain keeps falling, down, down, down, down…


Episode Three: Heart of Glass – Blondie

In the third episode, we see exactly what happened to the women of America when they attempted to stand up and fight for their rights.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, and emboldened by one another’s support, they wave banners and placards at the Gileadean army – only to learn that these guys don’t believe in peaceful protests. Bullets are fired, countless people are killed, and, all the while, the eerie tones of Debbie Harry sing out the lyrics to Blondie’s Heart of Glass in the background.

Yes, the lyrics relate to the fragility of our hearts and spirits – but they also refer, quite literally, to the shattering glass of the windows, cars and store fronts as they’re torn apart by bullets. And it’s yet another real-life reference to the infamous Kristalnacht (‘The Night of Broken Glass’), which saw the Nazis launch one of their very first violent attacks on the Jewish community.

In a single evening, over 250 synagogues were burned, 7,000 Jewish businesses were trashed and looted, Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes were looted, and dozens of Jewish people were killed – all while police and fire brigades stood by. Sound familiar?

Note: this is just one of the many real-life events that inspired The Handmaid’s Tale: Atwood has said time and time again that she refused to include anything that hadn’t actually happened somewhere, sometime in the world.


Episode Three: F**k the Pain Away – Peaches

In the same episode as the above, we are treated to yet another apt piece of music – this time in the form of explicit feminist anthem, F**k the Pain Away. It roars out during a flashback with Moira (Samira Wiley) and June, as they grapple with the fact that their world is teetering on a knife edge. That their basic human rights are under threat. That a life of safe sex, consensual relationships, and education is just a few laws away from being wiped out entirely.

“SIS IUD, stay in school ‘cause it’s the best,” sings out Peaches, referring to the intrauterine device – a free form of birth control provided by Planned Parenthood.

On a base level, it’s a song that encourages girls to practise safe sex and remain in the education system – but it’s also a hit that recognises the enormous importance of contraception. As Atwood herself said a few weeks ago, it is “really a form of slavery to force women to have children that they cannot afford and then to say that they have to raise them.”


Episode Three: Waiting for Something – Jay Reatard

Ofglen is branded a ‘gender traitor’ in the third episode – and, in a cruel bid to “curb her of her impulses”, her genitals are mutilated in government-ordered surgery.

It’s like a moment from a Stanley Kubrick movie: the young woman – a professor, in her former life – stares down at the sterile white bandages covering her. As she drops the hospital gown back into place, the camera zooms dizzyingly into a close-up of her face… and her anger and despair is clear for all to see.

At a glance, it seems as if this is it for Ofglen: the fire has been extinguished, her “bad behaviour” finally “cured”.

But then we hear the rumbling of Reatard’s crazed post-punk track in the background…

“I must compete, stand on my feet, live with these creeps… they won’t get me.”

It sends a clear message to viewers everywhere: Ofglen’s story is not over yet – far from it. And it seems highly unlikely that she’s going to turn her back on the resistance any time soon…


Episode Four: Daydream Believer – The Monkees

Lost in her own thoughts, June tortures herself over and over again with happy memories of her family – so of course Daydream Believer blares out in the background.

It’s just 20 seconds of music, but it smacks of family, and dreaming, and believing, and – above all else – nostalgia for times gone by.

In this case, however, it’s not so much a case of “cheer up, sleepy June” as it is “wake up”. Because, if she doesn’t, her good and bad times really will come to an end… and for good, this time.


Episode Four: Perpetuum Movile – Penguin Café Orchestra

At the end of the fourth episode, we are hurled backwards into a flashback: June , after encountering the full wrath of the Aunts, lies in her cot with bloodied soles and a broken spirit. She’s on the verge of giving up – but then her fellow handmaids file past, dropping pieces of food saved from their meals onto her pillow. The wordless smile on June’s face is enough. It may not be much, but at the Red Centre, where isolation breeds indoctrination, any community is meaningful – and any small act of friendship is an act of rebellion.

It’s all too fitting, then, that Penguin Café Orchestra’s Perpetuum Movile is the score for this moving moment.

Simon Jeffes formed the Penguin Café Orchestra after experiencing a recurring vision of “a concrete building like a hotel or council block”.

He explains: “I could see into the rooms, each of which was continually scanned by an electronic eye. In the rooms were people, everyone of them preoccupied. In one room a person was looking into a mirror and in another a couple were making love but lovelessly, in a third a composer was listening to music through earphones. Around him there were banks of electronic equipment. But all was silence. Like everyone in his place he had been neutralized, made grey and anonymous.

“The scene was for me one of ordered desolation. It was as if I were looking into a place which had no heart. Next day when I felt better, I was on the beach sunbathing and suddenly a poem popped into my head. It started out 'I am the proprietor of the Penguin Cafe, I will tell you things at random' and it went on about how the quality of randomness, spontaneity, surprise, unexpectedness and irrationality in our lives is a very precious thing.

“And if you suppress that to have a nice orderly life, you kill off what's most important. Whereas in the Penguin Cafe your unconscious can just be. It's acceptable there, and that's how everybody is. There is an acceptance there that has to do with living the present with no fear in ourselves.”

Yet another reminder to hold onto our autonomy, to rebel against conformity, and to cherish those spontaneous little moments of joy. And, of course, yet another beautiful lesson hidden within The Handmaid’s Tale: “nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.”


Episode Five: I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl – Nina Simone

“I want a little sugar in my bowl, I want a little sweetness down in my soul… I could stand some lovin’, oh so bad. Feels so funny, I feel so sad.”

The fifth episode is a tumultuous affair, full of heartache, and anguish, and unbridled fury. There is talk of rebellion – and, at last, word of an organised resistance group: Mayday.

It is Offred, however, who stages a covert mission in reclaiming her own identity. We watch as she confidently leaves the confines of her room, travels through the darkened house, slips across the lawn, and knocks on Nick (Max Minghella)’s door. Within moments, they’re ripping off one another’s clothes and kissing until they’re gasping for breath. And, while Nick initially presses her down onto the bed, it isn’t long before Offred – desire mixed with her need to break the rules rather than be broken by them – pushes him away and clambers on top of him, a position she’s told us was her favourite when she was an autonomous woman with the right to seek pleasure wherever she wanted to.

Nina Simone’s melancholy voice can be heard throughout, reminding us of all the complex emotions that sex can awaken within us: it can fulfil a primal, animalistic need. It can make us feel bold, and brilliant, and on top of the world. It can help to distract us from all of the big bads going on in the world – but it can also reawaken us to them, too. And, when done with consent, a sexual act reminds us that we, and we are alone, are in command of our own bodies.

That’s a lot of detail packed into one tune, eh?


Episode Five: The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black - Johann Johannson

The regime may have solidified Offred’s resolve to survive, but it seems to have destroyed Ofglen. Following her brutal genital mutilation, the once-determined woman is reassigned as Ofsteven – and, terrified of what’s been done to her, she censors herself. We watch as she refuses to engage with the wife at her new posting, distance herself from her fellow Handmaids, and even refrain from talking to Offred at the grocery store.

For a short while, it seems as if the sun’s gone dim and the sky’s turned black… or has it?

The lyrics to this piece are haunting – and no wonder: they were lifted from a hymn programmed into the first ever Icelandic computer back in 1964, and are a relic of times gone by. And it isn’t long before the electronic vocals give way to a gorgeous, epic, thunderous crescendo of strings.

Emily’s own rebellious spirit, in a similar way, begins to roar inside her own head, drowning out the doctrines of Gilead. It’s not long before she steals a car and drives off, giddy with her newfound freedom – before running over a soldier and surely condemning herself to death. But, as she’s torn from the vehicle and thrown into a black van, it’s all too clear that her glorious, desperate act of rebellion has had the desired effect: it’s filled the other Handmaids with courage, and reminded them that they can break free, do damage, rise up… if only they can be brave enough.


Episode Six: Wild is the Wind – Nina Simone

In this episode, we finally learn how Gilead was formed – and it becomes horrifyingly apparent that a lot of it was down to Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) herself.

In a series of flashbacks between and the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) prior to the formation of Gilead, we learn that Serena was a famous ‘domestic feminist’ – and that Fred was utterly captivated by what she had to say. We see them drawn ever closer to one another by their desire for a better future: their whispers of government conspiracy at the cinema have all the feverish, ferventness of dirty talk.

In one scene, Nina Simone’s wistful cover of Wild is the Wind plays softly in the background as the couple chats in their kitchen.  

It’s a beautiful song – one that speaks of mutual respect, entwined souls, and hearts beating in time for one another. It is in this nostalgic moment that we see Serena and Fred for what they are: a principled, happy, loving couple, with a strong and healthy relationship – one which has been founded upon mutual respect.

Too bad, then, that their plans actually came into fruition. And worse still that the formation of Gilead has all but destroyed all the best things about them.


Episode Six: He’s Alive – Adam Taylor

In the novel, we never find out what happens to Offred’s husband: Luke’s fate remains unknown, although the Handmaid readily resigns herself to the idea that he has been killed.

This is where the Hulu series separates from the book into its own:  the ambassador’s assistant (Christian Barillas) covertly approaches Offred and tells her, in hushed tones, that he can get a message to her husband. He offers her a pad of paper and a pen – both implements which she has been denied the use of ever since she was made a Handmaid – and implores her to write a message to Luke (O-T Fagbenle). But how can she ever hope to explain her nightmare, to ask the questions she needs answers to, to beg for help, in 10 ruled lines and a few hurried minutes?

It’s a plot point that caught everyone, devoted Atwood fans included, off guard – and this is because it’s an entirely new and original piece of storytelling. So it makes sense that the show drafted in composer Adam Taylor to create an original piece of music to score the emotionally-charged scene:

When asked to describe the song, producers called it “a journey of suspense” – which is exactly what the scene called for.


Episode Seven: Nothing's Gonna Hurt You BabyCigarettes After Sex

This episode is told entirely from Luke’s perspective, showing flashbacks to his escape across the Gileadean border, and contrasting it with his life now in Canada’s ‘Little America’. It’s your stereotypical dystopia – grey, sterile, and barely held together at the seams – but he’s happy. He has friends, he’s working to bring down Gilead, and he has coffee. So, when he’s called into the US embassy, asked to confirm the name of his missing wife, and silently offered a small manila envelope, it completely pulls the rug out from under his feet.

We see fear pass fleetingly across his face – and hope, too. This tiny scrap of paper could mean life or death for the woman he loves, and he knows it. But, when he tears open the envelope and reads the words scrawled inside, he’s filled with fierce joy: the person he loves is still alive.

Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby is, in this episode, a momentous ode to hope. Now that Luke and Offred/June know they have someone to fight for, they’re going to do so all the harder. Even if they are never reunited, they will know there is someone out there who is rooting for them, willing them to succeed, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them in battle.

They know that someone will grieve for them if they fail. And that’s enough, as Offred points out. It’s enough to know that someone cares for her, will miss her, should she end up on The Wall. It’s enough to make her turn her back on “this bulls**t life” and fire up the coals of rebellion in her belly. And, while they may strip away her human rights and identity, they can never take Luke from her: their memories, their hopes for the future, everything that makes them who they are, is locked away inside her mind.

“Nothing’s gonna hurt you baby, nothing’s gonna take you from my side”.


Episode Seven: Sweet Baby James – James Taylor

In Luke’s recollections, we learn that the escape attempt was not over in a single car journey: when he, June, and Hannah initially fled for the border, they met up with an old family friend, who set them up in a cosy cabin near the Canadian border.

As they waited for the all-clear, they made the most of their time together, playing outside, cuddling up in front of the fire, and skimming stones across the nearby lake. And, in one painfully sweet scene, we watch as the three whip up some extra chocolatey pancakes together. They switch on an old James Taylor cassette and let the music play out around them.

The joy on their faces is plain to see – and their love for one another undeniable. Everything almost feels normal… almost.

“Now the First of December was covered with snow, and so was the Turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston.

“Lord, the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frostin' with ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go…”

Deliberately a cross between a cowboy song and a lullaby, the tune is simple, the lyrics impactful: after all, this is a very personal song about cherishing and protecting a newborn child. And, in making their life-or-death escape attempt feel like a fun family holiday, Luke and June are doing just that: they are sheltering their little girl from the horrors pressing in around them.


Episode Eight: White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane

The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) smuggles Offred over the Charles River and into an innocuous-looking warehouse. Inside is a place where no women – not even Wives – are allowed to go. At first glance, it looks like any other gentleman’s club – there’s even a football game on TV.

But, as Offred gets her bearings, she realises that she’s surrounded by women, too: they’re wearing gorgeous gowns, and barely-there lingerie, and rabbit ears, and fetishised versions of the ceremonial robes seen all over Gilead. They’re drinking alcohol, laughing with men, trailing their fingers down suit sleeves, palming room keys, and giving in to every sordid sexual fantasy imaginable.

All the rules have been broken, creating a topsy-turvy world of taboo and contraband. No wonder Offred feels as if she’s tumbled down the rabbit-hole:

This frightening, feverish omen reaches dizzying new heights as Offred observes one ‘Handmaid’ having sex with a ‘Wife’ – and it’s a staunch reminder that the monthly Ceremony was so called because the men in charge of Gilead wanted to sanctify the raping of fertile women. That the religious doctrines this society is based on are as real as the hookah-smoking caterpillar of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy world. That every single woman in this society, regardless of her status, is a puppet dangling from a string.

Places like this, Waterford says, are technically forbidden, but unofficially, those in charge turn a blind eye. No wonder, then, that Offred has been painted as Alice. Too bad that her Wonderland is lacking any sense of wonder.


Episode Nine: Wrap Your Arms Around Me – The Knife

Moira seemed as if she had been utterly crushed by the Gileadean commanders: “my name is Ruby,” she told Offred angrily, when her best friend pleaded with her to escape from Jezebel’s and help her to track down her daughter, Hannah.

Next thing we know, she’s escaped the brothel she’s been enslaved at, dressed as a driver, clambering into a stolen van, wiping blood from her hands, and grinning happily into the dashboard mirror. She’s back in pursuit of the freedom that’s been stripped from her – and the song that producers have used to mark this profound moment is every bit as bold and meaningful as you’d hope.

At a first listen, Wrap Your Arms Around Me seems like your everyday love song: it speaks of settling down, building a home, and starting a family.

But then those eerie lyrics begin to shift and change in tone…

“I felt the earth, I felt the time, the sky was blue, come, normalise… then I got the urge for penetration.”

Gender roles aren’t just challenged, they’re reversed: we’re reminded that a woman can enjoy casual sex, can experiment in the bedroom, and absolutely can challenge the status quo.

Perceptive listeners will also note that the singer shares their need to “free the unborn child at the castle” – which can be interpreted as being about a need to find and rescue Offred’s daughter. However, on a deeper level, the band themselves have said that it refers to ““Christian Democrats and the right wing who talk about how families are the best ones to decide upon how to raise children”.

The Handmaid's Tale is all about the music

The Handmaid's Tale is all about the music

Episode 10: Feeling Good – Nina Simone

The finale of The Handmaid’s Tale came all too soon – but it brought with it hope for the future.

In this episode, it quickly becomes apparent that Janine is owed an almighty punishment: not only did she attempt to steal a baby, but she also attempted to destroy one of Gilead’s most sacred resources – her own reproductive organs.

It is up to the Handmaids themselves to punish her: each bonneted woman is handed a stone, and each knows what is expected of her. They must murder their fallen friend. Yet even Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), the woman who trained and subjugated these women, seems unwilling to participate in this particicution.

“My special girls,” she says, looking out across a sea of red dresses and white bonnets. “So beautiful.”

But there’s nothing she can do, so she blows her whistle. And, for the first time ever, it has no effect on the women under her care: they don’t surge forward to murder Janine. Instead, inspired by Ofglen (Tattiawna Jones and Offred, they drop their stones and utter the fateful words: “I’m sorry, Aunt Lydia.”

It’s an act of rebellion, couched in submissive apology. But, more importantly, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for these women: no longer do they stand alone. No longer do they stare at one another with terror in their eyes. Instead, they march together – and the smell of resistance is already in the air.

No wonder they’re feeling good.

Nina Simone’s song is, without a doubt, the perfect score for this iconic moment: it smacks of freedom, of change, of rising up and living life the way you choose it. It is the ultimate ballad for rebellion.

Aunt Lydia, bewildered and visibly afraid by this turn of events, warns: “There will be consequences, believe me.”

But, as our heroine points out, things are about to change – and for the better.

“They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”


Episode 10: American Girl – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Well she was an American girl 
Raised on promises 
She couldn't help thinkin' that there 
Was a little more to life 
Somewhere else 
After all it was a great big world 
With lots of places to run to 
Yeah, an d if she had to die 
Tryin' she had one little promise 
She was gonna keep…”

In the last few moments, we see a frighteningly serene Offred waiting for punishment – and it comes in the form of armed Guardians.

Nick whispers “Just go with them. Trust me.”

And, despite the fact she has no idea what awaits her in that blacked-out van, Offred does so.

“Whether this is my end of a new beginning, I have no way of knowing,” she thinks, as the doors slam close behind her. “I have given myself over into the hands of strangers. I have no choice.”

As the credits roll, the upbeat tempo of American Girl suddenly blares out – the sort of track that’s perfect for long-distance road trips. And, at a first listen, it speaks of freedom, of liberation, and of bright futures. But the song holds much more weight than that: it also speaks of desperate, painful memories – of something being “so close and still so far out of reach”.

More importantly, though, the song seems a not-so-subtle nod to the real women of 2017’s America being let down by their government.

These ‘American girls’ were “raised on promises”, just like Offred/June – and Trump’s administration has broken them. In January, the president, in an office surrounded by men, reinstated a global gag order that bans US-funded groups around the world from discussing abortion. Since then, he has continued to wage war on women’s rights – particularly with regards to their healthcare.

"Women's health and rights are now one of the first casualties of the Trump administration," said Serra Sippel, president of the Centre for Health and Gender Equity in Washington.

“The global gag rule has been associated with an increase in unsafe abortions and we expect that Trump’s global gag rule will cost women their lives.”

It’s unsurprising, then, that countless women are donning the red robes of Gileadean handmaids to attend protests fighting the Planned Parenthood bill. That so many chose to carry signs emblazoned with the famous line ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’ (‘Don’t let the bastards get you down) at the Women’s March. That almost everyone is drawing comparisons between the show and America’s current political climate.

All we can do is take heed of Offred’s initial warning: “I was asleep before – that’s how we let it happen.

“When they slaughtered Congress we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then either. Now I’m awake.”


All 10 episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale will air on Channel 4. The first episode (which is available to catch up with on 4OD) aired on Sunday 28 May at 9pm, and the next episode will air at the same time on 18 June.

Images: Hulu/Channel 4

 

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