The real story of The Handmaid’s Tale is hidden within the soundtrack…
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.
“Like the voiceovers, the music gives us an insight into June, before Gilead, before Offred,” music supervisor Maggie Phillips tells stylist.co.uk.
“I often ask myself what Offred would be listening to if she could press play in a scene. It helps the audience relate to her and reminds us that she came from our world – but it also helps illustrate the not-so-distant past during the flashbacks, amplifying the freedom felt in pre-Gilead times.”
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.
Exploring the music from season two of The Handmaid’s Tale
Episode Nine: Already Gone – Jennifer O’Conner
Smart Power – the ninth episode of The Handmaid’s Tale season two – added a new element to June’s unfortunate love triangle.
That’s right: Nick and Luke met for the first time. The two men first came face-to-face at a protest in Canada, when Luke – all too aware of the fact that his wife has been enslaved as a Handmaid in the Waterfords’ house – approached Fred and Serena during their diplomatic mission to Canada. Holding a photo of June and Hannah, he screamed that the Commander raped his wife.
The moment did not go unnoticed by Nick, who later bumped into Luke at a bar. There, he informed Luke that June is still alive – but was also forced to deliver the devastating news that she’s pregnant, too. Rather than tell Luke that the baby inside June’s belly is his, though, Nick insists it’s the Commander’s child – a lie he persists in telling even after Luke asks if that’s the truth.
Speaking about the scene, Bruce Miller told Variety: “We didn’t have to [have] Luke ask if it’s the commander’s baby, but we did. We pushed that opportunity for Nick to tell the truth, and he didn’t, he decided to tell a lie. I think it was a plus in his personality that he lied. He sometimes seems a little less of a touchy-feely, perceptive guy – he comes off as more quiet and standoffish sometimes – but I think he’s very perceptive.”
He added: “[Nick] is really more in love with [June] every time he finds out more about her. When he finds out the kind of guy she married before, he’s more in love with her.”
However, by helping Luke and notifying him of June’s status, Nick appears to acknowledge that he and June don’t have a realistic future together. He may just not want to add the issue of the baby’s paternity to the conversation in an already stressful moment, though there’s no guarantee the question won’t come up again.
The song which underscores Nick’s meeting with Luke, similarly, seems to hammer this point home.
“I’d like to talk to you,” sings Jennifer O’Connor in Already Gone, “but I’m turning my face away. And every day has its ending, just like every day before.
“All I want is to stop pretending, I just can’t do it anymore.”
Speaking to Rolling Stone about the song, O’Connor said: “This was the first song I wrote for the record. I was feeling let down by someone I really looked up to, but also kind of angry.”
She added that the tune’s primary themes are that of perseverance, accepting, and starting over – all of which seem applicable to Nick’s relationship with June. Then again, they could just as easy refer to Luke and June’s marriage: so much has changed since they were separated, after all. Their lives have gone in very different directions, and he has little to no understanding of what has been happening to her in Gilead.
We guess we will have to wait and find out what show bosses have in store for us, we suppose.
Episode Eight: Easy – The Commodores
Women’s Work is a startling episode, for many reasons – but Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and June (Elisabeth Moss)’s scenes are among the most important, particularly as they mark such a turning point in their relationship.
“We do our work in the evening: I write, she reads,” says June, as we see the two women working together in the Commander (Joseph Fiennes)’s forbidden office. She then reminds us of the tenuous nature of their friendship, pointing out: “This is the new normal, or an offence to God. In another life, maybe we could have been colleagues. In this one, we are heretics.”
Her point is clear: no longer Handmaid and Wife, June and Serena are now partners in crime, sinners in the eyes of Gilead and all it stands for. All it takes for them to cross this line was a pen, a laptop and some intense time alone: it gives them the time to absorb each other, to forge a tenuous sense of camaraderie – one which June pushes further and further.
“Do you miss working?” she asks suddenly at one point.
Serena responds coolly: “It’s a small sacrifice to pay to be welcomed back into God’s grace.”
Then, after a pause, she lets her mask slip. “I do truly detest knitting, to be frank,” she says, causing June’s face to break into a shocked and delighted grin. It is an olive branch – something which brings the two women even closer together. And these relatively normal moments, these everyday exchanges, become precious. We know, just as June and Serena know, that their alliance must come to an end… and soon.
“He’s coming home tomorrow,” says Serena eventually. It is painfully obvious that neither she nor June welcome his presence, yet neither can say the words. What passes between them is a pallid Praise Be, said with little conviction and guarded souls. And, just like that, the Commodores’ Easy – which has been playing beautifully throughout this scene – slowly begins to fade out.
Firstly, it is worth noting that Easy is one of the first male-performed songs to appear in the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale. Secondly, there’s the meaning behind the tune which is all too relevant.
Written by Commodores lead singer Lionel Richie, the slow ballad feels like a tribute to the traditional American ideal of working through the week, using Saturday for chores, and keeping Sunday as a “rest day” – or tribute to God.
However, there is far more to it than that. Easy speaks about the relief of ending a difficult relationship – one in which the speaker has paid his dues, worked hard to please, and now realises that it is time to go. Rather than being depressed about the break-up, though, Richie sings that he is instead “easy like Sunday morning”. He finds that there is a freedom in just walking away – ‘in laying my burdens down’ – and moving on into an undefined future.
So, to which relationship does the song refer to in this particular episode of THT?
At first, it seems as if it speaks to the crumbling ‘master and slave’ dynamic between Serena and June – particularly in the lyric: “Why in the world would anybody put chains on me? I’ve paid my dues to make it.”
This could suggest that the Handmaid and Wife have moved on from the undeniable friction of their past: they have lifted the curtain, realised there is more to one another than the prescriptive roles ascribed to them by Gileadean law, and turned a leaf in their relationship. It could also suggest that their alliance is fleeting, already over, before it has even truly had a chance to get started.
The most likely theory? That the relationship being addressed by this song choice is not one between two people: it is Serena’s relationship with Gilead.
We’ve seen, from her flashback scenes, that Serena was a brilliant campaigner in her past life. That she has always been intellectually superior to her husband. That she truly believed America needed help in addressing its infertility crisis. That she perhaps created Gilead for her own benefit, after a stray bullet rendered her infertile.
The sacrifices she has made, however, have been far greater than she has allowed up until now. An avid reader and prolific writer, she is no longer allowed to look at a book, let alone hold a pencil. She has been forced to knit endless booties for the baby she will never have, to tend to plants in her greenhouse, to sit quietly in rooms as her husband goes to work. And, as we see at the end of this episode, she has also been forced to give up any sense of equality between her and her husband: in the past, she would have answered him back and defended herself. In this horrifying present, she willingly bends over, covers her mouth, and allows him to brutally whip her in front of another woman.
“Obey your husband,” says Fred – and, with every strike of the belt, Serena slowly regresses back into the ‘model’ Gilead wife, submitting to the punishment her husband lashes out.
Unless… well, the look in Serena’s eyes says otherwise. After all, she was the woman who built Gilead up from the ground. Wouldn’t it be all too fitting if she were the one to tear it down, too?
Episode Seven: My Life – Iris Dement
The seventh episode of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale – simply titled After – literally deals with the aftermath of the bomb, which was set off by Ofglen 2 (Tattiawna Jones) in a shock suicide attack on the Red Centre.
In a chilling opening, we see the Handmaids dressed in never-before-seen attire: black capes, thick red veils over their faces – a stark contrast against the white snow.
It quickly becomes apparent that they are attending the mass funeral of the Handmaids killed in the explosion. Because, yes, Ofglen 2’s attack did not just impact the Commanders in charge of Gilead’s theocratic regime: it also brought about the deaths of many of her friends.
In a funeral service led by an emotional Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), we listen as the dead women are listed off. However, they are referred to only by their patriarchal Gileadean titles: their real names are masked in anonymity, their human lives forgotten. In this world, they are nothing but government assets – which can easily be replaced, as we later learn, by freeing several Unwomen (including Madeline Brewer’s Janine and Alexis Bledel’s Emily) from the Colonies.
It seems all too apt, then, when Iris DeMent’s haunting melody begins to play.
Speaking of a life half-lived and “tangled in wishes” which never came true, DeMent’s My Life feels as if it was written for this very moment.
The first few lines include:
My life, it don’t count for nothing
When I look at this world, I feel so small
And my life, it’s only a season
A passing September that no one will recall
However, hammering home the point that these women are so much more than ‘walking wombs’, DeMent goes on to remind us of the people behind the veils:
But I gave joy to my mother
And I made my lover smile
And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting
And I can make it seem better for a while
The song offers up a poignant reflection on all that had been lost – and makes the Canadian funeral for the Handmaids, complete with their real names, feel all the more moving come the episode’s end.
No wonder, then, that so many people have been talking about the song on social media, and praising music supervisor Maggie Phillips for including it in the soundtrack.
“This was too perfect,” said one viewer, adding that they felt as if they would “never stop crying”.
Episode Six: Oh Bondage! Up Yours – X-Ray Spex
We already knew that the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale would dive into “terrorism” and “what it feels like to be a country in transition”.
As executive producer Warren Littlefield previously explained: “When you have this kind of world with these kinds of rules, there will be an uprising… and the consequences will be devastating for both sides.”
So, when Commander Waterford began work on the brand-new Red Centre, we should have known that it would become a target: not only did the facility represent Gilead’s growing power and financial success, but it also stood as a reminder of the enslavement of thousands of women to come, but it also highlighted Gilead’s economic success and a major step forward in the country’s Final Solution to Infertility.
So, no, it is no surprise that someone decided to take it upon themselves to destroy the facility, once and for all. The identity of that ‘someone’, though, was surprising: Ofglen 2.
As fans will no doubt remember, when June’s friend Ofglen — first played by Alexis Bledel — was shipped off to the Colonies in Season One, she was replaced by a “new” Ofglen (Tattiawna Jones).
And, when Offred first tried to befriend her new shopping partner – and tentatively ask her about MayDay – she was shot down. “Don’t mess this up for me,” Ofglen 2 warned her, explaining that her old life involved drug addiction, homelessness, and prostitution. This meant that, unlike June, she was happy to be a Handmaid because, in spite of the subjugation and monthly rape ceremonies, she now had access to a nice home and food.
As such, Ofglen 2 refused to stick her neck out for anyone… until Aunt Lydia ordered her to stone Janine to death in the first season finale, that is.
It was at this moment that Ofglen 2 showed a new side to herself. She not only couldn’t bring herself to kill her fellow Handmaid, but she spoke out and she took the beating from the guards when she vocally refused.
For this rebellion, though, her tongue was cut from her mouth. Which means that, for this season, she has been silent: eerily present and watchful, absolutely, but rightfully fearful of the world around her. She has refused to make eye contact with June, has not once attempted to communicate using gestures or facial expressions, has been nothing but docile.
However, after that strange Handmaids’ tea at Serena Joy’s house, something snapped deep inside Ofglen 2. Perhaps it was being reminded of the old days and all she had lost. Perhaps it was the fact that, in both Gilead and America, she was let down by the system and pushed to the very bottom of the ladder, as other women sailed to the top. Or perhaps it was just the fact that she had no way of tasting the unusually delicious spread put before her.
Whatever it was that triggered her decision, Ofglen 2 decided to sacrifice herself in order to strike a blow against Gilead – and the song that boomed out after her suicide mission was all too fitting for the occasion.
“Bind me, tie me, chain me to the wall, I want to be a slave to you all,” seethes Poly in Oh Bondage! Up Yours, her voice growing more and more unhinged by the line. It’s the ultimate punk song and also intersectional feminist scripture, reminding us that a woman who has been bound, tied, thrashed, crashed and beaten is all too prepared to take a stand and “be a victim for you all” – albeit not in the traditional sense of the word.
The line that’s particularly fitting to Ofglen 2?
“Some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard. But I say oh bondage, up yours!”
It hammers home Ofglen 2’s message: Gilead might have taken her tongue, but they could never take her voice. What her sacrifice will mean for the Handmaids she left behind, though, remains to be seen… although we imagine there will be severe repercussions.
Episode Five: Heading Home – Julianna Barwick
Seeds, the fifth episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, saw June disappear within herself completely for the first time. She sticks to simpering “Yes, Mrs Waterford” and “No, Mrs Waterford” as her go-to answer for any question, allows Serena to speak for her during a conversation about her own bowel movements, refuses to speak to Nick – no matter how hard he tries – and doesn’t tell anyone, anyone, that she’s bleeding heavily. We, the viewer, are forced to watch as June stuffs her underwear with tissues. We glumly shake our heads as she reflects sits in a bath of dangerously dark red water. And, when she actively decides to return to her bedroom rather than tell Serena about what’s happening to her body, we, all of us, resign ourselves to one horrifying outcome: June is losing her baby.
Things become worse – if that’s even possible – when June is forced to watch Nick marry a frighteningly young Gileadean believer, Eden (Sydney Sweeney). Indeed, later that same night, Nick finds June curled up, muddied, bleeding and barely conscious, on the ground outside: she has fallen (purposefully?) from her bedroom window.
After knowing what we know, and seeing what Gilead did to Janine (Madeline Brewer) for attempting suicide, we fear the worst: if June’s baby has died, she will be blamed. She will be blamed, she will be sentenced, and she will be punished most severely for her “crimes”. Much to our surprise, though, June wakes up in a hospital – and her baby is safe.
It’s enough to snap June out of her Offred-fugue and back into her old rebellious speech. She goes under her covers and delivers a rousing speech to her child.
“Hey, you listen to me. I will not let you grow up in this place. I won’t do it. Do you hear me? They do not own you. And they do not own what you will become. You hear me? I’m gonna get you out of here,” she says.
The beautiful moment is scored by Julianna Barwick’s Heading Home – and Maggie Phillips, in an interview with Stylist, has explained why.
The song begins with a childlike melody composed of tiny half-step snippets — timidly testing out one note at a time, then gaining confidence as that repeated figure develops upon each pass. And, while Barwick’s vocals follow a traditional verse-chorus song structure, the lyrics remain just out of reach, letting the song’s heavy cello take the spotlight.
The resulting effect is, in a word, beautiful. It allows us to add our own meaning, our own interpretation. And it refuses to lift the veil on June’s very private moment with her unborn baby – we know only that she is experiencing something beautiful, something miraculous, something which cannot be put into words or pithily summed up by a mournful pop song.
And this was, Phillips said, a conscious decision on her behalf. Indeed, while the music supervisor usually uses iconic songs to lift the tense Handmaid’s Tale moments we see on screen, she felt it was important to veer away from tried-and-tested tactics and instead use Barwick’s little-known lullaby for the “significant and intimate moment, when June speaks to the baby growing inside of her”.
She tells us: “Using a song that not many people know keeps us inside of this moment. If we had used a song that everyone knew, the audience would’ve been pulled out of the moment – a song can spark some serious nostalgia or memory.
“Using a relatively unknown song keeps the audience in this intimate moment with June and her baby. Perhaps when people hear this song again, the first memory attached to it will be watching this scene of The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Episode Four: Heyr Himna Smiður – Hildur Gudnadottir
Her escape plans foiled, June has been bundled back into life as a Handmaid. This time, though, things are different: she has tasted freedom and she is carrying Serena’s baby. As such, she has power – a point she insists on making at every possible opportunity.
In the midst of a grand baby shower, Serena informs her fellow Wives that they have not felt the baby quicken yet. June, speaking up from her corner of the room, loudly announces: “I felt the baby kick for the first time last night.”
The room is silenced, and Serena looks stricken. However, when the fertility ceremony begins, it once again becomes clear that, while Offred may have the power to wound her mistress, she has well and truly been drained of her autonomy.
The wives stand in a circle to perform some sort of fertility ceremony. Offred kneels in the middle of the circle in front of Serena and their hands are joined by Lydia. Red and blue cord is bound around both hands, joining them in fertility.
“Let the little children come to me,” says Serena.
“For such is the kingdom of heaven,” replies the room.
As this scene plays out, Hildur Gudnadottir’s haunting vocal bring it to life using the words of Heyr Himna Smiður, an Icelandic poem written in or just before 1208 AD.
Written by Kolbeinn Tumason, a chieftain in one of the Icelandic family clans at the beginning of the most violent and turbulent time in Icelandic history, the poem is essentially a prayer to God for strength, peace, and guidance in the face of the prospect of open inter-clan warfare… which seems all too fitting, considering the power dynamics at play in Serena’s drawing room.
Here is a translation of the lyrics:
Hear, smith of heavens.
The poet seeketh.
In thy still small voice
Mayest thou show grace.
As I call on thee,
Thou my creator.
I am thy servant,
Thou art my true Lord.
God, I call on thee;
For thee to heal me.
Bid me, prince of peace,
Thou my supreme need.
Ever I need thee,
Generous and great,
O’er all human woe,
City of thy heart.
Guard me, my saviour.
Ever I need thee,
Through ev’ry moment
In this world so wide.
Virgin–born, send me
Noble motives now.
Aid cometh from thee,
To my deepest heart.
It remains unclear whose prayer this truly is: is it the lyrical embodiment, as seems apparent, of Serena’s wide-eyed piety? A prayer to the god created by the forces of Gilead, asking for her fruits – grown in someone else’s garden – to be blessed? Or could this prayer belong to June, as she begs with some divine force to do right by her and set her free?
All apparently becomes clear at the end of the episode, when a broken June fully embraces her identity as Offred, and all the ‘salvation’ it brings with it.
“We’ve been sent good weather,” she tells Nick, a small smile pasted over her face. She then stands impassively in front of the gates and looks directly down the barrel repeating in her head, “We’ve been sent good weather,” over and over.
It makes all too much sense that the track used to close the show this week is Hate by Cat Power.
“Half of it is innocent, the other half is wise,” she sings. “The whole damn thing makes no sense, [but] I wish I could tell you a lie.
“Hey, come here, let me whisper in your ear… I hate myself and I want to die.”
And, just like that, things are more hopeless than ever before.
Blessed be the fruit. May the Lord open.
Episode Three: Hollaback Girl– Gwen Stefani
In this episode’s final flashback, we see June share a special moment with her mother as they sing along to Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl at the top of their lungs. “Ooh, this my s**t,” they bellow in their open-top car, barefoot and utterly free as the sun streams in. “All the girls stomp your feet like this…”
It’s a pertinent song choice, for many reasons. Firstly, it reminds us that The Handmaid’s Tale is not set in the distant past or future: June, Moira and the other handmaids are women like us, who used to go to work every day, wear smart suits, listen to pop music, distractedly watch the news and fail to notice the world changing around them.
As Holly warns her daughter before the metaphorical s**t hits the fan: “Women are so adaptable. It’s truly amazing what we can get used to.”
Secondly, though, there’s a core message at the heart of Stefani’s #girlpower anthem. Using a cheerleading metaphor (a hollaback girl is one who repeats back the cheers that the head cheerleader yells), Stefani – and those who belt out her lyrics, such as June and Holly – steps away from the pack and proclaims herself to be independent. She is the cheerleader leading the charge and giving orders, rather than one of the cheerleaders who repeats orders back.
“I’m ready to attack, gonna lead the pack,” she sings. “Gonna get a touchdown, gonna take you out, that’s right, put your pom-poms down, getting everybody fired up.”
It is a far cry from modern-day Gilead, in which the handmaids are forced to echo submissive phrases designed by the patriarchy. Think “under his eye”, “may the Lord open,” and “blessed be the fruit”. As “hollaback girls”, their voices have been silenced, their cheerleading instincts squashed, and their dreams of freedom destroyed – but perhaps this flashback, this memory, means that there is still hope for June. Maybe that fire is still burning deep within her, despite the fact she has just seen her won escape plans thwarted in such a horrible and violent way. And perhaps she will prove herself to be the feminist champion her mother always hoped she would become.
As Stefani puts it: “I’m gonna fight, gonna give it my all, gonna make you fall, gonna sock it to you. That’s right, I’m the last one standing, and another one bites the dust.”
Fingers crossed that June tells Gilead that this s**t is bananas (B-A-N-A-N-A-S) in the next episode, eh?
Episode Two: I’m Clean Now – Grouper
Following her dramatic escape in the season two premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale, June finds herself at the headquarters of The Boston Globe. However, as she pores through the offices, she slowly realises that these brave journalists didn’t pack up and go home: framed photographs still sit on desks, deeply personal items are stashed in drawers, and countless stories remain unfiled. However, is the woman’s shoe lying on the floor that gives June pause for thought: it sits close to a desk, as if its owner had been dragged away, kicking and screaming.
The matching shoe is later found in the basement, lying on the floor in front of a cement wall. A cement wall which, upon closer inspection, has been marked with dozens of human-length blood stains, the stone torn apart by hundreds of bullet holes.
Within moments, a horrified June has fallen away, covering her mouth to stifle the scream rising up inside her throat: she, like viewers, knows in her heart that the staff of The Boston Globe were lined up against the wall and shot when the so-called “revolution” came. That these people clearly held the line on freedom of the press until Gilead’s enforcers came and ripped it from their cold, dead hands.
Rather than fall apart, though, June gathers up all of the fallen’s personal possessions, and she sets up a shrine to honour those who died. And, as she does so, Grouper’s I’m Clean Now plays in the background…
“I’m clean now,” the song declares, before so much as a single note has been played. The short and almost unbearably beautiful track never builds to a loud, strummed pinnacle. Instead, it stays low and soft, refusing to hurry or give up its space – and, in doing so, becomes a song of resistance.
Speaking to The Fanzine about the track, Grouper’s Liz Harris explains that it “arrived the day after [Trump’s] election” and, as such, the “meaning changed for me”. Instead of the “simple, sad” song she thought she had written, she “instead noticed, felt glad for, the bright colour, image of the sun, noticed instead points of light in each song.”
“[The song] finds an appreciation of failed love by re-describing it as landscape, without judgement,” she says, adding that it is about “survival and resilience”.
“[It is] not a celebration of loss, more pagan and feral… an acknowledgement of its power. Wind passing through a valley, shaking heads of wild flowers.”
It is a fitting choice for June’s moment of solace. Instead of bowing down to Gilead’s hateful, sexist theocracy, which sees people replaced, their identities wiped out and their existence entirely denied if they dare to speak out against it, June has taken the time – and as much time as she needs – to grieve The Boston Globe’s fallen heroes. To honour them, to remember them, and to recognise them for who they were and what they stood for.
Or, as Grouper puts it, she has “climbed to the top of a poisonous valley” and allowed her love to echo out, “crying low into the land”.
And, in doing so, she has shaken off her shackles and reclaimed the June Osborne that was.
Episode One: This Woman’s Work – Kate Bush
The season two premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale opens in a truly disturbing fashion, as we see June and her fellow handmaids muzzled and taken to an abandoned baseball field, in which a gallows stands waiting for them.
For this moment, Phillips selected the beautifully mournful tones of Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work, a song sung from the perspective of a man whose wife is having birth complications and may not survive the delivery.
“Pray God you can cope, as I stand outside this woman’s work, this woman’s world.”
It is a brutally ironic song about empathy for a woman, written from a man’s perspective. As such, it hammers home the point that this woman’s world is run by men – and injects the scene with a sense of futility, too (“all the things we should have done though we never did”).
However, there is also a glimmer of hope to be found in this haunting ballad, even as the nooses are forced around June and the handmaid’s necks.
“I know you’ve got a little life in you yet,” sings Bush. “I know you’ve got a lot of strength left.”
This line tells us, quite literally, that these women’s journeys are far from over. And indeed, the floor beneath their feet never drops away and they escape the gallows, shaken but still alive. However, there is also a metaphor to be found here: all may seem lost, but the fight is far from over. June is a fighter, she has a lot of strength left, and she will not be giving up her quest for freedom just yet.
It is also important to note that this song is not just for June, though: it is also for Max Minghella’s character, Nick. And much like the original subject of Bush’s song, the lives of his lover and unborn child are in danger: one will be born into a horrific society, the other shipped off to the radioactive colonies as soon as she gives birth.
Rather than sit back and do nothing, though, Nick risks his own life to set a dangerous plan in motion: one which will see June smuggled out of Gilead and across the border into Canada.
Whether his plan will prove a success, though, remains to be seen.
Remembering the music from season one of The Handmaid’s Tale
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 Baby – Cigarettes 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”.
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
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.
“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.”
Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale is currently airing on Channel 4. The first episode (which is available to catch up with on 4OD) aired on Sunday 20 May at 9pm, and the next episode will air at the same time on 27 May.
Images: Hulu/Channel 4