Luke and June in The Handmaid's Tale season 4

Handmaid’s Tale: the secret meanings hidden inside every song, from seasons 1 to 4

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As we reach the sixth episode of the dystopian drama’s fourth season, we look again at the real story of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is often hidden within the soundtrack…

The Handmaid’s Tale has upped the ante with its fourth season, with the latest episode, Testimony, giving June (Elisabeth Moss) the chance to testify against the Waterfords – and Gilead in general.

As longtime fans will know already, one of the biggest feats the TV show pulls off when bringing the essence of Margaret Atwood’s incredible book (based, horrifyingly, on true stories) to life is its use of music to convey messages alongside the cinematic drama unfolding. And it seems as if this season will be little different, with the show’s soundtrack once again acting as 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 told 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 so far – 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 soundtrack of The Handmaid’s Tale season 4

Episode 8: Glory Box – Portishead

So don’t you stop being a man
Just take a little look
From our side when you can
Sow a little tenderness
No matter if you cry…

This haunting melody plays in the opening scene of Testimony, as June cuts her hair and prepares to give evidence to the International Criminal Court. There are several ways of interpreting it; that she “be a woman,” aka seen as a human being by Gilead. That she wants to be loved, perhaps by her husband, with whom she is slowly trying to reconnect. Or, and this is our preferred reading of the song, that she simply wants to be heard; she wants the world to acknowledge her truth, her trauma – even if it makes them uncomfortable. She wants them to know the extent of the horrors that have been committed against her, and she wants them to join her quest for justice.

Episode 7: At Last – Etta James

At last
My love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song

Everyone will have no doubt recognised Etta James’ At Last (originally performed by Glenn Miller) as it opened up the seventh episode of the show’s season; it really is that iconic.

It’s easy to assume, as the song blasts out, that we know exactly what it means; after all, June has made it to Canada and found a sense of freedom. She’s reunited with her loved ones. Everything that we, the viewers, have been hoping for all this time has finally come to pass… or has it?

As it turns out, the song is imbued with a bitter irony; June may have physically escaped Gilead, but mentally she remains firmly in its clutches. That much is clear by her inability to connect with those around her, by her unbridled fury at Serena Joy, by her assault of her husband, Luke. The show sits with her discomfort, and makes it all too clear that our eponymous Handmaid is shellshocked by the reality of being safe and sound. nnect the show with real life people who have experience similar horrors as June

The juxtaposition between James’ joyful lyrics and June’s still, quiet, and broken state is jarring, but important, because it reminds us that there is no quick-fix to emotional trauma. There is no ‘At Last’ moment without therapy, and work, and time. And that’s far more realistic than a sudden ‘happy ever after’ moment; as showrunner Bruce Miller told Decider, The Handmaid’s Tale writers have been working with the UN Human Rights Council to connect the show with real life people who have experience similar horrors as June and her fellow survivors.

“The UN in general has been incredibly helpful, connecting us with people to speak with because this really is a refugee story. The sexual trauma that June goes through is at the heads of the state mostly. Her sexual trauma has a political element to it,” Miller said. 

“[Elisabeth Moss] and Alexis Bledel and Samira [Wiley] and Zawe Ashton, they all spoke to people who were their analogues.”

Episode 6: Verse 18 – Emi P the Stumbler

Lord, I’m home
Why do I have such a long way to go?

This chilled song plays during a flashback in Vows, which sees June and Moira (Samira Wiley) living their best pre-Gilead lives; they’re roommates, they’re drinking mimosas, and they’re talking about the former’s blossoming romance with a man named Luke (O.T. Fagbenle).

But, while you’d be forgiven for assuming this song is all about setting those relaxing summer vibes, you’d be wrong. Because it references the book of Luke from the Bible, specifically Chapter 15, Verse 18: “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”

Considering that the episode ends with June coming face-to-face with Luke, the father of her child, and begging his forgiveness over what’s happened to their daughter, and… well, it all feels a lot deeper, doesn’t it? Guilt is, after all, the emotional driving force of this episode (and perhaps the entire fourth season); this song hammers home the responsibility that June has placed upon herself, the self-loathing and the blame, and the strange disconnect she feels with her long-estranged husband.

Clearly, they have “a long way to go” before they can ever dream of being as close as they once were, eh?

Episode 5: Fix You – Fearless Soul

And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something, you can’t replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

After the bombs fell on Chicago, and June woke up to find Janine missing, many believed that the show would end on a sombre note; the dazed Handmaid rebel uncovering her friend’s lifeless body in the rubble. And, as the haunting melody of Fearless Soul’s Fix You (a cover of the Coldplay OG) began to ring out, this seemed more and more likely.

Here’s the thing with Fix You, though; this song might sound mournful, but it deals with themes of true love, helping someone in their time of need, and learning from your mistakes. And it was originally written by Martin to comfort his then-wife, Gwyneth Paltrow, through her grief over her father’s death.

This song wasn’t about June and Janine, then; rather, it was about Moira – working in Gilead on a diplomatic relief mission – stumbling across her traumatised and grieving friend in this godforsaken warzone, and realising how desperately she needs her. 

“June is the missing part of the puzzle to Moira’s happiness,” Wiley tells The Hollywood Reporter of their reunion. “But, when she finds June, it’s not going to be as easy and it’s not going to be as much of a fairytale as she wants it to be.”

Still, though…

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you

Here’s hoping that this means Moira is going to do everything she can to save June – not just from Gilead’s clutches, but from her own demons, too.

Episode 4: Three Little Birds – Bob Marley

“Don’t worry about a thing,
’Cause every little thing gonna be all right.”
Singin’: “Don’t worry about a thing,
’Cause every little thing gonna be all right!”

The poignant use of Three Little Birds was an undeniable throwback to one of the earliest episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, which saw Janine singing Bob Marley’s famous song to her young daughter, Angela – the same young daughter who was snatched from Janine and bundled over to her Gileadean Commander and his Wife to raise as their own.

In this episode, though, we see Janine croon the soothing lyrics to her son, Caleb, in a flashback scene. The song is designed to be reassuring, but it serves to bitterly remind us of the fact that nothing has turned out alright for Janine; just as she lost her daughter to one of the Sons Of Jacob, she also lost her son when he was taken from her during Gilead’s formation. And, while she doesn’t yet know it herself, Caleb has been lost forever; June may have told her companion that he’s growing up in the sunshine of California, but Caleb was in fact killed in a car accident just one year after he and his mother became separated.

Perhaps the original meaning of Marley’s famous song, however, has been juxtaposed with the horrifying reality of the dystopian drama to remind us that there is still some semblance of hope. That there is still a chance for positive change, if only Janine and June stay true to their mission.

Fingers crossed, eh?

Episode 3: Street Spirit (Fade Out) – Radiohead

Cracked eggs, dead birds
Scream as they fight for life
I can feel death, can see its beady eyes
All these things into position
All these things we’ll one day swallow whole
Fade out again, fade out again.

In one of the show’s bleakest moments to date, we watch in slow motion as two Handmaids – having narrowly escaped being shipped off to the Magdalene colonies, not to mention being shot by Guardians – are struck by a train while trying to cross a railroad. And it all happens in slow motion as the unmistakeable sound of Radiohead plays out in the background.

It is an incredibly bleak song; one of tragedy, hopelessness, and overwhelming emotion. It is, as one fan puts it, a song which speaks of a “dark tunnel without the light at the end.” And, indeed, the band’s lead vocalist and songwriter, Thom Yorke, has described it as being about “fighting with the devil and losing every time” – which, considering all June has been through so far, and considering all she has lost in this episode, feels all too fitting. She and five other Handmaids originally escaped Gilead’s clutches; come the end of this episode, just two remain alive.

As show runner Bruce Miller tells Variety: “I wanted it to have a cost for June right in front of her because honestly when people say something’s going to be hard and then it turns out to be hard, everybody’s shocked [by] what hard feels like. But this is what hard feels like: you make decisions and people can die in front of you and you are nothing but full of regret and mistakes and that doesn’t go away.”

Episode 2: Suffragette City – David Bowie

Don’t lean on me man “cause you ain’t got time to check it
You know my Suffragette City
Is outta sight she’s all right

As one Bowie fan puts it, Suffragette City “is a ball of agitation, the frenzied thoughts and speech of someone who’s sure he’s going to get laid if only things would work out for him.”

It’s all too brilliant, then, that the glam rock song blasts out at the end of episode two; the Commanders at the local Jezebels are convinced that the evening is going to go their way, because… well, because life always goes their way. However, Gilead’s sex workers aren’t just dutifully pouring alcohol down the men’s throats; they’re also knowingly poisoning them, thanks to a special concoction provided by June. 

The narrator of Suffragette City is a victim, then, of “the woman who’s bewitched him, a woman who’s happy to toy with the singer and, best-case scenario, to use and dispose of him in an afternoon… [and, of course], she hails from ‘Suffragette City,’ suggesting a brave new world of liberated women who exist purely to torture him.”

We’re into this reading of the ditty, in a very big way. For obvious reasons.

Episode 1: A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel) – Carole King

’Cause you make me feel
You make me feel
You make me feel like a natural woman (woman)

Typically used to illustrate sex scenes in films and TV shows, this song (usually associated with Aretha Franklin – who, incidentally, blasted out the vocals to the season four premiere’s opening number, I Say A Little Prayer) takes on a very different meaning in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Playing out at the end of the episode, just as Esther Keyes gets into bed with June following the murder of the guardian, it subverts the song’s usual themes and forces us to confront the reality of what life as a woman in Gilead is really like. Esther has found a way to reclaim power over her own life, however bloodily. And, with a delirious June affectionately referring to the younger woman as ‘Banana’ (aka the same nickname she uses for her daughter, Hannah), it seems our eponymous Handmaid has found a way to flex her mothering instincts once again.

Essentially, their decisions have helped them to experience something more ordinary than anything Gilead will ever allow. They feel, fleetingly, like natural women. And thus explains this rather intriguing song choice.

Elisabeth Moss as June in The Handmaid's Tale.
Elisabeth Moss as June in The Handmaid's Tale.

Listening to the soundtrack of The Handmaid’s Tale season 3

Episode 13: Into Dust – Mazzy Star 

Still falling
Breathless and on again
Inside today
Beside me today
Around broken in two
’Till you eyes shed
Into dust

First made famous in the early days of teen drama The OC, this chillingly beautiful track plays as June lies on the ground awaiting help for her injuries. 

It’s also played over a flashback of her playing in a park with her family in the Before Times – the layering of this very melancholy track against her happier memories, while we know she’s in immediate peril, gives the scene an emotional charge that wouldn’t be achievable without music.

Episode 11: Cloudbusting – Kate Bush 

Ooh, I just know that something good is gonna happen
I don’t know when
But just saying it could even make it happen
On top of the world
Looking over the edge

This dramatic, but definitely uplifting, track is played as June stoically cleans blood off the walls and carpet of her dwellings after her altercation with George Winslow, covering up bruises and tidying up before we see a body being disposed of. The idea that “something good is gonna happen” gives us hope for June, but no one can deny she is on the “edge”, especially when Joseph Lawrence hands her a gun and warns her that they aren’t safe.

Episode 7: Every Single Night – Fiona Apple

Every single night
I endure the flight
Of little wings of white-flamed
Butterflies in my brain
These ideas of mine
Percolate the mind
Trickle down the spine
Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze
That’s where the pain comes in
Like a second skeleton
Trying to fit beneath the skin
I can’t fit the feelings in
Every single night’s alight with my brain

These lyrics play as June’s realisation that Ofmatthew has betrayed her sinks in, perfectly illustrating the physical pain that emotions (and above all, in this case, hope) can bring to your heart and mind. As she attacks Ofmatthew and ultimately struggles against those who try to restrain her and flees, we feel the visceral impact of what this betrayal has meant – the death of more Marthas – through this track.

Remembering the music from season one of The Handmaid’s Tale

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.”

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Images: Hulu/Channel 4

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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