As season four makes its much-anticipated return, we look again at the real story of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is often hidden within the soundtrack…
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 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.
Listening to the soundtrack of The Handmaid’s Tale season 3
Episode 13: Into Dust – Mazzy Star
Breathless and on again
Beside me today
Around broken in two
’Till you eyes shed
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 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.”
Images: Hulu/Channel 4
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.