Your Guide To Every Excellent Song In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Soundtrack
This post discusses season one of The Handmaid’s Tale. Spoilers ahead!
It was a case of better late than never when The Handmaid’s Tale finally arrived in Australia this month, way behind its US premiere in April.
If there’s one word to describe the show’s first season, it’s got to be ‘intense’ — in its unrelenting, bleak vision of America under the rule of a Christian fundamentalist government called Gilead, women’s rights are kaput. All fertile women become ‘handmaids’ — with the show’s lead handmaid played by the patron saint of peak television, Elizabeth Moss — who are forced to endure state-sanctioned rape in a twisted bid to restore a dwindling birth rate.
Life in Gilead is shocking enough to have you in the foetal position on the floor after each episode, but one of the most evocative aspects of the show is how music is used to heighten the impact of the dystopia — or release the pressure.
Often, it’s the music doing the talking on behalf of the characters who can’t in a suffocating, totalitarian state. All consumable culture bar the Bible is banned in Gilead, so the music is loud and potent in the dead air of the new America.
In a flashback sequence where the soldiers of Gilead open fire on a group of peaceful protestors, a haunting rendition of Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ plays, the disco groove is replaced with chilling orchestration. In slow motion, bullets rip through protesters while Moss’ character, June/Offred, runs for her life and seeks refuge in a café. An explosion causes windows to shatter and it rains glass on June as Debbie Harry’s vocal performance takes on a melancholic new life.
It’s one of the many unforgettable moments care of music supervisor, Michael Perlmutter. Perlmutter worked closely with the showrunner Bruce Miller and Moss, who also acted as a producer, to ensure every song choice perfectly matched each scene. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Perlmutter said it needed to be “a soundtrack that sounds like freedom.”
As excellent as the soundtrack turned out, it can be tricky to source exactly what music is used in each episode. Unless you’re a quickdraw on Shazam, there’s a good chance you’re going to miss some of the songs and fall into a hole Googling snippets of lyrics while trying to block out the internal screaming this series causes.
To save you that stress, we’ve compiled this ultimate guide to the songs featured in the show. Praise be.
Episode 1: ‘Offred’
SBKRT — ‘Wildfire’
There’s a lot of life in this track, which is why it’s used in a flashback scene where June (Moss) and Moira (Samira Wiley) are in college, enjoying freedoms long gone in Gilead.
Lesley Gore — ‘You Don’t Own Me’
Gore’s song, and various cover versions, have been used frequently since it debuted in 1963 in Dirty Dancing, The First Wives Club, American Horror Story and Suicide Squad. It gets new, rebellious life as a theme for Offred, playing over the credits after our hour-long introduction to Gilead.
Episode 2: ‘Birth Day’
DeFranco Family — ‘Heartbeat, It’s A Lovebeat’
During a flashback, ‘Heartbeat, It’s A Lovebeat’ is heard in the car as June is in labour, being driven to the hospital.
Bob Marley — ‘Three Little Birds’
Used to heartbreaking effect in a scene where Janine (Madeline Brewer) breastfeeds her baby — the only time handmaids get to spend time with their children after birth.
Simple Minds — ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’
A personal victory for Offred is rare, but when it happens — her first night in the Commander’s study, where she’s able to extract information useful to the resistance — they go big with a Simple Minds classic.
Episode 3: ‘Late’
Peaches — ‘Fuck The Pain Away’
The most twisted music pick of the series soundtracks June going for a run in the days before Gilead took over.
Daft Beatles + Blondie + Philip Glass – ‘Heart of Glass’ (Crabtree Remix)
Take out the disco backbeat of this iconic Blonde track, isolate Debbie Harry’s haunting vocal, throw in chilling orchestration and you’ve got one of the defining musical moments of the series. Used in the slow-motion flashback sequence where June and Moira attend a protest that turns bloody.
Jay Reatard — ‘Waiting For Something’
One of the biggest shocks of the series is finding out how Gilead punishes rebels. In the final scene of this episode we learn Emily/Ofglen (Alexis Biedel), a “gender traitor” because she’s gay, undergoes female circumcision against her will. Reatard’s song is jarring as Emily/Ofglen realises what’s happened, and the episode drops you cold as the credits play.
Episode 4: ‘Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum’
The Monkees — ‘Daydream Believer’
From another flashback scene to June’s life before Gilead. The Monkees have never been sweeter.
Penguin Café Orchestra — ‘Perpetuum Mobile’
The Penguin Café Orchestra get liberated by The Handmaid’s Tale after a lifetime of being relegated to use in TV commercials. The song plays in a moment of freedom for Offred, allowing a little light into an otherwise dark show.
Episode 5: ‘Faithful’
Kylie Minogue — ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’
Pop music usually signifies better times in The Haindmaid’s Tale, here it’s in a flashback while June meets her future husband.
Johann Johannsson — ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim And The Sky’s Turned Black’
Emily/Ofglen has the most intense musical moments in the series — like this one, when she decides to take a car for a spin and use the soldiers of Gilead as speed bumps.
Nina Simone – ‘Sugar In My Bowl’
Finally, some good old-fashioned consensual sex! Offred and Nick are getting a little sugar — this time without an audience — thus the ingenious use of this Simone song.
Episode 6: ‘A Woman’s Place’
Nina Simone — ‘Wild Is In The Wind’
Even the villains get flashbacks, but ‘Wild Is In The Wind’ contrasts perfectly with ‘Sugar In My Bowl’ to show just how different the Commander and Serena’s pre-Gilead relationship was to Luke and June’s.
Episode 7: The Other Side
James Taylor — ‘Sweet Baby James’
Used in a bittersweet memory for June as she remembers making pancakes with her daughter.
Cigarettes After Sex — ‘Nothing’s Going to Hurt You Baby’
In an emotionally-charged scene Offred gets a note to her husband, Luke, who has escaped to Canada. Cigarettes After Sex is the musical find of the series and it’s worth tracking down their self-titled album.
Episode 8: ‘Jezebels’
Jefferson Airplane — ‘White Rabbit’
The reveal of the Jezebels club, a place where men in positions of power can break the law and indulge in extramarital sex, features three tracks that show us we’re far outside the realm of what’s normal in Gilead.
ODESZA — ‘Bloom’
Richie Poe — ‘Two Tree Island’
Episode 9: ‘The Bridge’
Hildur Gudnadottir — ‘Heyr Himnasmiður’
‘The Bridge’ stands as one of the hardest Handmaids Tale episodes to watch. ‘Heyr Himnasmiður’ soundtracks the sequence where Ofwarren — now Ofdaniel, and a woman pushed past breaking point — almost makes an irreversible decision.
The Knife — ‘Wrap Your Arms Around Me’
Rebellion is in motion in Gilead, and The Knife escalates the tension with this track that has echoes of Björk.
Episode 10: ‘Night’
Nina Simone — ‘Feeling Good’
It’s clear Perimutter got a bulk deal on Simone’s music, but he saves the best for last with a phenomenal use of ‘Feeling Good’ following a revolt by the handmaids.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — ‘American Girl’
And here come the kicker! After every bleak minute of the show it ends with the vibrancy of Tom Petty as June/Offred is put in a van and left sitting in darkness. The concept of the ‘American Girl’ takes on a whole new meaning.
Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.