The Handmaid’s Tale’s Closing Songs Are Slyly Genius

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Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

The second episode of The Handmaid’s Tale concludes with a song choice that, at first, sounds jarring.

That song is “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” the Simple Minds hit forever intertwined with John Hughes’s Brat Pack classic The Breakfast Club and, in more recent years, a staple of “best of the ’80s, ’90s, and today!” radio. It is also not necessarily a piece of music one would expect to hear during The Handmaid’s Tale, an immersion into a totalitarian society where many women, including the protagonist, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), are inhumanely treated as nothing more than child-birthing vessels. These women have bigger problems than getting sent to detention at Shermer High School for taping Larry Lester’s buns together, is what I’m saying.

Yet, like the other pop songs that punctuate the conclusions of every Handmaid’s Tale episode so far, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” serves the broader narrative because it expresses what Offred, and others like her, are trying to keep hidden: the urge to rebel against an oppressive system. By the end of each episode, that feeling has built up to such an intense degree that it must be released. Since the characters can’t do the releasing, the music steps in to handle the job.

All four of the songs that play before or during the closing credits of the currently streaming chapters of The Handmaid’s Tale — 1963’s defiant “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore, “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” 2006’s “Waiting for Something” by the late indie rocker Jay Reatard, and 1987’s electro-classical “Perpetuum Mobile” by Penguin Cafe Orchestra — seem sonically at odds with present-day Gilead, a puritanical throwback to a time long before the invention of rock and roll. Most of the tracks that appear in the show even before the episodes end — “Heart of Glass,” Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” “Daydream Believer,” which appears in a flashback early in episode four — function as melancholic whispers to the way life used to be.

The timing related to “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is especially significant. The song, used as the anthem in The Breakfast Club, which was released in February of 1985, rose up the pop singles chart here in America throughout that winter and spring, finally landing at No. 1 in May of that year. During those same months, Margaret Atwood was finishing her manuscript for The Handmaid’s Tale, which would be published in Canada in the fall of 1985. That synchronicity may have nothing at all to do with why the song ended up in the Hulu series. But it’s fitting.

Reed Morano, who directed the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, recently explained to the New York Times exactly how “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” landed where it did. “I had this idea that … I’d shoot a bunch of slow-mo P.O.V.s from [Offred] to show it’s the first time she’s feeling good, having a little moment of triumph,” Morano says. “It seems like a badass moment. And after that, I thought, for some weird reason, ‘This is so high school. This is reminding me of The Breakfast Club.’ And I thought, I could just put that Simple Minds song from The Breakfast Club over this, and Lizzie [Moss] said, ‘Yes!’”

As Morano implies, there is something triumphant about the use of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” at the end of The Breakfast Club that feels similar to the underlying emotions in the scene that wraps the second episode of Handmaid’s Tale. In the movie, the song begins to play as the five teens exit detention with a confident swagger they didn’t have that morning. The voice-over of Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian reading the letter he wrote to Principal Vernon ironically confirms that all of these kids fit into the stereotypical boxes into which Vernon, and other adults in their lives, have placed them. But the kids, who have discovered a new sense of solidarity with each other, quietly know better than their adult oppressors, a sentiment expressed when John Bender (Judd Nelson) strolls across the football field and pumps his antiestablishment fist in the air just as that Simple Minds song swells.

In the closing moments of the Handmaid’s Tale episode “Birth Day,” that familiar percussive beat provides the soundtrack to Offred (Elisabeth Moss) slo-mo basking in the ramifications of her meeting the night before with the Commander (Joseph Fiennes). Like Brian in The Breakfast Club, she did what her authority figure asked of her in that simultaneously innocent and illicit meeting: She played Scrabble and kept him company. But because of the Commander’s willingness to share his plans to travel to D.C., she feels like this relationship could be used to her advantage as part of the resistance. Like the teens in that John Hughes movie, she feels like she’s a step ahead of the man and the system holding her captive. In an obviously far more serious and disturbing context, Offred is also a woman in detention, kept there by a nation run by nothing but Principal Vernons. Suddenly, she can sense that there may be a way out.

Even the look Offred exchanges with Nick (Max Minghella), the Commander’s driver and a man toward whom she feels a tingle of sexual attraction, is something akin to the loaded glances and romantic exchanges that pass between Breakfast Clubbers Andy (Emilio Estevez) and Allison (Ally Sheedy), as well as John and Claire (Molly Ringwald) in the movie’s “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” closer. But the moment comes to a screeching halt — with a needle scratch right on the lyric that asks, “Will you recognize me?” — when the overconfident Offred sees an Ofglen with another face, a replacement for the Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) who was eager to start rebellion. It’s a jarring reminder that what’s happening on this series is very far removed from the world of ’80s teen movies. There are no satisfying eff-you moments here, at least not yet.

All three of the first episodes end with a close-up of a single woman’s face. In the first, the frame is filled by the face of Offred , whose admission of her actual name — June — is followed by the sounds of that Lesley Gore record, a feminist work of ’60s pop whose lyrics speak quite clearly to the subtext: “You don’t own me/Don’t try to change me in any way.” In episode three, Ofglen — stuck in a hospital straight out of a Stanley Kubrick movie, her genitals mutilated in government-ordered surgery — holds the camera’s gaze, her anger and despair evident on her face as Reatard’s crazed post-punk track declares, “I must compete/Stand on my feet/Live with these creeps.”

But the end of the fourth episode, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum,” closes with a wider shot that feels like a more hopeful continuation of what happens at the end of the second episode. Having reestablished her bond with the Commander and learned what happened to the Offred before her, the current Offred, again depicted in slow motion, walks outside again for the first time after a long period imprisoned by the Commander’s wife. Visually, we see flashbacks to the training center, when her fellow handmaids-to-be offered her food, while in the present, she walks on the street as a group of handmaids amasses around her.

“She is dead,” Offred’s voice-over says, referring to the previous Offred. “She is alive. She is me. We are handmaids.”

It’s a moment of female solidarity and it plays against “Perpetuum Mobile,” another song released in the 1980s that musically, as well as in its title, implies constant motion and repetition of cycles. There are always handmaids to replace other handmaids, but that also means there are a lot of women who can clandestinely watch each other’s red-caped backs.

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches,” Offred says in the episode’s final line. Literally translated that means, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down, bitches.” But figuratively, the visual movement and the music in the scene translate into a fist pumped and a whole bunch of women saying: “Don’t you forget about us.”

The Handmaid’s Tale’s Closing Songs Are Slyly Genius