The Handmaid’s Tale Sabotaged Itself With a Single Song

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Photo: Hulu

The ending of The Handmaid’s Tale’s second season was already frustrating enough. After two seasons of desperately trying to escape Gilead — where Elisabeth Moss’s June was forced into a life of rape, physical and emotional abuse, imprisonment, and being ripped from her daughters — she finally has a chance to get out. She stands by a truck that’s ready to carry her, Emily (Alexis Bledel), and her newborn daughter to safety. Instead, June hands her child to Emily and the truck drives away. She stares straight into the camera, steeling herself before walking back toward Gilead, intent on recovering her older daughter and wreaking vengeance on her enemies.

And then, to accompany June’s rage-fueled stance against The Man, the finale cuts to The Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” during the closing credits. It is the show’s worst music cue, and coupled with June’s defiant choice, it sabotages what had been a relentlessly dire season in which unyielding oppression seemed to be a harsh lesson that was also precisely the point.

The Handmaid’s Tale has a mixed record of music choices. Some of its needle drops feel almost unbearably on the nose, in a way that can come off as either too much or exactly the right amount of painful. The show also has a pattern of using its closing credits to pivot to a deliberately defiant tone: The pilot episode ended with Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” and the second episode followed up June’s realization that Emily was replaced by another Handmaid with Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” But even when its music cues are polarizing, what makes them interesting is how they arrive from an off-kilter, almost playful place. They’re funny in a pitch-black way, which can feel refreshingly out of step with Handmaid’s tone. At their absolute best, they feel like the big, subversive middle finger June cannot throw herself.

The season-two finale has a moment like this, a bit of musical humor that’s so dark, unbearable, and wry that it’s clearly a twisted joke. Immediately after Emily stabs Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and shoves her down a flight of stairs, Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) forces her into his car. Emily is petrified, obviously convinced she’s being taken to her own execution. Then, Lawrence turns on the car radio and the stereo pumps out … Annie Lennox’s “Walking On Broken Glass.” While Emily weeps in the backseat, Lawrence waves his hands to incongruously cheerful melody as Lennox sings the lyrics: “My whole life has crashed / won’t you pick the pieces up / ‘cause it feels like I’m walking on broken glass.” Emily can’t take it any longer, and begs him to turn it off. “So, not a music fan,” he cracks.

The “Broken Glass” cue works because every piece of the scene rubs up against the others in horrible, dissonant ways. Together, Emily’s terror, Lawrence’s ice-cold inscrutability, the chipper major chords of the song’s chorus, and the cutting violence of the song’s lyrics show us what we think we already know in a totally unexpected way. Emily’s fear and stubbornness are magnified. She’s absolutely sure she’s going to die, but she’s also going to tell Lawrence to turn off the damn song because some things are too much to bear. Lawrence’s apparent cruelty and his total disconnect from Emily’s humanity are also magnified, and his blithe hand waving seems sociopathic. Even the song deepens what we already know. When the twist is finally revealed — when we realize Lawrence is driving Emily to freedom — the joke of that song choice twists on itself again: “Walking on Broken Glass” isn’t a mockery of Emily’s pain, but a straightforward expression of Lawrence’s newly precarious position as a traitor to Gilead. (Or, as he puts it, “I’m getting myself in deep shit.”)

I’d hoped, with the canny humor of that song choice, that The Handmaid’s Tale had finally gotten a firm grip on how pop music could act as a warped commentary. But at the very end of the finale, all that goodwill falls to pieces the moment Moss looks into the camera defiantly and David Byrne announces that it is time to burn down the house. The show has had moments like this before, scenes when June decided to fight back, sequences that leaned toward a more active sort of resistance. But this is the first time she’s ever had a clear road to escape, and contrary to everything we’ve learned about her character (and about Gilead itself), she suddenly decides that she needs to stay. She decides that fighting back will work this time.

Like the Annie Lennox cue, the Talking Heads song choice is hilariously unsubtle. But where “Walking on Broken Glass” comes at its scene as a bleak surprise that highlights truth, “Burning Down the House” attempts to build a new character out of June in the short space of a musical hook, reversing everything we knew about who she is and what she wants. I’m not someone who believes much in the dignity of suffering, but in its best moments, this second season has been an aria on suffering as a human condition. In June’s constant, infuriating loops back to the Waterford house, The Handmaid’s Tale has been a very sad story about how hard it is to escape oppression. And as bleak as it’s been, there’s an important truth to that idea.

Until “Burning Down the House” dropped, as if to say, Screw all that! It’s time to rise up! It’s time to #resist! The song choice undermines what came before it, putting the lie to June’s many escape attempts and her perpetual return to the Waterfords’ attic. Where the theme was once about the constancy of her oppression, the new message is that she could’ve fought back this whole time. It attempts to shift our entire understanding of June’s character with one transformative moment. The scene is in exactly the same line as Emily Nussbaum’s prescient reading of the show’s dangerously empty go-girl mentality from the first season, except now, the pivot to rebellious resistance is magnified. It makes even less sense and feels all the more disingenuous.

I can see that the ending was supposed to be read as hopeful. It was supposed to be a moment when a switch flipped for June, turning her from a suffering victim into a badass superhero. But those binaries are useless in a show like The Handmaid’s Tale. The idea of the weak suffering victim who just needs to stand up to her oppressors is something the series (and Margaret Atwood’s novel) otherwise seeks to dismantle, contextualize, humanize, and complicate. The “Burning Down the House” moment threw all that away, and it wrecked the season’s careful, painful, and often absolutely wrenching story about one woman stuck inside hell. In its message, its utterly straight lack of nuance, and its pivot toward simplicity, it undercut everything else that happened in season two, swapping a grueling parable about power for a groundless, rah-rah, mindless myth of resistance. And it’s hard to imagine The Handmaid’s Tale ever fully recovering.

The Handmaid’s Tale Sabotaged Itself With a Single Song