Spoilers below for The Handmaid’s Tale.
Life in The Handmaid’s Tale is very quiet. According to the laws of Gilead, the Handmaids are not allowed to read, watch TV, or listen to music. All Offred (Elisabeth Moss), the show’s protagonist whose real name is June, ever hears when she is in her bedroom are her thoughts.
To counter the silence and reveal what life was like before Offred lived in a totalitarian society, music supervisor Michael Perlmutter (Queer As Folk), showrunner Bruce Miller, director Reed Morano, Moss, and other Handmaid’s Tale producers and editors collaborated to punctuate Adam Taylor’s otherwise chilling score with familiar songs that pop viewers out of the darkness. From Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away” in earlier installments to James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” in this week’s episode, the songs are meant to shake viewers out of Offred’s reality and into her past. “When you’re in Gilead, you totally forget there was a past, so we slam into the flashbacks with music that’s loud so it jars you out of Gilead to this feeling of, ‘Holy shit, there was another life before this,’” Perlmutter said.
Vulture spoke to Perlmutter about the inspiration for the music we’ve heard on The Handmaid’s Tale so far, including the closing song of “The Other Side,” during which June and her husband, Luke, communicate for the first time in three years.
Episode 1: “Offred”
“Wildfire” by SBTRKT
The show’s creators were looking for a strong female artist from June and Moira’s college days to contrast with their arrival at Gilead’s Red Center. “We had a few different songs that we looked at and that one stuck,” Perlmutter said. “It just had a lively quality and an empowering kind of quality because they’re on a college campus, smoking a joint, and frolicking in the sunshine. Inherently being free. When you slam back into that scene from when you’re in the Red Center, when she first sees her friend Moira and she has this recollection of her, it’s pretty drastic. And then when we come back, again to the flashback, there’s this gorgeous sun-kissed shot of June sitting there and the music slams out. So the editing and the mixing are really important to how we hear things and experience the switches back and forth.”
“Onward Christian Soldiers”
This song plays the first time viewers see the Ceremony, what Gilead calls a Commander’s ritualistic rape of a Handmaid on her most fertile days. “It’s that contradiction of being the good Christian soldier while you’re raping a girl and using this crazy juxtaposition of this traditional hymn,” Perlmutter said. “It’s surrounded and infused with score and sound effects to really create something maybe going on inside Offred’s head or something happening with the Commander and that extraordinarily disturbing environment. I’ve seen that scene 50 times and I cringe every single time. It’s almost hard to watch. But to me, that was a really beautifully orchestrated piece of sound. Adam’s score that just puts you into that moment and nowhere else. I think the textures added to the really strange environment.”
“You Don’t Own Me” by Leslie Gore
“How could [the episode] end with any other song, right? When we started shooting and editing, we had lists of songs. Everybody had lists of songs and, of course, that one was near the top of the list. We’re going to have to use this somewhere, and it became evident that it was a great way to end the first episode. You start with seeing how she becomes a Handmaid and, by the end, you finally find out what her name is and that she’s going to fight to find her daughter. I don’t think it matters if it’s on the nose. I couldn’t imagine another song there.”
Episode 2: “Birth Day”
“Heartbeat, It’s a Love Beat” by the DeFranco Family
“There’s nothing like a heartbeat inside of a baby about to be born. There’s no question that listening to a heartbeat of an about-to-be born baby is probably one of the more beautiful things in the world. Until it’s born, then it’s even more beautiful. So we’re back in our world, and it’s swirled with score and with anticipation, and it creates this lovely feeling. It’s a positive, upbeat song from a Canadian band that didn’t have a lot of hits back then. It’s a gem of a tune.”
“Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley
Performed a cappella by Madeline Brewer, who plays Ofwarren, the Handmaid nursing her baby until it’s time to hand her over to her Commander and his wife, the song was one of several the team considered for a sweet lullaby. “It’s a song Janine’s mom would have sung to her when she was going to sleep,” Perlmutter said. “It’s not a song about freedom, but it has the spirit of freedom and, of course, Bob Marley, is the epitome of that. I’m sure we’ve heard ‘Three Little Birds’ in other shows before, but the idea was that it’s a really beautiful and intimate moment between this mother and her newborn, who she’ll have to give up at some point. It’s a bit heartbreaking at the same time.”
“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds
After a night of creepy Scrabble with Commander Waterford, Offred feels victorious because he shared his traveling plans and she can pass that intel to Ofglen and the resistance. As she descends the stairs the next morning to meet Ofglen, Simple Minds “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” starts playing and stops when Offred realizes Ofglen has been replaced. The song, best associated with Judd Nelson’s fist pump at the end of The Breakfast Club, was Morano’s idea. “We didn’t pitch anything for that,” Perlmutter said. “Reed popped that in the edit bay and showed it to Bruce and he loved it and everybody thought it was super interesting and bizarre. Yeah, it’s an iconic song from another film, but no one cared about that so much. They just cared about what’s going to work. This was just a burst of inspiration that feels like it came out of nowhere.”
Episode 3: “Late”
“Fuck the Pain Away” by Peaches
In a flashback, June and Moira jog under this track. “Peaches was on that list of artists and songs that we wanted to somehow find a spot for,” Perlmutter said. “Inherently, it speaks of freedom. As an empowered artist who speaks her mind and is humane and has a lot to say about sexuality and humanity, we thought … who’s a perfect artist to pop into this story?”
“Heart of Glass (Remix)” by Daft Beatles
Moss wanted to use this stripped-down remix of Blondie’s iconic song in the series, so Morano and an editor found the place for it during the protest. “Blondie, of course, is another powerful female artist,” Perlmutter said. “When you have a song like that, you can use it to make a sequence powerful. The strings give it this melancholic feel to it and I like the tempo. There’s something really sad about it that made it work nicely at this very important turning point as Gilead was trying to take over.”
“Waiting for Something” by Jay Reatard
When Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) realizes her genitals have been mutilated, producers thought about leaving the background silent until she screams. But Morano told Perlmutter she wanted to find an unexpected song that would reflect Ofglen’s shock and anger. They considered 20 to 30 songs before landing on the right one. “It’s disturbing as hell,” isn’t it?” he said. “It’s a very important moment. So we went the punk route and rock routes, looking for ideas. Some were angry but maybe a little more mischievous. Alexis does such a gorgeous job at portraying what the fuck just happened to her. Which nobody can really fathom, I don’t think. We could have had a little piece of score underneath. We could’ve been silent until after she screams, and then go to end credits. But I think we wanted this rage to come out of her just before she screams. We wanted to support what Alexis is doing and not take it over. I think it works because you can really feel what’s going on inside her. It’s the soundtrack to inside of her gut, her heart, and her head.”
Episode 4: “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”
“Daydream Believer” by the Monkees
This upbeat song is used briefly at the opening of the episode during a flashback of a carnival outing between June, Luke, and Hannah. “It’s just about joy,” Perlmutter said. “That’s all we needed there.”
“Perpetum Mobile” by Penguin Cafe Orchestra
The 1987 electro-classical tune was initially used as a placeholder for score, and ended up staying at the end of the episode when Offred, for the first time, is victorious over Serena Joy and is allowed outside by Commander Waterford. The moment of triumph is juxtaposed with flashbacks of the severe beating she received at the Red Center. “There’s a lot of different temp music that’s put in to just get a feel for it sometimes, but everyone really latched onto this because it had a bit of a hopeful feeling in it and it had a feeling that the Handmaids are all gonna stick together,” Perlmutter said.
Episode 5: "Faithful"
“Sugar in My Bowl” by Nina Simone
“Offred’s getting some and you’d never expect that. She’s risking her entire life and yet we come in with this very sweet, lovely, sexy song that makes you feel good for her for the first fucking time. It makes you feel like she’s got something for a moment. Here’s a glimmer of freedom, even if it’s fleeting. This is hers and hers alone. There are elements of hope in some of the songs we selected, and this is one of them. As you go along through the series, there are little things that happen that give her some kind of hope when, really, there’s none.”
Episode 6: "A Woman's Place"
“Wild Is the Wind” by Nina Simone
In a pre-Gilead flashback between Serena Joy and Fred, we learn they were very much in love and united about the coup. This song plays on the radio. “I almost feel a little bit of sympathy toward the two of them,” Perlmutter said. “Which is the last thing you want to feel. You see that they were an incredibly smart and devoted couple. Even if what they were planning was wrong, I don’t think they really saw it. I mean, they wrote the freakin’ laws, but I don’t think they thought it was really going to affect them the way that they thought. I see that in their eyes. This song really helps capture some nostalgia for them and gives the audience a taste of this romantic couple that used to be and how much they’ve also lost. You don’t want to feel sympathy for them, at all, but there is that small twinge. It’s such a gorgeous song and it’s such a beautiful lyric and there’s a really powerful female artist in Nina Simone. There’s nobody quite like her.”
Episode 7: "The Other Side"
“Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor
An endearing flashback of the family at home is made all the more heartfelt by the rare licensing of one of Taylor’s most popular tunes. It was Miller’s idea to try and get the rights to it. “We went through a lot of songs but that’s the one that felt the most nostalgic, beautiful, and intimate and it harkens back to beautiful family days,” Perlmutter said. “James Taylor doesn’t license that much, so it was very special to get it. It’s a very personal song for him. It’s about his kid. It’s an extraordinary memory for Offred, an amazing moment of family intimacy. Who doesn’t know that song? I used to listen to it every night before I went to bed.”
“Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” by Cigarettes After Sex
In one of the show’s biggest moments yet, Luke reads a short but impactful letter from June. As we hear June’s voice-over reading, the song starts playing. “That was a good lyric for that, right? It’s a contemporary song that combines the two of them in today’s world and what’s happening right now,” Perlmutter said. “It’s another hopeful moment. There’s a little bit of melancholy in it, but it’s definitely hopeful. You feel that bond between them now. You feel like they’re talking to each other.”