The music of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ provides ‘ironic counterpoint’ to show’s dark themes

This image released by Hulu shows Elisabeth Moss in a scene from "The Handmaid's Tale." Moss was nominated Thursday for an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series. The 70th Emmy Awards will be held on Monday, Sept. 17.
(George Kraychyk / AP)
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The second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was brought to a close with a moment of cathartic violence. But one could argue the star of the scene wasn’t Alexis Biedel’s handmaid Emily but instead a voice offscreen: Annie Lennox.

With Emily fearing for her life, the sound of Lennox’s symphonic pop cut “Walking on Broken Glass” breaks the silence, materializing via car radio. The tune’s upbeat tone contrasts with the pain of the character and, in turn, attempts to bring greater emotional weight to the scene by highlighting the show’s extremes. It’s one example of how the Hulu series throughout its second season used familiar pop music not as a cause for celebration but as a tool to torture.

With “Broken Glass,” the desired effect was to make the audience uncomfortable. What at first starts as a simple juxtaposition soon becomes somewhat menacing.


As Emily sits, not knowing what, if any, punishment she will be dealt by Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), the latter dances along to the song. He’s either oblivious to Emily’s situation, or perhaps he’s hyper-aware and purposely tormenting her. The music can play tricks on the characters as well as the viewers.

Often, the upbeat, instantly recognizable songs showcase the disparity and dark themes of the show by capturing what’s absent from the world of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Music, in fact, is banned by the fictional authoritarian regime of Gilead.

“Handmaid’s” music supervisor Maggie Phillips and showrunner Bruce Miller debated at length as to what song would close out the season.

“Annie Lennox was originally Madonna’s ‘Borderline,’ which was played on set,” Phillips said. “I tried a ton of stuff there. It was tricky because Bruce wanted something iconic — female — really poppy [and] recognizable. It’s a tough scene with Emily — you don’t know what’s going on.”

Phillips had to find a song that not only matched the editing but also highlighted an intense situation and underscored Lawrence’s creepiness.

“With ‘Walking on Broken Glass,’ the key to that song was tone deafness,” Miller told The Times. “If you’re Emily, you’re sitting in the back after you’ve done something violent. You basically assume they’re going to tear [you] apart like warm bread.


“And from Lawrence’s point of view, he’s like, ‘Why is she so nervous? I’m helping her. Can’t she get that?’ ”

Today, music supervision is increasingly taken seriously as an art form. The Television Academy long overlooked the field until last year when it added a music supervision category to the Emmys (Susan Jacobs won for “Big Little Lies”). This June, the Grammy Awards somewhat followed suit by allowing music supervisors to be nominated in the compilation soundtrack field.

If done incorrectly, songs incorporated into the dystopian universe of “The Handmaid’s Tale” could remove the viewer from the experience. Phillips and Miller strive to make difficult choices, avoiding religious cues or coldly distant music to simply reflect what’s on screen. The second season, with its state-sponsored attacks on personal freedoms, religious intolerance and women’s reproductive rights, already hit home for many viewers, and such familiar songs further connect the terror of the show to present-day reality.

Earlier in the season, when Elisabeth Moss’ June/Offred listened to Motown favorite “Easy” by the Commodores with Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), it was done to allow the characters to put their aggression aside and remember a time before Gilead. Phillips created playlists for June/Offred, Serena and other title characters to understand them and to tie them to our world.

“I started with three playlists,” Phillips said. “I made a playlist for June and got in her head. I imagined what year she would have been in college and where she grew up and what music was important for her. Then I made a playlist for pre-Gilead — things that make you feel nostalgic and free and frivolous and are a sharp contrast.”

Phillips likens the hunt for songs to a research project. Once a possible list of songs is compiled, the rights needed to be obtained, a process that could take anywhere from days to months to complete. For instance, Rihanna’s “Consideration,” which features Sza, took four months to secure.


Miller, along with Moss, who is an executive producer on this show, often sent music suggestions to Phillips.

“Ultimately it’s Bruce’s show and I have to sometimes remind myself and think about what he wants. It’s challenging because I have strong opinions. He was very clear about what he wanted a lot of the time and tended to go more ironic counterpoint,” Phillips said. “I think that’s where we had differences in opinion, but because of that I feel like there was growth in season two.”

Phillips said one of Miller’s top song choices for this recently concluded season was Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” which took “forever” to get approved. The song played in the 11th episode when June listens to a radio broadcast hosted by Oprah Winfrey. The live version of the song also appears in the end credits.

Springsteen was chosen to give the audience, and Gilead, hope. Phillips said by having a “strong American icon” heard with a crowd, it tells the people of Gilead that, with persistence, things could be OK.

As intense as is it to watch, Phillips said it’s just as taxing to work on. Season 3 is in its early stages, but Phillips is deep into thinking up playlists for the characters and crafting the sounds that will score June’s ultimate plan.

“I think June has gone full-on rebellious and is going to take no prisoners,” Phillips said. “I think she’s going to Gilead to kick some ass, and I want to pick some fighting songs. Bjork’s “Army of Me,” in my mind, could be her anthem.”


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