Now nine episodes into its first season, The Handmaid’s Tale has firmly established itself as one of the best shows of 2017.
Adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the Hulu original series tells the story of women placed in servitude -- and subjected to ritualized rape in order to stave off infertility -- shortly after the fall of the U.S. government to a totalitarian and Christian fundamentalist government known as Gilead. At the center of this near-future dystopian saga (and the audience’s narrator) is Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a woman caught while trying to flee to Canada and eventually forced to become a handmaid in the household of Commander Fred Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy (played by Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski).
Since its premiere, The Handmaid’s Tale has earned critical praise for its effective (and horrifying) storytelling led by showrunner Bruce Miller, as well as its chilling timeliness as it relates to the current U.S. political climate and standout performances by Moss and the rest of the cast, including Samira Wiley (Moira), Alexis Bledel (Ofglen) and Max Minghella (Nick Blaine). All of this is punctuated by the music -- from Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” to “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor -- featured on the show.
Those songs, music supervisor Michael Perlmutter tells ET, are the result of a collaboration between him, Miller, the episodes’ directors and Moss, who also serves as a producer on the series. “Everybody tried to cull everything down into some idea of what we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it to complement the story,” he says of the show’s overall mission to put together “a soundtrack that sounds like freedom.”
Ahead of the show’s finale, streaming on Wednesday, June 14, Perlmutter breaks down the show’s buzziest musical moments from season one.
“You Don’t Own Me,”
Episode 1: “Offred”
Perhaps the most on-the-nose selection, in terms of lyrical connection to the show, Gore’s 1963 expression of female emancipation closes out the premiere as a resilient Offred, alone in her room, reveals her truth. “My name is June [and] I intend to survive,” she says before the show cuts to credits and the song begins playing.
Looking for empowered female artists, no matter the generation or genre, Perlmutter says they wanted to feature songs with lyrics that supported the story. Gore’s song in particular spoke to the show’s running theme of women’s rights, while proclaiming “I am my own person,” he says. “Though it is on the nose, you think it was something Offred would have written that day -- because that’s exactly what’s going on that moment.” She’s making her own proclamation to the audience: “I am me, I’m going to find my daughter no matter what,” he says, adding that it’s a great introduction to Offred and the rest of the handmaids.
Episode 2: “Birth Day”
After making an unexpected connection with Ofglen, a fellow handmaid and shopping partner played by Bledel, Offred is hopeful about the future, determined to help with the Mayday resistance. In the second episode, she even forms an illicit connection with the Commander, visiting him in his study late at night to play Scrabble. The next morning, Offred walks defiantly from the house, recounting her secret meeting with the Commander as the Simple Minds classic plays in the background. The moment is destroyed when she discovers her shopping partner is no longer the same Ofglen. “F**k,” she says to herself as “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” resumes, taking audiences into the credits.
When it came to using the song, director Reed Morano explained to The New York Times that it was a spontaneous choice made on set. Deciding to shoot Moss in slow motion as she walked out of the house (“a badass moment”), Morano thought, “This is so high school. This is reminding me of The Breakfast Club.”
While “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” was made famous by the John Hughes teen comedy, Perlmutter says the team came to the decision that its iconography didn’t prevent it from being used here. “Everyone came out of it going, ‘This is a new world. This is a new use and it’s great,’” he explains, adding that the song has three levels of meaning on the Hulu series: There’s the defiant high school feeling; the shock when Offred discovers that Ofglen is gone; and Offred’s own point of view of not being forgotten. “We’re hoping that 20 years from now, people say that it’s an iconic song from The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“Heart of Glass
(Crabtree Remix),” Blondie & Philip Glass
Episode 3: “Late”
For those determined to figure out when The Handmaid’s Tale takes place, episode five offered some cryptic clues about the near-future society. In a flashback, Moira and June are seen using iPhone 4s or 5s, circa 2010-2012. “We absolutely wanted to place this in an era maybe eight or seven years back,” Perlmutter says, to a time when Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) and June hadn’t met.
While Minogue’s hit single “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is from 2001, it’s the perfect earworm to transport the audience back in time. “So people could really place themselves at this moment,” Perlmutter says. “We wanted something coming through that boom box that’s sitting on the trunk that was poppy and happy and, again, just inherently freeing.”
Although it’s just a background song, playing in the scene rather than over it, Perlmutter says that “it grounds the moment in a certain way that only a song like a popular song at the time can.”
“The Sun’s Gone Dim
and the Sky’s Turned Black,” Jóhann Jóhannsson
Episode 5: “Faithful”
Later in the same episode, Ofglen re-emerges at the market. It’s the first time Offred’s seen her since she was replaced by a new handmaid. Now Ofsteven, the broken handmaid -- it was revealed in episode three that her former partner was hanged for “gender treachery” and she was given a clitoridectomy – seizes a Commander’s wife’s car. “What she goes through in episode three is still very much a part of her recent history. It’s not something she’s fully processed,” Bledel said in a separate interview with ET. That feeling, she said, leads Ofsteven to drive around the market and, later, run over a guard.
“It’s a hopeful moment,” Perlmutter says of the rebellious joyride. However, finding the perfect song to capture that feeling proved difficult. The team tried out at least 20 different songs, many of them upbeat and “playing against what’s going on.”
“We had a couple of really good ideas and it came down to, you know, if we use an iconic song it might take away from the gravity of the situation,” he says before they ended up settling on Jóhannsson’s song, an orchestration from the Oscar-nominated composer’s solo album IBM 1401, A User's Manual. “It’s a prime moment for a song in maybe some other show. [But Jóhannsson] was absolutely the perfect choice.”
“Sweet Baby James,”
Episode 7: “The Other Side”
While several of the musical moments discussed have quickly become fan favorites, Perlmutter’s favorite is getting Taylor licensed for a flashback sequence from episode seven that shows June and Luke’s moments as a couple and family before getting besieged by the Gilead military. “Sweet Baby James” plays as June, Luke and their daughter, Hannah, are making pancakes at a lakeside cabin, where they’re hiding out. “I got the shivers,” Perlmutter says. “A tear came out of my eye and fell down my face because it was so beautiful, and everybody can feel the emotion of that song in the scene.”
Since it’s an old cabin, Perlmutter and Miller had a discussion about what kind of cassettes might be lying around. “We wanted it to be familiar,” he says about this normal morning the family is pretending to have, even though the audience knows they’ll soon be whisked away from each other. And it was Bruce who first suggested the Taylor track.
It’s not often that Taylor’s music appears on TV shows. The handful of times includes The West Wing and Brothers and Sisters, among a few others. So, the team was thrilled to get an OK from the singer. “There are a lot of artists out there that really wanted to be a part of the show for its story and its significance,” Perlmutter says, offering a possible explanation of why they got to use “Sweet Baby James,” but also speaking to the many other artists -- from Tom Petty to Cigarettes After Sex -- on the show’s soundtrack.
“Nothing's Gonna Hurt
You Baby,” Cigarettes After Sex
Episode 7: “The Other Side”
At the end of episode seven, which largely tells the story from Luke’s perspective, audiences learn that he managed to not only escape Gilead but he finds out that June is still alive. Upon reading a note that she managed to pass to him through a Mexican delegate, Luke is reduced to tears. The camera closes in tighter and tighter on his face as the Cigarettes After Sex’s 2012 song, “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby,” plays. The episode ends with June reading her letter: “I love you so much. Save Hannah.”
“I’m very happy to report that [song] was not my idea,” Perlmutter says, giving credit to that episode’s crew for choosing the song. “It was a really interesting choice because it’s one of the few times we used a contemporary song over a really significant scene.”
One of the reasons they went with something contemporary is the final shots of Luke and June, both in the show’s present, were so strongly connected. “It’s today and that’s why I think it worked so well,” he says.