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 Bledel’s handmaid Emily but instead a voice off-screen: Annie Lennox.
With Emily fearing for her life, the sound of Lennox’s symphonic pop cut “Walking on Broken Glass” breaks the silence via car radio. Its 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’ second season used familiar pop music not as a cause for celebration but as a tool to torture. Songs underline the show’s dark themes 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.
With “Broken Glass,” the desired effect was to make the audience uncomfortable. What at first starts as a simple juxtaposition soon becomes 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 purposely tormenting her. The music can play tricks on the characters as well as the viewers.
Music supervisor Maggie Phillips and showrunner Bruce Miller debated at length as to what song would close out the season.
“It 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.”
Music supervision is increasingly taken seriously as an art form. Last year the Television Academy recognized the field when it added a music supervision category to the Emmys (Susan Jacobs won for HBO’s “Big Little Lies”). This June, the Grammy Awards allowed 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.
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.”
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.”