Beyond having a great script and a cast of phenomenal actors to bring the characters and story to life, music is just as important to the storytelling process in film and television. Music and songs set the tone for a scene. It enhances what may be going on in a character's world that words can't quite capture.
The right song selection can sometimes make us rethink how we interpret a song when it's used in places you wouldn't think would work for the theme. #Hulu's original series The Handmaid's Tale, based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, inserts popular songs in surprising and clever ways to give them a whole new meaning within the context of the series' bleak world.
We follow main character Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a handmaid who is stripped of her rights and individuality to serve solely as the vessel to reproduce children for the Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) under the fundamentalist government of Gilead. Episodes switch between the past and present, as Offred recalls the times before the world went completely to hell and how it contrasts with the miserable existence she lives now.
When we see how the women of Gilead live in the present day, reverting back to a more primitive, darker time for women, it's doubtful that the few songs played in specific scenes would be allowed under the new and strict religious, patriarchal regime. This is why the careful and sparing use of music becomes significant on the show.
In Episode 3, titled "Late," a remix of Blondie's 1978 hit "Heart of Glass" plays in the background during a flashback scene in which Offred, whose real name is June, remembers participating in a protest with her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) before the US completely fell to the supporters of Gilead.
"Heart of Glass" — originally a disco hit about lost love — seems like an odd choice to insert in this scene, but Blondie's song is slowed down, the synth-pop beats stripped away and replaced with a haunting, almost eerie sound. This version of the song is also enhanced with the emotional swell of strings to reflect the somber and hopeless mood, which creates an entirely different interpretation of the song.
"Heart of Glass" may not be referring to a lost love in the romantic sense in the world of #TheHandmaidsTale, but the flashback scene in this episode does convey the loss of a world where women had rights and were treated with respect. A time when being #LGBTQ wasn't considered a crime like it is in present day Gilead. Listening closely to the song during the protest scene, certain lyrics are highlighted to give them a new meaning that prompts reflection on how it fits in the overall story of the show:
Once I had a love and it was a gas
Soon turned out had a heart of glass
Seemed like the real thing, only to find
Mucho mistrust, love's gone behind
In the context of the show and episode, a sense of inclusion and embracing people's many differences is rooted in love. Kindness, compassion and understanding are traits that are encompassed in love. When Offred remembers how the peaceful protest escalates quickly into violence and chaos, it's a harbinger of the fragile state society was already in — a heart of glass, ready to shatter.
There is a feeling of fear and desperation echoed during the protest, grasping for what used to be real for everyone pre-Gilead, for those opposed to how drastically the modern world changed for Offred and Moira. Instead, Gilead's steady rise to power has fostered "mucho mistrust, love's gone behind" to enforce what they believe is the right way for society to live.
Viewing "Heart of Glass" in this way, it's no longer that fun dance track sung by Blondie about lost love. The song is still very much about lost love but reinterpreted to become something far more depressing and dark than the original had intended. These subtle changes to popular music in The Handmaid's Tale makes it a smart and vital part of the storytelling process.
A Simple Time
In an interview with the The New York Times, Reed Morano, who directed the first three episodes of the series, explains the use of modern music in The Handmaid's Tale, such as the inclusion of another popular hit, Simple Mind's "Don't You (Forget About Me)":
"I didn’t know beforehand that we were going to do that. That morning, Lizzie [Elisabeth Moss] and I were talking, and it was like, 'Ah, another scene where Offred walks out of the house, past Nick polishing the car, and meets Ofglen at the gate. How do we make this special? How do we elevate it?' Because there’s only so much we can do with the words on the page.
"So I changed up the blocking. I had this idea that they would walk in line together, and I’d shoot a bunch of slow-mo P.O.V.s from her to show it’s the first time she’s feeling good, having a little moment of triumph. It seems like a badass moment. And after that, I thought, for some weird reason, 'This is so high school. This is reminding me of The Breakfast Club.’ And I thought, I could just put that Simple Minds song from The Breakfast Club over this, and Lizzie said, 'Yes!' And so I called my editor right after we shot the scene, and I said, 'Look, I know you don’t have this footage yet, but here’s the plan. I know it sounds crazy.'"
While it may not have been in Morano's original plan to include modern music in the show, it adds another layer to what the characters are thinking and feeling. As Vulture's Jen Chaney observes:
Yet, like the other pop songs that punctuate the conclusions of every Handmaid’s Tale episode so far, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” serves the broader narrative because it expresses what Offred, and others like her, are trying to keep hidden: the urge to rebel against an oppressive system. By the end of each episode, that feeling has built up to such an intense degree that it must be released. Since the characters can’t do the releasing, the music steps in to handle the job.
The Handmaid's Tale is streaming now on Hulu. Catch Season 1, Episode 7, "The Other Side," on Wednesday, May 24. What are your thoughts on the use of modern music in this series? Sound off in the comments below.