Why does Season Two of The Handmaid's Tale sound so good?
**This article contains spoilers for episodes 1 – 9 of season two of The Handmaid’s Tale**
There’s a reason most people stick to violins and timpani for soundtracks—they’re universal. Instrumental scores can build tension until you’re cringing, or they can let the soul soar with elation. Use some percussion and strings (and maybe a dash of a horn section) and there’s about 80 percent of your audio accompaniment needs.
But what about the wants? What about what might be possible?
Season two sees The Handmaids Tale join the ranks of Stranger Things, Fargo, and (arguably) Girls as a series that nails the tunes and makes good television great. Music supervisor Maggie Phillips has taken over from Michael Perlmutter (who got comprehensively burned by Pitchfork for his season one choices) and it’s banger after banger.
A good music supervisor should know us so well – what we want and what we don’t yet know we want – that they’re basically friends we trust enough to make us Spotify playlists.
Phillips knows who sits down to watch The Handmaid’s Tale, so she knows she doesn’t need to play it safe. After all, at the very beginning of season two we see a woman pee herself, thinking she was about to be hanged in what seemed like an endless mass-execution scene.
How did Phillips know that, with all the heaviness of that scene – how easy it would have been to stick to instrumental music, how risky it was to add a vocalist to something that didn’t need any more of anything – that Kate Bush would make us feel like that?
The incredible acting is like a bullet to the heart, and when ‘This Woman’s Work’ is playing, there’s a finger poking right into that wound.
I’m crying when I watch that scene, because I’m so sad and terrified for the handmaids. And because Kate Bush has been the soundtrack to so many moments of my own life, suddenly the pain is more real, more personally applicable.
This is what I’ve been thinking about when I wonder what’s changed between season one and season two, and why the music is so good now.
There is something unique about how the show is so stuck in Gilead, where popular music is barely ever played, that means a non-instrumental song sounds as if it’s speaking to the viewer directly. The soundtrack becomes an audio breaking of the fourth wall; it shatters the illusion that we are watching a TV show.
A burst of Rihanna sees our suspension of disbelief immediately cut loose. In a show that is so incredibly political, these song choices are as good as companion texts. They don’t sit apart from the narrative, nor do they fade into the background and simply amplify emotion. They give it all an extra level.
These tracks elevate the capability of any given episode: a cautionary tale from a galaxy far, far away becomes a could-be-happening-right-now situation.
At the end of episode six, a handmaid lets off a grenade as a suicide bombing to halt the opening ceremony of the new Rachel and Leah centre—a place where they will be able to “process, house, and train” many more handmaids.
‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’ by X-Ray Spex starts with Polly Styrene’s infantile but cocky voice: ‘Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard’ and we think of Ofglen (real name Lillie Fuller), the handmaid who has just pulled the pin out of the grenade in her hand, who has had her tongue cut out.
Then the drums and guitar kick in, there’s an explosion on-screen with a punk rock backing and a woman vocalist screaming. It’s emotion elevation-meets-political-commentary at its finest.
By contrast, when Serena Waterford takes a seat at her husband’s desk in episode seven, having enrolled June to help her draft Commander Waterford’s correspondence and orders, Venus by Shocking Blue plays. You know the one: ‘I’m your Venus/I’m your fire/Your desire’
Serena has a tiny smirk on her face when she places her hands wide apart near the papers she’s about to forge signatures for. June holds a writing implement for the first time in God-knows how long. When she clicks that ballpoint pen, it’s basically an intellectual climax.
Serena and June treat each other as intellectual equals and companions. These are women being the versions of themselves they feel the best about and long to return to, burning like silver flames; ‘She’s got it!’
And in that moment, we’ve got it. And Maggie Phillips has sure got it, too.