It was the final gut punch delivered in Season 1 of “The Handmaid’s Tale:” Tom Petty’s “American Girl” thundering out as Elisabeth Moss’ Offred faced an uncertain future with a defiant smile.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is just one instance of classic Petty tunes punctuating pivotal scenes in movies and TV series. The musician, who died Monday at the age of 66, had a knack for capturing the essence of people, places and emotions in a plain-spoken way that made them a perfect accent for narrative storytelling.
“American Girl” was one of the songs on the playlist in the ear of “Handmaid’s Tale” executive producer Bruce Miller as he wrote the first episode of the Hulu drama series more than a year ago. Miller has been a fan of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for years, but it was his kids who more recently reminded him of the musician’s canon.
“They listen to [Petty] like it was new music,” Miller told Variety of his sons, recent college grad Ben, college freshman Duncan, and daughter, Tess, a seventh-grader. “They listen to everything on Spotify and streaming services so they don’t have a sense of when it came out. They just listen to stuff they like.”
Months later, when Miller saw the first cut of “Handmaid’s” Season 1 finale, he knew “American Girl” was the right send-off for Offred, conveying a powerful message over the closing credits. The song is hardly rah-rah America — it evokes a young woman struggling to come into her own at a time of turmoil in American culture.
“It was the only time in the show where we wanted to make a direct link between Offred and the country that disappeared beneath her feet,” Miller said. “It’s such a complicated, mournful story. ‘American Girl’ paints a real picture of a real person. I thought it worked perfectly.”
Miller sweated out the question of whether Petty would grant the rights for a show that he hadn’t seen. Miller also knew that the song had been used to great effect in 1991’s “Silence of the Lambs,” and he worried that Petty wouldn’t want to OK it for “Handmaid’s” given that association. But he wasn’t going to give up without a charm offensive.
“I would have gotten on the phone with anyone to beg for permission,” he said. Happily for Miller, he didn’t need to. “I’m thrilled we got a ‘yes.’”
Here’s a look at other memorable uses of Petty songs in film and TV:
Brooke Smith, as serial killer Buffalo Bill’s victim Catherine Martin, sings along joyously to “American Girl” as she drives into a trap.
Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire sings along to “Free Fallin’.”
In “Family Guy,” Brian struggles to keep pace on a run with a woman he is sexually pursuing, until he hits a “runner’s high” soundtracked by “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
“American Girl” also appeared in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to capture the youthful energy of the 1982 movie.