The fifth season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology TV series about technological anxieties and possible futures, was released on Netflix on June 5th, 2019. We’re looking at each of the season’s three episodes to see what they have to say about current culture and projected fears.
Spoiler warning: This essay does not give away the ending of “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” but it does reveal some major plot twists.
Black Mirror has a frustrating tendency to treat characters as mindless dupes seduced by blatantly creepy technology. The season 5 episode “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” seems like a perfect antidote. It’s an uncharacteristically upbeat story about subverting sinister tech toward good ends and combining a critique of celebrity fandom with a thought experiment about brain uploading. But the show seems ill-equipped for the episode’s particular flavor of optimism, and the result is a corny, scattershot installment of a show that’s usually revered for its sharp cynicism.
“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is a parable about young female artists fighting for control over their lives. It has particular parallels with Britney Spears’ conservatorship controversy and Kesha’s legal battles with her former producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. As Vox notes, it’s also a condemnation of the stifling “positivity culture” found in segments of social media. Unlike the earlier Black Mirror episodes “Fifteen Million Merits” and “The Waldo Moment,” however, it doesn’t extensively explore the social mechanics of fame or fandom. It’s mostly allegorical, using familiar AI and robotics tropes to raise questions about human agency. After a promising start, its story becomes simultaneously overstuffed and underdeveloped.
“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is set in near-present-day California (and the vaguely defined Black Mirror cinematic universe), splitting its time between the three title characters. Rachel (Angourie Rice) and Jack (Madison Davenport) are teen sisters trying to cope with their mother’s death — Jack by playing her mom’s favorite alt-rock songs on guitar and Rachel by obsessing over Ashley O, an inspirational singer-songwriter played by Miley Cyrus. Soon, Rachel is also obsessed with Ashley Too, an anthropomorphized smart speaker based on Ashley’s saccharine personality.
But that persona is a lie. It was concocted by Ashley O’s exploitative aunt Catherine (Susan Pourfar) who controls Ashley’s life and dispenses medication to keep her lyrics happy. (As last year’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch established, psych meds are soul-numbing poison purveyed by conformist fools and villains.) Ashley rebels, and her manager overdoses her into a coma, then announces plans to launch a holographic replica called “Ashley Eternal,” and extract songs directly from her brainwaves. Fortunately, Rachel and Jack accidentally unlock a full copy of Ashley’s consciousness in Ashley Too, kicking off a madcap plot to foil Catherine’s plan.
The episode’s character-driven first act offers a fittingly melancholic portrait of someone using an imaginary relationship to handle loss and anxiety. Rachel’s obsession with Ashley Too is an extension of the idol worship that kids have always used to cope with lonely teenage hell. It’s also an extension of the increasingly reciprocal relationship between celebrities and their fans. Ashley Too won’t just call your name out on a live stream; she’ll remember your interests and help you learn to dance. Refreshingly for Black Mirror, the episode acknowledges that apps and gadgets aren’t uniformly attractive or corrosive; people’s interactions with them depend on what they do with the rest of their lives.
There’s some huge untapped potential in the episode’s various twists and turns. When Rachel learns Ashley Too is sentient, her fake friendship with a machine becomes real. But the human Ashley O is exposed as an artificial construction and the “real” Ashley as a profane, dispirited stranger. It’s a classic Black Mirror dilemma: does Rachel want a truly meaningful friendship with a fallen idol or the illusion of one with her perfect, locked-down counterpart?
But the story gets sidetracked with the intrigue over Ashley’s musical career, and it loses sight of the intimate details that make its early scenes so compelling. Even though it’s more than an hour long, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” feels like it’s rushing through its narrative, instead of teasing out the implications of each big reveal. Last season’s finale “The Black Museum” devoted a full segment to the horror of having your psyche trapped inside a stuffed animal. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” features a line of mass-market toys each powered by a human mind, and everyone gets over it within a couple of scenes.
Miley Cyrus is excellent as the human Anna O, playing the singer with a palpable burned-out exhaustion. The foul-mouthed, fast-talking Ashley Too, by contrast, comes across as a generic robot sidekick and has little in common with the offstage Anna from the early scenes. There’s a chance to explore complicated questions of identity here: is the snarky digital Anna a caricature of her meat-bodied counterpart or is she what Anna could be without the crushing pressure from her aunt? But it’s too plot-heavy to dwell on her potential inner turmoil, so it just feels inconsistent.
Turning an artist into a comatose music factory, meanwhile, is a fantastic premise that could have carried a whole episode. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” touches on the entertainment industry’s brutal commoditization of creativity. In a great early moment, Ashley’s doctor discusses which drugs (“All organic!”) will best spark her creativity.
Unfortunately, that conceit doesn’t work with the larger narrative, which requires Ashley’s hit songs to be laughably inane and her handlers soulless and unethical. It’s never clear why they’re bothering to actually transcribe bland pop music from her brain instead of, say, hiring a hack songwriter to fake it. And while the best Black Mirror stories extrapolate existing tech into nightmare scenarios, the “Ashley Eternal” hologram seems almost banal compared to Tupac being resurrected or a voice synthesizer plugin becoming a world-famous pop star.
Even the Easter eggs are needlessly muddled. Ashley O’s most popular song is a rewritten version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole,” a fact that is acknowledged but never explained. It doesn’t mesh with the story’s larger themes, and it raises the mildly intriguing but totally irrelevant question of whether Trent Reznor exists in the Black Mirror cinematic universe because if he does, a teenage rock chauvinist like Jack should be relentlessly mocking Ashley’s plagiarism.
Honestly, that’s the kind of mundane detail that “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” needs more of. The episode is at its blandest during some deeply unnecessary action sequences, which evoke a family comedy more than a Black Mirror episode. It’s at its best when it strips Black Mirror’s tough social commentary of its misanthropic condescension, balancing a critique of technology with real sympathy for the people who use it.
“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” ratings
Relevance: On one hand, the episode features a smorgasbord of contemporary social anxieties. (Artificial intelligence! Celebrity worship! Smart speakers wearing wigs!) On the other, it doesn’t say a lot about any single issue. “Fandom can be unhealthy and stardom can be a sham” is a tale at least as old as television, and Black Mirror doesn’t have a huge high-tech twist to add. Also, we’ve been dealing with simulated dead celebrities and virtual pop stars for decades, and their impact has been relatively modest, so “Anna Eternal” probably wouldn’t tip the scales toward dystopia.
Aesthetics: “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is one of Black Mirror’s more nondescript episodes. Ashley O fits the series’s classic vision of a plastic pop star, and the camera lingers on her severe, futuristic costumes and flawless features. Jack and Rachel’s home and school are shot with the low-key vibe of a teen coming-of-age film. The later scenes descend into wacky yet maudlin action-comedy territory — a major plot beat involves an autonomous rat drone that’s also a taser.
Squirm Factor: Underplayed. The latter half, including the ending, sands away most of the episode’s cutting edges. But Ashley’s plot trajectory is objectively terrifying: she’s spent her whole life under the legal control of an abusive relative, only to end up with a comatose body churning out hit songs, and a mind that’s trapped in an ambulatory home audio accessory. And the Ashley Too bots seem to be slightly self-aware at all times, yet powerless to truly control their own actions. In another episode, that would be the concluding nightmare. Here’s, it’s just another minor element of the premise.