It’s impossible to watch Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too, the third instalment of Black Mirror’s truncated fifth season, without thinking about Miley Cyrus’ life — and not just because she’s in it. The episode, written by Black Mirror creator Charlie Booker, and directed by Anne Sewitsky, paints a broad portrait of the price of fame — the toll it takes on performers, who feel like their identity is being parcelled out and sold for profit. It’s a searing take on the music industry, but also a commentary on stan culture, which encourages devotees to literally pick apart and consume the very thing they love most.
Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too opens with a teenage loner Rachel (Angourie Rice) sitting alone in the cafeteria, with only her phone for company. She’s the new girl in school — her father, a rodent exterminator who dreams of creating a human method for disposing of mice, has moved her and her sister to a new town after the recent death of their mother. But where Jack (Madison Davenport) is coping with a nose ring and The Pixies (her mother’s favourite band), Rachel is growing more and more isolated. Her only solace is Ashley O (Cyrus), a pink-haired bubblegum pop sensation not unlike Hannah Montana, whose words she drinks in like water in the desert.
And then one day, she hears the big news: Ashley O is coming out with an android companion version of herself, named Ashley Too. This is Rachel’s chance to literally own a piece of her idol. The technology itself isn’t all that futuristic — Ashley Too’s personality is modelled after the real deal. She can dissect lyrics, share beauty tips, play music, and give rousing pep talks. Basically, she’s an Alexa with pink hair and a sunny attitude. But to Rachel, she’s a friend, mentor, and saviour.
Jack reacts to her sister’s devotion to an object with mild disgust. It’s not just that she hates the mainstream, consumerist message Ashley O. stands for — she’s genuinely concerned for her sister’s mental health. And their dad, who can barely get it together to remember Rachel’s birthday, is of no help.
Things come to a head when Ashley Too encourages Rachel to enter the school talent show with Ashley O-inspired choreography. It’s a disaster, and another blow to Rachel’s already precarious confidence. And for Jack, it’s the final straw. While Rachel and her father are out, she hides Ashley Too in the attic, next to a box of her late mother’s things, and tells them she threw it out.
Meanwhile, the real Ashley is struggling. The songs she’s writing aren’t on-brand, and her positive, upbeat message is starting to clash with her inner angst. Ashley’s stuck in an image that’s been crafted for her — her aunt-turned-manager, Catherine (Susan Pourfar) won’t let her jeopardise the empire she’s created with any bold, out-of-character moves, like, say, showing up at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards and twerking on Robin Thicke with her tongue out.
Cyrus has said that she pulled from her own life to create the character, and her casting is the episode’s real stroke of genius. She gives a powerful performance that forces us to confront our own part in the treatment of artists, and specifically women, in the music industry. One scene in particular, in which Catherine confronts Ashley, who has locked herself in her dressing room just so she can do her own makeup, is particularly harrowing. “You’ve got 20,000 fans out there waiting to see the you they love,” she tells her distressed niece, who has just confessed that she feels completely disassociated from her famous persona. She’s no longer a person — she’s a product, kept on a tight leash by her minders, who literally drug her into submission.
Eventually, the real Ashley becomes too hard to control. Catherine finds out she’s been hoarding her meds, and discovers a notebook filled with darkly confessional lyrics that she’s been writing in secret. Worried what this may mean for ticket sales, Catherine takes drastic measures to ensure her future comfort: Under the guise of a friendly lunch, she drugs Ashley with her own drug stash, plunging her into a coma.
We experience the aftermath of the incident through Rachel’s eyes, as she watches a news report about the near-fatal allergic reaction that left Ashley O in a coma, punctuated with Catherine’s distraught call to 911. Jack, feeling guilty about taking her sister’s one solace, gives her back Ashley Too and confesses that she simply hid it. But Rachel, too upset at her sister and by her idol’s demise, simply leaves the doll on a shelf, refusing to turn it back on.
At this point, you may be asking yourself whether or not this is really a Black Mirror episode. It feels like a pacing error that it takes nearly two-thirds of the run-time for the episode to hit its most interesting, thought-provoking premise. In fact, one could imagine a tighter, more concise version of this tale that would actually start here.
It turns out that Catherine doesn’t actually need Ashley to make money. All she needs is the image that she’s created. Fast-forward to six months later, and we learn from another news story that Ashley’s still in her coma, but that her career is very much active, thanks to groundbreaking technology that Catherine has harnessed to keep on producing her music.
Part of the Ashley O brand is that her songs come to her in dreams. As in, literally, she thought of them in her sleep. And it turns out, that’s the one thing Catherine didn’t make up. Using a machine that can read her niece’s brainwaves, she and a team are able to extract new material from her brain, and record it using the vocal mimicry software developed for Ashley Too, which has been discontinued due to a battery error.
But not all of them — when Catherine inadvertently gives the “Ashley, wake up” command from the TV, Rachel’s Ashley Too revs up, and sees the real version of herself comatose and inert. This causes a short-circuit, which Rachel and Jack attempt to fix in their dad’s mouse lab. A quick analysis of Ashley Too’s functions reveals that there’s an anomaly. They delete it, and lo and behold, Ashley O shows up. Not in the flesh, obviously, but inside Ashley Too, who explains that in the process of creating her personality, Ashley’s entire brain was copied onto the cloud, with a firewall sectioning off anything except the part of her that deals with press junkets and album promotion. Without that barrier to her consciousness, she can speak freely, and tells Jack and Rachel the real story about Catherine’s misdeeds, and enlists them to help her free her body.
It’s not-so-subtle commentary on famous people’s need to keep their private persona hidden while showing the rehearsed, sanitised version to the world. (A struggle that Cyrus has experienced, both on the fictional Hannah Montana, and in her real life.) But the thing is, that’s old news.
What’s more interesting is the fact that Cathrine has used this technology to create a hologram version of Ashley O, one that can play huge stadiums every night of the week, and in multiple locations simultaneously, without regard for human needs like sleep and hunger. Ashley Infinity, as she tells a room full of investors, doesn’t need any of those. She gives 100%, all the time. Gone are the days when musicians needed to cancel shows, costing executives and investors millions. This is a guaranteed cash cow. And isn’t that every music label’s dream in an era where selling out humongous venues and continuous, large-scale tours are pretty much the only way to make money?
But it all comes crashing down when Ashley Too, Rachel, Jack, and the real Ashley O — who woke up from her coma when Ashley Too unplugged her life-support — come barging in, exposing Catherine as a lying, manipulative fraud.
The idea that flesh and blood people are no longer an essential part of the creative process isn’t a new one. 2002’s S1m0ne, for example, was about a director creating the perfect movie star using artificial intelligence. But this episode could have taken it a step forward. Instead, it introduces this intriguing kernel, and drops it like a hot potato.
The very best Black Mirror episodes are the ones that tease out an essential truth about ourselves. You come away from a viewing with a new perspective, or, even more likely, a new fear. Think of Season 1’s “The Entire History of You,” which warned of the consequences of no longer being able to embellish or tweak memories because they were available for the world to view. Or “Be Right Back,” a heartbreaking portrayal of grief laced with the hopeful, gruesome potential of social media. Or even “San Junipero,” which offered a delicate, beautiful perspective on the afterlife. These episodes make you question your reality, and challenge your assumptions.
We live in a world obsessed with commercialising nostalgia. As Vox reported in 2018, there’s an entire industry around creating, marketing, and deploying holograms of dead celebrities. That comes with its own set of ethical and technical hurdles — an Amy Winehouse hologram tour planned for 2019 was postponed in February over questions of consent, which seems especially relevant to Ashley O’s fictional situation. Can one use a person’s image for commercial purposes if they’re not in a fit state to okay it? And what about creating an entirely made-up celebrity and marketing them as a person?
The problem with this episode isn’t so much that it doesn’t have anything to say, but rather that it refuses to truly engage with the ramifications of its premise. There’s no teachable moment here. The episode ends with an “authentic” punk version of Ashley O and her band — which includes Jack on guitar — giving a show in a dive bar. “This is a song about my shitty aunt,” she says, before launching into a crowd-diving banger, with lyrics like “Got money, I’ll do anything for you. Got money, just tell me what you want me to do.” Rachel and Ashley Too (wearing a cute Anarchy sticker as an accessory) are in the audience with her dad, who’s trying to convince the bartender to use his human mouse traps.
A shot of two former Ashley O fans exiting the bar, disappointed with their idol’s new look, teases the fact that not all her fans are pleased with this shift. I kept waiting for a shot of a huge, hologrammed-version of the latest Ashley O wannabe playing a packed stadium, a wink to our darkest impulses in this sea of rosy endings, but it never came. Are we expected to believe that the music industry would pass on this technology just because Catherine turned out to be exploiting her niece? Or is Ashley free to pursue the kind of career she wants precisely because Ashley Infinity gives her broader fanbase what they want? The episode doesn’t give us closure on the larger questions, focusing instead on the final performance — all’s well that ends well.
But what was it all for? A more compelling conclusion would have been Ashley waking up from her coma only to be confronted with the fact that her creative image has been stolen from her, leaving her obsolete, and alone. That’s a much sadder note to end on, but who ever expected Black Mirror to be happy?