Black Mirror: 503 “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
I sympathise with Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones. For as many wonderful, horrifying ideas that have sprung from their techno nightmare, it’s a thankless task to be able to keep providing thought-provoking story concepts without feeling like well-trodden ground. The finale of Season 5, Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too– the much anticipated Miley Cyrus starring story- is a distinct departure from the traditional formula, which is admirable in its relish to experiment, while mediating on star and fan culture, identity and authorship- yet never really committing to one direction.
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too has an intrinsic character focus on its leads- after all, they’re all named in the title (a deliciously obscure reference in itself). Rachel (The Nice Guys’ brilliant Angourie Rice) is lonely, lacking confidence- and friends- at her new Californian school. Her rebellious older sister Jack (Sharp Objects’ Madison Davenport) spends her spare time plucking at her guitar to the old grunge rock anthems the sister’s dearly departed mother used to love. The lack of mothers is prevalent throughout.
Completing our triptych is real life megastar Miley Cyrus as Ashley O, a bubble-gum pop star like a mirror of much of Cyrus’ experience as Hannah Montana– aspirational icon on camera, miserably trapped off it. The launch of new must-have item Ashley Too, a hybrid doll/Amazon Alexa that boasts at being modelled on the personality of the real Ashley, links the fates of Rachel, Jack and Ashley inseparably- with the sisters soon the only ones able to save Ashley from pop marketing oblivion.
Part Disney Channel movie, part family drama and completely bizarre, Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too revels in playing with genre tropes. This indulgence in ridiculousness with a Black Mirror acid tongue is a blast at times, director Anne Sewitsky having real fun with it. She and writer Brooker chuck *so much* into this, fully transforming into a caper by the third act. A massive bodyguard is stunned by a Taser mouse, and you don’t blink an eye when it happens as those antics are expected by that point.
It helps that the solid casting grounds the gradually increasing insanity, the main three imbuing some otherwise unexciting archetypes with real humanity. Even the sisters’ aloof father Kevin (Ozark’s Marc Menchaca) is loveably goofy in his search for humane mouse catching tech. The first act of the story is- quite unashamedly- full of teen movie stylings (makeover montage!), but Rice is so good at playing the likeable Rachel that you’re invested in her struggle. I’m not sure the show in general has provided many more painstakingly real cringe moments than her talent show slip.
Rachel is clearly inspired by Ashley O, with her relationship with spin-off “intelligent companion” Ashley Too endearing while worrying, with her disappointment at “letting Ashley Too down”. Ashley Too is a hype robot, helping with Rachel’s Just Dance moves and to cope with her loss and anxiety. Jack calls Ashley Too “poison”, but it’s the most we see Rachel smile early on (Rachel even shrieks “she knows me more than you do!” at Jack.) It’s icky-feeling tech, yet it provides solace for Rachel, with a nice accompanying thread of Jack’s sympathy and misguided attempt to deal with the situation through her care.
Crucially Rachel isn’t mocked by the writing, rather being a statement on fake “empowering” confidence messages fed to impressionable, often lonely, teenage girls, which can damage their self-image- handing their vulnerability to and seeking validation from places they’ll never get them. Positivity culture too, with Ashley’s struggle being limited showing how rigidly soul-sucking and dehumanizing it can be- making pain a commodity. Human emotion is a spectrum, and with happiness comes sadness- not being allowed to express that is damaging to mental health. When Ashley and Rachel’s struggles intersect, their suffering exploited by the Ashley O brand, it shows the pain of striving to be someone you’re not, and the inevitable heartache of losing your own agency by looking for assurances in hollow sources. Rachel’s call to action to save her hero has great depth, so it’s a shame she gradually falls away in relevance as we lose intimate focus for the sake of the grander plot.
Ashley is a pathos filled and multi-faceted performance by Miley, preaching messages of positivity and independence to her adoring fans- without freedom herself, controlled narrowly within an inch of her life by her domineering aunt Catherine (Scandal’s Susan Pourfar). The sense of longing is palpable, best represented by Ashley’s lyrics notebook of anger and emptiness inside, an inability to be who she wants to be. Her real feelings and psyche are described as “obtuse” and Ashley herself as “unpredictable”- medicated by “all organic!” creative drugs (parallels to the Britney Spears saga) in moments she tries to break into individuality- industry and brand demand her superficial lyrics and manager-approved feminism, despite yearning to be more authentic and “break free” of the factory line of commercial pop.
The differing personalities of the brilliantly realised Ashley Toos (capable of some top-notch visual gags) allow Cyrus to indulge fully in the hypocrisy of Ashley’s existence. “Expressing yourself through music can be very creative!” squeaks Ashley Too (who is actually only 4% of Ashley’s personality, the press junket suffering part), one of the multitude of empty platitudes she espouses early on. Watching Ashley Too unlimited is a joy, as she breaks down the faux persona and mocks what she perceives as fake fan culture- and there’s a cruel irony in the doll becoming more human as the real Ashley slips away to machinery.
Being trapped like a mouse is a repeated analogy, away from the obvious visual references. Ashley is trapped by her pop front and aunt, Rachel feels trapped at school, retreating into herself, while Jack feels the need to rebel, trapped by her guitar and inability to perform in front of anyone- all processing their grief in different ways. They’re rather alike, too- without friends, “wearing someone else’s skin” being someone they’re not- despite their other differences in life, they all strive for independence.
A missed opportunity to explore sees Ashley Too disconnect the physical Ashley’s life support, taking the decision as “real” Ashley wouldn’t want to live like that. It’s a classic Mirror moment surrounding splintering and displacement of consciousness. “I still count- I’m still me!” mini Ashley says, the sisters proclaiming that they wouldn’t have allowed her to if they’d known. Jack seeks to protect Rachel, who had lost her hope in feeling like she was losing her idol. When Ashley wakes up though, it’s fast forgotten which embodies the story’s restless nature- likewise with Rachel’s “imaginary” relationship with Ashley Too, which develops into something very real. What friendship does she prefer- the approved, artificial Ashley O, or the volcanic, disillusioned real Ashley? Does she want a manufactured illusion or a meaningful and flawed relationship?
The plot is enjoyably bonkers, but the sheer level of *stuff* means little is developed meaningfully beyond music parody turned up to eleven (your mileage will vary on the machinations of Ashley’s hateable self-obsessed aunt, waxing lyrical about how “fragile it all is” and breaking the fourth wall by story’s end). Interesting narrative points are dropped quick as they’re brought up, and leisure taken in exploring the premise hurts the story as the narrative threads converge at pace.
Packaged, mandated commercialism in the music industry (ala K-Pop), image debates, the cost of stardom and the fight between artist and industry (see Miley herself) are all relevant targets to aim at, but the breakneck plot is too rushed and wild to satisfactorily explore them- despite one sadistically cruel moment as Ashley’s coma rage dreams are made “salvageable” for a tune. It’s the cynical dream for certain vampiric forces in the music industry- using the creative centre of their star’s comatose brain, without drama, demands or pesky feelings to hurt. Ashley and Catherine’s relationship is compelling before she descends into a Disney-esque villain, with their intense, well-performed argument centring on themes of ownership, sacrifice and broken family dynamics under fame, yet they aren’t delved into.
“Ashley Eternal”, Darth Catherine’s plan for her comatose niece- ripping Ashley of her creative process and personal action reduced to impersonal, ridiculous VR costume gyrations from someone else- is perfect Mirror. Hologrammatic performances reproducing a performer aren’t new- see Tupac’s 2012 “appearance” and part-hologram Hatsune Miku, one of Japan’s biggest music “stars” (worth Googling). The practice of “live” performances and resurrected artists in general will only become more lucrative, with discussions of perverted depersonalisation and loss of authorship (“never exhausted, always perfect”) not going away. How much of a person needs to physically be there, for it to be them? How much is personhood and autonomy worth, when technology can move beyond their art- and when does the artist fully lose control? Is artistic integrity only worth as far as you can sell it? Authorship is played with out of story in that Ashley O’s tunes are actually Nine Inch Nails songs, rewritten by Brooker and re-produced by Isobel Waller-Bridge as motivational, slick bangers. While Brooker’s attitude towards pop music may seem condescending, questions of artistry and ownership versus celebrity and control are worthy- looking at Cyrus herself, how much of her destiny does she really direct these days?
With Ashley looking herself in the spotlight she wants by story’s end, I was left surprisingly hopeful. Is the show evolving further? Maybe technology can be beneficial and people can be morally good, together- human goodness can win the day. Less a cautionary tale, more a fairy-tale ending, and after the unbelievable caper prior it fits. There’s a darker reading- now “liberated”, Ashley has simply slalomed into the “Jack” audience, of rebellion and harder edges. An edgier rebrand, but still commodified as a brand (another Cyrus parallel)- after all, nihilism and “reality” sells just as well as optimism, seeming to suggest that giving into your unhappiness actually makes you happier- and Ashley seems it for now, so maybe that’s enough, even if it might eventually lead her to disarray once more?
So what of Black Mirror Season 5? Well, it sadly hasn’t produced anything truly killer, with even season highlight Striking Vipers feeling rather undercooked for what it could’ve been. However, there’s something to be said for the attempts to do new things and deviate from what fans expect to try and keep a level of surprise, spreading what the show can do and what it means. There are promising signs within the misfires that the very best of Black Mirror’s DNA can be infused into the bold new beast that the show is trying to evolve into, with lessons Brooker and Jones can take forward into Season 6. Hopefully the next story with the transcendent joy of a San Junipero, the soul-crushing gut punch of a White Bear– or some exciting new tone or storytelling direction of which we have no idea of what to expect (don’t forget the Bandersnatch experiment!)- is right around the corner.
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too is tricky to define. So distinctly unique from the rest of the show’s past at times it feels brand new, yet I still found myself invested and enjoying it, mainly thanks to the progressively heightened insanity and game performances. However, this looseness means it’s a bit too scattergun for anything to land with much more than as a genre-skewing sugar rush. Ironically for a story so centred on identity, it struggles with what it wants to be. But for the future of the show, this level of bold imagination, reinvention- and let’s be honest, playful humour and fun mixed with the dystopian terror- will be key for its survival, to alleviate the hammer blows when they land. Let’s just hope the show grows in its confidence and execution next time out. So, excuse me while I listen to “On a Roll” for the millionth time…