Cynicism and Black Mirror have a tendency to go hand in hand. Most of the anthology series’ episodes are anchored by their bitterness (on some level) toward modern culture, be they pithy takedowns of social media, political discourse or popular entertainment. A healthy starting level of disgust toward the subject matter in any episode is an expected launching pad, but what do you do when a story never bothers to give you any central figure with whom you can empathize? Well, you end up with the perplexing, seemingly miscalculated fifth season episode “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.”
Right from the get-go of that title, we’re already on shaky footing. The name of the episode implies the existence of three central characters, but in reality it rarely feels that way¬-it should have simply been titled “Rachel and Ashley.” It’s the story of shy, nebbish high school Rachel (Angourie Rice) and her infatuation with colorfully sanitized and equally vacuous pop princess Ashley (Miley Cyrus), whose fairytale life of fame turns out to be (surprise!) spiritually hollow-a turn of events so inherently expected within the mold of Black Mirror that it would have been far more surprising if Ashley wasn’t surrounded by soulless corporate monsters. Oh, and Jack (Madison Davenport) is there too, even if her role rarely amounts to more than a sounding board for Rachel’s insecurities.
Let’s talk about the mere presence of Miley Cyrus for a moment, portraying a pop star within the context of this Black Mirror episode. Her Ashley O is presented as some sort of natural songwriting genius, who is unsurprisingly corralled and controlled-both subtly and overtly-by her label and management team, headed up by a domineering and power-hungry aunt (Susan Pourfar) who takes credit for Ashley’s fame. These people are presented as comically and almost cartoonishly evil from the very start, with one producer suggesting “If she’s feeling undercreative I have some mild hallucinogens we can put her on.” Ashley is already meant to be popping what are referred to at one point as “illegal meds,” which is a disappointing way (to say the least) in characterizing the prescription drug or opioid abuse of so many real-life modern media stars, made perfectly “legal” by the privilege of fame. If Charlie Brooker thinks the real-life Miley Cyrus (or her handlers) couldn’t get a prescription for whatever she wanted tomorrow, working entirely within the boundaries of our double legal standard for celebrities, then maybe this show is less cynical and more deluded than I thought.
With that said, there certainly is plenty of cynicism present in expecting the audience to accept Cyrus as the tortured genius in the first place, somehow willfully forgetting the actress-singer’s origin as the product of a Disney marketing machine. One gets the feeling, watching “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” that the entire concept for Ashley’s character could have come straight from Cyrus’ own marketing team, in a meta-attempt to prove that Miley Cryus The Performer is a being of depth and nuance. We can report that despite those best efforts, most of the time she sounds like whatever one would call the female equivalent of a “bro.” Of all the qualities she projects, “hidden depths” is the last you’d cite.
The techie hinge of the episode is the creation of the “Ashley Too” doll; a small robotic companion that is meant to prop up the self-esteem of impressionable young Ashley O fans, while offering makeup tips and saying things like “Want to talk about boys?” Rachel, naturally, is beside herself with anticipation to acquire one, and immediately begins to anthropomorphize the doll (and her “friendship” with it) to an unhealthy degree. It’s almost impossible not to be reminded of the same ground trodden by “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” almost 25 years ago, except this time we’re seeing the unfortunate fixation through the eyes of a true believer, rather than an incensed feminist who knows when she’s being pandered to.
And that’s the crux of the problem with Rachel. She is hopelessly naive, to the point that the audience-¬an audience watching Black Mirror episodes, mind you-can’t reasonably be expected to identify with or even empathize with her. This protagonist’s grand ambition is to get up on stage at the high school talent show and mechanically replicate all the poses and steps from the latest Ashley O dance video, without any form of her own creative interpretation or input-she is literally aspiring toward copying the banality of another as slavishly as possible. Even if she succeeded, it wouldn’t be something worth the esteem of her peers in the audience. None of this is helped by the enabler that is her Ashley Too, which exists solely to deliver flattery and platitudes in Rachel’s direction, while promising things like popularity and success that it has no ability to deliver.
This might have been an interesting tact to take if the rest of the story focused on Rachel’s rejection of Ashley Too’s empty pandering, and instead looked inward toward her growth as an individual. Instead, the episode is eager to shift focus back in pursuit of its actual protagonist: Cyrus. Turns out, each Ashley Too is more than meets the eye, and all were created with a total copy of the original Ashley O’s consciousness, with the majority simply partitioned away. Once Rachel and Jack manage to inadvertently free this portion of Ashley Too’s consciousness, the story suddenly morphs into a wacky caper in its third act, a tonal whiplash that sees the sisters teaming up to reunite their Ashley Too with Cyrus’ Ashley O. If you’re thinking “that sounds good and all, but I could use a superfluous car chase as well” then don’t worry-you get one.
Ultimately, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” feels more like it was built specifically as a star vehicle for Miley Cyrus than as a tool for the kind discussion on complicated morality you find in better episodes of Black Mirror. With clear-cut heroes and villains, seemingly locked in a competition of measuring their own paper-thin degrees of depth, it’s the weakest entry in Black Mirror’s shortened Season Five. And not even some re-written Nine Inch Nails material can change that.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.