This story contains spoilers for the episode “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” of Black Mirror’s fifth season. Read the rest of our show coverage here.
One of my favorite notions in science fiction is the copy-pasted brain. As artificial-intelligence technology grows more sophisticated, scientists and writers alike have pondered the idea of uploading one’s whole mind, and perhaps one’s very “self,” to a computer. Would a digital facsimile of a person’s consciousness count as a new person? This quandary has been explored in video games such as Soma and films such as Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow. And it’s the most compelling of several concepts touched on in the Black Mirror episode “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” a bizarre and intermittently fascinating bit of pop-music melodrama.
Like every Black Mirror episode in this fifth season, “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” is more than an hour long, taking advantage of the freedom offered by Netflix (which doesn’t need to worry about ad breaks or fitting episodes into a time slot). And like most Black Mirror episodes that run more than an hour, it probably could have used some tighter editing; essentially, three big ideas are at work in Charlie Brooker’s script, and no single theme gets to dominate or develop fully. Still, “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” has enough engaging material to make it the most successful outing of the show’s latest season.
As the title suggests, there are three protagonists to this story. Rachel (played by Angourie Rice) is an impressionable teenager struggling to cope with the death of her mother, and as a result has become a bit of a wallflower at her new school. Her older sister, Jack (Madison Davenport), is dealing with the same trauma by adopting a goth look and a harsher attitude. When the episode begins, Rachel has become obsessed with a bouncy pop star named Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), whom Jack perceives as a manufactured music-industry creation. As it turns out, both sisters’ impressions are a little bit right—Ashley is a songwriting talent, but one who’s been stuffed into an unforgiving corporate machine that refuses to let her experiment. The episode follows the siblings and Ashley as they all strive to figure out what independence means to them.
The three young women are eventually united by a strange bit of merchandise called Ashley Too. A cute, six-inch-tall robot with bright-pink hair and baleful, glowing eyes, Ashley Too is pitched by the singer’s label as a sort of mini-Ashley, a cybercreation that can play music and dispense helpful platitudes. But because this is Black Mirror, far more is at work beneath the surface. Through some creative hacking, Rachel and Jack discover that this commercial product is actually a fully functioning person of sorts, a mental replica of the real Ashley trapped in a tiny plastic body.
This story thread intrigued me the most, but it arrives late in a muddled tale, a third-act plot twist in an episode that flirts with disparate themes. There are the different ways in which the two sisters’ depression manifests, with Rachel retreating into herself (and her Ashley fandom) while Jack lashes out against the world. There are the business machinations of Ashley’s label: Her manager plies her with drugs and eventually induces a medical coma in order to extract songs straight from her brain. And there’s the very real invention of a holographic musical act, called “Ashley Eternal,” whom the execs create to do all of Ashley’s work without her pesky personality getting in the way.
Any one of these concepts could support a Black Mirror episode of its own, and Brooker does a solid job interpolating them, cutting between Ashley’s betrayal by her managers and the sisters getting to know their Ashley-bot. Cyrus, a seasoned television performer in her own right, is especially charming when voicing her technological clone, who barks angrily at her owners about her right to exist and corrals them into a (superfluous) car chase to try to rescue the “real” Ashley’s comatose body. The insidious maneuverings of Ashley’s management team come across as particularly overwrought because the episode doesn’t have much time to devote to their motivations (simply put, they want money). But one scene stands out as a classic piece of grim Black Mirror humor: A grievously angry song bouncing around Ashley’s brain is modulated and smoothed out by a machine until it sounds like empty-calorie pop music.
In the episode’s climax, the robot makes the decision to unplug Ashley from life support, arguing that her human self wouldn’t want to live in a vegetative state. Ashley Too insists that Ashley will continue to exist via her own miniature form: “I’m still alive! I still count! I’m still me!” But of course Ashley’s robotic existence is different—or is it? I would’ve loved for the episode to elaborate on that debate, which instead gets brushed over as the “real” Ashley is revived from her coma and finally gets her independence. Unfortunately, “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” is more interested in providing a neat ending than in delving into the deep questions it stirs up.