Coming from Charlie Brooker, the man responsible for the media-blasting How TV Ruined Your Life and Screenwipe, you’d think an episode of Black Mirror that covered the music industry would tear several strips off it simply as a reflex. There’s some of that, don’t get me wrong, but what’s more telling is what doesn’t get torn.
The short version: Did you know that the punk-rock scene definitely isn’t as manufactured as the rest of the pop industry?
The longer version: Celebrity guest star Miley Cyrus plays a pop star who’s disillusioned with her stage-managed life. Huh, seems like a big ask, right? Ho ho, busman’s holiday, ho ho – no, to be fair, I’d be the first to criticise bringing in a megastar to basically play themselves, but Cyrus was an excellent choice for this. As on-the-nose as it might be, she’s an experienced singer-performer, so the music videos have a verisimilitude that’s strong even by Black Mirror’s high standards.
The story of a pop star trapped by the constant, vulgar expectations of the music industry is hardly one unique to Cyrus, but she does bring that real-life experience to the role. Further, she’s probably the most emblematic contemporary example of that archetype. Britney Spears, thank god, seems to have escaped largely unscathed, despite one very public meltdown, and is now by all accounts a decent mother.
The other side of ‘Rachel, Jack And Ashley Too’ is the other two names in the title, two young girls in America’s heartland (somewhere in California). Rachel is a die-hard fan of Cyrus’s Ashley O, but Jack, slightly older and into alternative rock, dismisses her as twee. Naturally, on the release of the ‘Ashley Too’ robot – kind of like a Furby, but modelled on Ashley and speaking in full sentences – Rachel is first in line.
For all that Ashley Too seems to be limited to the same stack of motivational phrases, it quickly and effectively worms its way into Rachel’s life. The family’s just moved to a new town and Rachel hasn’t made any friends, so Ashley Too maneuvering itself into being her main point of social contact comes off as especially manipulative, bordering on the culty. There’s a particularly chilling moment when Rachel bungles a talent show, and is mainly worried about having ‘let Ashley Too down’.
More insidious still is Ashley Too attempting to bond with Jack. At first, Jack plays it off as a kid’s toy running through the motions of being cookie-cutter positive, so she gets a real shock when Ashley Too quickly puts its finger on her not yet being over her mother’s death.
Although based on this, ‘Rachel, Jack And Ashley Too’ seems to be building into a sinister tale of HAL 9000 as an evil and charismatic family interloper, things quickly take a different direction when the flesh-and-blood Ashley’s wicked manager poisons her into a coma and claims it’s an allergic reaction. Upon hearing about this on the news, Ashley Too goes haywire.
As it turns out, Ashley Too’s personality is a deliberately limited carbon copy of Ashley’s. That’s right, it’s Black Mirror’s old friend, downloading human minds. This has always been one of the show’s more far-out technologies (which rubs in just how much they use it), but it works well here, given that every other part of Ashley is already commodified. And it may be unrealistic, but it’s presented alongside the use of holograms to keep Ashley performing after her death, which has actually been done with any number of dead musicians.
I can’t deny there’s a certain charm in seeing a dear little robot take on Ashley’s jaded, foul-mouthed persona and get into all sorts of antics. To Cyrus’s credit, she’s just as strong doing the voiceover work for Ashley Too – and, later on, basically acting opposite herself. However, the idea of a sassy robot with a quip for every occasion getting into scrapes alongside two hapless teen girls seems like something better suited for a late-night Adult Swim animation than for Black Mirror.
That may be a little harsh: Ashley Too off the leash is reminiscent of ‘The Waldo Moment’ from series two, but Waldo’s abrasive puerility (“Don’t listen to ‘im, ‘e’s a lesbian!”) was serving a purpose. Here it’s just sort of happening, somehow without puncturing Rachel’s view of her idol, though it probably appeals to the same demographic as the in-universe one who voted for Waldo. If season six of Black Mirror sees Waldo running for President with Ashley Too on the ticket, it will get 100% on RottenTomatoes, end all famine, and bring forth a new golden age.
Interestingly, when you strip away the contemporary setting and the technology, what you’re left with in ‘Rachel, Jack And Ashley Too’ is basically a classic-model fairy tale. Ashley is imprisoned by her evil stepmother (well, aunt, but who’s counting) who puts her to sleep with a mysterious potion in order to steal her soul, and then she’s saved by the little children who just had to believe in her, and grants them a wish. And Ashley Too is like a good fairy or something. There’s nothing wrong with fairy tales, but even at their darkest – and they do get dark – they lack the kind of twists you’d expect from Black Mirror.
‘Rachel, Jack And Ashley Too’ seems oddly naive about the nature of the music industry. As the episode has it, Ashley writes all her own material (even, in a grimly humorous touch, while comatose). But you’re a fool if you think the kind of factory-farmed pop star she’s meant to represent actually writes their own stuff, as opposed to being a face on a carefully curated brand. Aptly, the songs used in the episode have nothing to do with Cyrus, and are in fact remixes of old Nine Inch Nails numbers. Which, to be fair, you’d probably never guess to hear them.
Similarly, Ashley’s rebirth as a punk somehow isn’t instantly commodified in the same way that Cyrus’s real-life rebrand as a pseudo-controversial sexpot was. At the end, we see Ashley Too at the bar, decked out in studded wristband and anarchy patches, and it just looks like a new genre-specific model for slightly older teens like Jack, rather than anything truly liberatory. Perhaps I’m being too cynical here, but in my defence, this is Black Mirror we’re talking about – they started it.
This use of happy endings seems to be the main distinguishing factor of Black Mirror season five. It’s got all the usual doom-mongering and cynicism, then, come the end of the episode, two out of the three that make up this season have everything end on a positive note. This isn’t to say they’ve never done that before, we all remember ‘San Junipero’ ending on a glorious high, but because of the show’s ultra-cynical background, itself a departure from most other productions out there, ‘San Junipero’ having an uncomplicatedly happy ending became a departure from that.
How best to put this – remember the whole bit in Clerks when they’re talking about how Empire Strikes Back was the best one of the original Star Wars trilogy? How ‘sometimes the bad guys win’? That’s what set Black Mirror apart, and not simply in terms of presenting a soul-grinding shithouse word. It was that, as in ‘15 Million Merits’, the protagonist could try their hardest and their whole plan could go right, and they could deliver a fiery, heart-searing speech tearing down everything that’s wrong with the status quo, and the bad guys could still win. And you, personally, were probably culpable in how they did. Now that’s been traded in for a real-life pop star managing to beat the baddies and everything being ok after that. It simply doesn’t have the same bite.
A straightforward tale of good and evil, buoyed by the speculative technology and some excellent performances.