Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror
Season 5, Episode 3: “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too”
Directed by Anne Sewitsky
Written by Charlie Brooker
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “Smithereens” – click here
* Dear, Mr. Brooker— please, sir, can we have some more?
A girl named Rachel (Angourie Rice) is a huge fan of singer Ashley O (Miley Cyrus). She also suffers, along with her sister Jack (Madison Davenport), from having to ride in her dad Kevin’s (Marc Menchaca) pest control vehicle that looks like a furry rodent. She listens to Ashley O to drown out her family— the song called “On a Roll” sounds curiously like “Head Like a Hole” by Nine Inch Nails. At home, dad does all sorts of testing on mice, trying to perfect his extermination business with technology.
Rachel watches Ashley O on TV. The singer talks about getting her inspiration “in dreams.” She talks a big game about confidence, and all those things young pop stars tell the world. She’s also there to introduce “Ashley Too,” an advanced type of Alexa-like machine with a personality built off Ashley O herself.
Behind the flashy life is something more empty.
At home, Ashley starts writing another song (again, directly modelled after “Right Where It Belongs” by NIN). You can tell from the sound there’s sadness deep inside the singer she wants to let out, rather than putting on that happy face all the time.
Rachel really wants an Ashley Too doll. She gets one for her birthday and she’s thrilled. It’s like having a celebrity talking right to her as the tiny robot responds and gets to know her better. The young girl doesn’t have many friends. Probably nice to have Ashley Too around. When Rachel goes to the bathroom her robot talks with Jack a bit about the Pixies, Sonic Youth, and some bands she assumes Ashley Too wouldn’t know— it’s music their mother enjoyed before she died.
Aunt / Manager Catherine (Susan Pourfar) and the music execs are worried about Ashley O. They know “how fragile” the music industry and fame can be, so they’re scheming to make sure they’re able to keep the cash cow milking. Because that’s the bottom line. They don’t actually care about the singer, they only care about how much money she makes / makes for them.
Rachel’s busy trying to learn dance moves to Ashley’s “On a Roll” while the robot helps. Gradually, she’s learning to dance, learning to change her look, and, after a while, she’s not really the same girl. She’s somebody quite different, more confident. She’s dressing like Ashley O with the pink hair. All ready for the big school talent show.
At her latest show, Ashley O’s getting ready in the dressing room. She’s “trying out a new look” that involves much darker makeup. This doesn’t fly with her capitalist manager, pushing to make sure her client stays on-brand. She gets the star medicated, ready to do the bidding of the record label and the adoring fans.
Except Ashley’s spitting the pills out. She has been for a while.
“It feels like I’m wearing
somebody else’s skin”
At school, Rachel prepares to dance to Ashley O’s song. She gets going onstage, though her father steps out to check the pest control in the building. She takes a fall during the routine and rushes off embarrassed. All she can think is she “let Ashley Too down.” This starts to worry her sister. Jack takes the doll up to the attic, hiding it under a bunch of things to break its hypnotic pop culture spell. She tells her sister she tossed it in the garbage. It drives them apart further than they were already.
Ashley’s people find out she’s not taking her pills, stashing them away. They also dig through her personal diary, seeing the dearth of positive thought, all negativity and anger. Catherine has fast food delivered for her and Ashley that night, like old times. The star tells her she isn’t enjoying her life anymore. Ashley has been looking into the “illegal meds” and all the other shady shit her manager’s been doing. Aunt Catherine became a legal guardian for the artist after her parents died, using that as an excuse for what she’s done. Worse, she’s decided to drug Ashley’s food— with all the pills in the stash.
Rachel sees a report about Ashley O falling into a coma, supposedly due to bad shellfish. This prompts Jack to get the doll from the attic, giving it back to her little sister for comfort. Rachel sits on her bed talking with Ashley Too, but it’s too painful when her idol is actually in the hospital close to death. Young girls and boys everywhere are scared for their beloved singer. Catherine and her creepy doctor are trying to suck all they can out of Ashley. They need “only ten songs” for another album.
Six months later, Rachel and Jack are home alone together a while. On TV, a news report talks about Ashley still being in a coma. Ashley Too turns on by herself. The tiny robot watches Catherine shedding crocodile tears. The weird doctor was able to drain more songs out of the singer’s head using a special program. Even after death they can mine her talent and keep the money flowing.
Ashley Too starts going nuts. It malfunctions and eventually shuts down. Rachel and Jack decide to play around with dad’s computer. Jack manipulates a few things and suddenly Ashley Too returns, screaming from the plug in her anus. Ashley Too can now use her WHOLE BRAIN instead of only “4%” like she was programmed. The robot tries to tell the sisters about what her aunt’s doing.
The Ashley Eternal music program is hilariously sinister and satirical. There’s a positivity button! They change the ragey NIN-sounding stuff into pop songs fit for consumption. Back at the house, Ashley Too’s trying to figure out how to get back at Catherine. Rachel wants to help. The robot says if she can get within range of Ashley’s laptop she’ll be able to download the info they need to get revenge.
They get to the mansion, slipping past the gates. They need to get Ashley Too inside. Jack poses as pest control to get access. She and Rachel are tricky. They’re able to fool the idiot security guy, Bear.
Ashley Too takes it upon herself to pull the power from Ashley O’s life support. She’s hoping to put an end to her own suffering. Jack uses one of her dad’s mice zappers to subdue Bear. In the other room, Rachel laments her idol passing away.
But Ashley wakes up. A pair of electronic cuffs keep her strapped down. Creepy doctor’s come to check on things, finding the singer awake. He calls Catherine to tell her the news about “Sleeping Beauty.” The life support is actually a “dream box” keeping Ashley in a coma. Jack attacks the doc. Rachel jabs him with his own syringe, too. Ashley Too shows them the release button to get the real Ashley off that cot.
Catherine and the crew are right about to premiere a whole new Ashley to the world. They’ve created Ashley Eternal— a hologram. This way, they can make her say and do whatever they want without any push back. They can make her as tall as a building. She can come right to your house, or appear in 100 locations. She’ll never be sick, she won’t ever have to cancel a show for, y’know, human reasons. Some of this is a horrific thing we’re already seeing today with hologram musicians and dead actors coming back to life to be in sequels.
The real Ashley, Jack, and Rachel fly into the stadium in dad’s pest control vehicle. The singer reveals herself in front of the crowd, giving Aunt Catherine the finger as the manager’s ready to admit defeat. Best part? Ashley’s free to be who she wants, for the first time in her life. Some time later, she gets onstage with her new band, alongside Jack, singing the REAL “Head Like a Hole” instead of a poppy version.
Amazing episode! Miley was great, as were the other two girls. Really great stuff with a ton of commentary about the viciousness of the music industry. Seriously good writing on Brooker’s part, which is par for the course, and it’s so fun to watch Ms. Cyrus show off her acting talents. And NIN is Father Gore’s favourite band. Trent Reznor forever!
This season, though short like the first couple, was spectacular.
Sinister, fun, and funny, too. What more could we ask for?