Before we start, I'll say what I always say about Black Mirror, which is that each episode is best watched knowing nothing about it. Going in blind is part of the fun of watching the series, which thrives on hammering viewers with the unexpected. This review is meant for those who have already seen the episode. You can also read our reviews of the other two Season 5 episodes,"Smithereens" and "Striking Vipers."
There's a simple and obvious general formula for casting television -- the more popular a show gets, the biggest stars it will attract. Black Mirror has grown massively in popularity since its U.K.-only first season, thanks in large part to Netflix grabbing the series and making it a available to anyone on the planet with an internet connection and a Netflix account. Each new season has become a bit of an event online, and after a slew of Emmy nominations over the past two seasons, Black Mirror has landed its biggest star yet: Miley Friggin' Cyrus! (Season 5 also includes Anthony Mackie and Andrew Scott, but MILEY.)
It's a perfect move for Miley as she continues to push for all of us to have amnesia to the fact that she was Hannah Montana and it also redefines her as a multi-talented celebrity rather than a pop star who goes about swinging on wrecking balls without her shirt on. And you know what? She's pretty damned good in her episode at times and a little all over the place in others, which just so coincidentally embodies what the episode is like, too.
Miley doesn't have to reach too far for her character. She plays Ashley O., a bubblegum pop star entering her artistic phase, which conflicts with her manager's plans for pop-culture world domination: the release of an A.I. robot called Ashley Too that's modeled after her brand as a positive role model for girls -- a digital replication of her stage personality is uploaded into each toy -- and was built to become the best friend of the fans who idolize her.
One of those fans is Rachel (Angourie Rice), a shy 15-year-old who doesn't have much luck socializing in her new school and is frequently tormented for her taste in music by her cooler sister Jack (Madison Davenport), who likes cool bands like the Pixies and Sonic Youth. Looking for the emotional support she lacks from friends and family, Rachel becomes enamored with her Ashley Too and all the utterly positive nonsense it constantly spews out. The doll is pretty cute, too.
The episode flips between telling the stories of Rachel and Ashley, and touches on, but never gets a hold of, a variety of themes, most notably the impossibilities of accurately replicating a human persona inside a microchip encased in some plastic. It also examines how weird it is to be friends with a toy (super weird) and the costs of stardom, but they're not looked at too hard or with any substance, which becomes a recurring problem with the episode. Like "Smithereens," "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" struggles to find what it wants to say, so it mostly babbles about a lot of little things.
Tonally, "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" is also a wild ride. There's family and business drama early on, a bit of horror in the middle as Ashley is forced into an overdose by her manager and put in a coma, and even slapstick humor toward the end as Rachel, Jack, and a liberated Ashley Too set out to rescue IRL Ashley, making it appear like it was written in three consecutive days when Charlie Brooker was on three very different drugs. All three episodes of Season 5 run over an hour long, and "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" is the one that could use the biggest trim, particularly in the middle when it spins out into tangents of one particularly bizarre display of unbelievable technology. (Mining Ashley's comatose brain for new pop songs? Even for Black Mirror, that is way out there. And don't get me started on whatever mousetrap Rachel's dad was working on.)
But weirdly enough, the episode's weakness -- the inability to keep focus -- becomes one of its strengths by the end, provided you are in the right mindset. By the time the absurdity of the episode careens into its final chapter and Ashley and Ashley Too are speaking over each other while they race to expose Ashley's manager for a laundry list of crimes, you've hopefully come to accept that the episode is a sh--show and are properly buckled up for whatever comes next. It's the most schizophrenic episode of Black Mirror to date, and though that doesn't make it a good episode, it sure makes it a fun episode just to see where it can possibly go next.
The episode becomes very watchable despite all these bumps, partly because the performances keep things interesting, especially those from Rice, Davenport and, obviously, Cyrus, who really shines as the voice of the Ashley Too doll. It's also one of the more brain-free episodes as it's a plot heavy adventure rather than a statement on anything.
Ultimately, the lack of focus and message makes it one of Black Mirror's least essential episodes, but its subject matter makes it one of its more imaginative. Some of Miley's fans are going to tune into this to see her, and there's a decent chance they'll come away frightened and disturbed (just like Ashley O.'s OG fans were when they saw her covering Nine Inch Nails in the final scene). Maybe that's exactly what Brooker wanted.
Season 5 of Black Mirror is now streaming on Netflix.