Black Mirror‘s abbreviated fifth season is akin to a remix album, rearranging the sounds and rhythms of familiar ideas, often to lesser emotional impact. Both “Striking Vipers” and “Smithereens” feel like old hat for Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology, misguided attempts to revisit old ideas in some new packaging, hoping some strong lead performances can disguise the disappointing feeling of deja vu at both episode’s cores.
“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” Black Mirror‘s fifth season finale, certainly falls in this boat: from “One Million Merits” to “Arkangel” and even “Be Right Back,” the thematic explorations of what will inevitably be remember as “the Miley episode” are abundantly familiar – but thanks to genius shift in the third act, it easily solidifies itself as the best episode of this thoroughly underwhelming season.
The third act of “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” is abundantly ludicrous, a Jenga stack of ridiculous plot twists and convenient moments… and yet, it is an absolute blast to watch, easily the best entry in Black Mirror‘s fifth season.
Admittedly, the first 20-30 minutes of “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” are a bit rough: as it sketches out the family life of sisters Rachel and Jack (Angourie Rice and Madison Davenport, respectively) and their widowed father Kevin takes a bit of time to find its footing. In a surprising move, Charlie Brooker spends the first act mostly focused on the teenage girls of the story, which leads to some of the more leaden, one-dimensional writing of the episode. Rachel is a pop-obsessed tween, and Jack is the slightly too self-aware older sister who likes punk; to call these two characters “archetypes” is an understatement, though to its credit, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” puts these saturated stereotypes to good use as the hour progresses.
Most of the early scenes of “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” are intensely focused on Rachel, detailing the typical arc of a grieving family of teens moving to a new town: one turns rebellious, while the other struggles to be “cool” so she can fit in at school. The dichotomy between Rachel and Jack early on is very bad, especially when the script puts the two in direct conflict: Jack is idealized for her rejection of popular culture, while the criticism of Rachel’s adulation of pop icon Ashley O (Miley Cyrus) is overt and heavy-handed, at moments almost feeling like Brooker talking down to an entire gender.
To be fair, the point “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is trying to make about empowerment culture, and how it gets packaged and marketed to a very vulnerable audience of young females, is perhaps the season’s most cogent rumination, a rather scathing critique of how the one-size-fits-all encouragement of self-expression is a double-edged sword poorly wielded by the corporations of the world. Ashley O’s brand is one of constant reaffirmation and positivity – and once Rachel gets an Ashley Too (a little robot channeling Ashley O’s personality), “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” begins to channel its stronger thoughts on capitalism and the heartless nature of its very calculated “good intentions”.
In one of the episode’s many tonal shifts, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” suddenly begins telling the story of Ashley O herself, played so convincingly by Miley Cyrus, the character becomes frighteningly authentic. The heightened atmosphere of Black Mirror only makes her depiction of an increasingly isolated teen idol even more harrowing – a rare example of the show’s lack of subtlety enhancing the emotional elements of its story, as it lays out Ashley O’s increasingly fragile state of mind and the true villain of its story, her aunt and manager Catherine (a terrifying Susan Pourfar).
Taken in their individual pieces, Rachel and Ashley’s stories in the first half of “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” are the typical Black Mirror mix of enthralling and frustrating (Rachel and Jack’s father is a disappointing non-character the whole time), engaging with any number of interesting ideas about self perception, toxic teenager culture, the plight of popular music. And initially, it appears Miley’s presence would swallow the angsty suburban tale preceding her official entrance into the narrative.
But as the episode slowly (sloooowly) develops, it begins to twist both narratives in on themselves: technology begins to fail and deceive them both, in a number of disturbing ways. And as the episode begins to take darker and darker turns, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” transforms itself into a teen caper, a satirical take on the thoroughly ludicrous Disney teen movies of the early-aughts complete with a self-aware, vulgar version of the Ashley Too doll.
The third act of “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is abundantly ludicrous, one illogical moment after another, a Jenga stack of ridiculous plot twists and convenient moments. Yet it is an absolute blast to watch, weaving the story of two sisters finding each other again in the wake of personal tragedy with the more pointed tale of Ashley O’s plight – all while still keeping enough room to comment on things like streaming culture, the disturbing endgame of “hologram concerts” we’ve seen in recent years – and most importantly, the dissonant power of family, a force of untold good and evil we see play out in the contrasted family structures.
But that third act is the most effortless Black Mirror‘s felt in a long time; it’s just having fun, turning a languid family drama into a rather moving little character piece, complete with an uninhibited sense of humor that infects every climactic scene, even as the narrative drills down to darker and darker places. It’s not the most ingenious episode of the series, nor the most visually inventive (though competently shot by Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky) – but “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is endearingly self-aware, and just silly enough to cover for the juvenile plot at the episode’s core.
“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” won’t be remembered as one of Black Mirror‘s finest hours, no matter how hard it tries, with Nine Inch Nails covers and Cyrus’s enigmatic, hauntingly semi-autobiographical performance. But it’s far and away the most entertaining episode of the show’s fifth season, ever so slightly removed from the rampant defeatism coursing through the veins of the first two hours.
Technology may doom us all – but if we’re with the people we love when the robots take over, there’s still hope for humanity to save itself, if we can ever remember how to find each other in the physical world. It’s a simple, but evocative, point, and one “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” takes to heart – after two episodes of unadulterated cynicism, it ends this truncated season of Black Mirror on an unexpected (but welcome) note of hope.