Spoiler warning for Black Mirror Season 5 episode “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”
“Hologram tours in which dead musicians are brought back to life are going to become commonplace in the 2020s and beyond.” – Steven Hyden, Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock by
“Why wait until their dead?” – Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror
Ok. That last quote isn’t real. The first one, however, absolutely is. It comes from an excellent book by a former AVClub music journalist and it’s his best guess as to what the future of concerts will look like once the Jaggers and McCartneys of the world finally lose their battle with mortality. Inevitably coming to a town near you: concerts using holograms to represent long dead artists with a collection of songs we all know and want to sing-a-long to. It’ll be a lot like karaoke, just with holograms.
It’s…weird. If you want to hear a dead rock star’s hits, you can usually find a relatively solid cover band kicking about somewhere in the world, playing dive bars and bingo halls. For those for whom that kind of entertainment will never be enough, however, we now have the technology to tour nameless musicians around the world to play the hits while technology projects holograms of the dearly departed originators of those hits. Remember the greats as they always were – translucent, never-aging, always-on-pitch computer programs!
Again, weird. It treads in exactly the kind of ethical grey area we are finding ourselves more and more trapped inside of as technology advances faster than society can adjust.
ABBA, for one, wants a front row seat to their own funeral. Rather than wait for this kind of thing to be perpetrated by their estate after they’ve died, the members of the band are planning a hologram reunion tour:
In what world does that kind of thing actually happen and not end up inspiring a Black Mirror episode? As such, the show’s most recent season ends with “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” an episode which uses this hologram trend as its big twist.
The plot: When a pop star named Ashley O (Miley Cyrus) wants to break out of her cookie cutter image and more truthfully express herself through both sadder and more rock-infused songs, her money conscious aunt/manager puts her into a chemically-induced coma and tries to replace her with a giant hologram that will never talk back or rock the boat. In the madcap finale, a newly awakened Ashley and two of her fans race across town to interrupt a press conference and drop a truth bomb on the world – “My aunt is a monster who has been lying to you about my coma for months!” – hopefully killing the yet-to-be-launched hologram tour in the process.
To the shock of many Black Mirror fans, Ashley’s plan works. The aunt is publicly shamed, and the same crowd which had just been enthusiastically clapping along with the hologram – and thus the talented dancer mo-capping the performance off-stage – suddenly feels strange about the whole affair.As the closing credits roll, an undefined time jump takes us to Ashley and one of her fans-turned-bassist fronting a four piece garage rock band banging out a Nine Inch Nails cover inside a grungy club.
This finale registers as easily the happiest of happy endings in Black Mirror history. There’s no “yeah, but” tracer to cut against the sentimentality. The characters aren’t in a simulation. No one is dying. Society hasn’t inched yet closer to oblivion. Simply put, Charlie Brooker gave Miley Cyrus a platform to exorcise her Hannah Montana demons, and in the process he probably turned some people onto Pretty Hate Machine-era Trent Reznor.
That might be why the episode has received criticism on social media sites like TVTime, with users leaving one “not my Black Mirror” comment after another. In a way, the show has been fighting fans like that ever since it moved to Netflix in 2016. After all, how can something which had the Prime Minister of Britain fuck a pig in its first episode (“The National Anthem”) evolve into something where two dying women meet and fall in love in a virtual recreation of the 1980s (“San Junipero”)?
The people who make the show – Brooker, his co-showrunner Annabel Jones, frequent director Owen Harris, and longtime visual effects supervisor Neil Reilly – are used to it by now. They know every tonal whiplash will lead to some form of pushback. “Every Black Mirror is a bit of a tonal tightrope walk,” Harris told SciFiNow Magazine for its recent cover story. “So there’s a part of you that is prepared for people to just like it or to be critical of it.”
Yet, Black Mirror remains one of the hottest gigs in TV. Andrew Scott – Fleabag’s hot priest, Sherlock’s nemesis, and star of Black Mirror’s recent “Smithereens” episode – jumped at the chance to work on the show. “They have these completely different worlds, tonally, visually, emotionally, they keep them very separate, and I think that’s what makes it a proper anthology show,” he told SciFiNow. “The juxtaposition of all of those stories makes Black Mirror as a whole.”
Translation: with so many different tones across each season, Black Mirror comes with the guarantee that not every episode is going to be for everyone. Instead, each season tens to be remembered by the one or two episodes which broke out of the pack – “San Junipero” three years ago, “USS Callister” and “Hang the DJ” two years ago. With this new season, Brooker and Jones sought to cut out some of the filler and narrow down to just three episodes. Well, that or they simply didn’t have the time or energy for more after “Bandersnatch” – an interactive special which took almost twice as long as to produce as a normal episode – took such a big bite out of their schedule.
Either way, the new season has three movie-length stories featuring Brooker’s slant on hot button tech issues like VR gaming (“Striking Vipers”), ride-share apps (“Smithereens”), and the intersection of celebrity and music with technology (“Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too”). The latter is the most purely enjoyable of the lot and possibly of the entire series to date.
For some fans, that’s exactly the problem. Jones described the episode as “totally off-kilter, different from all the other episodes in the season, a fun romp,” but Black Mirror isn’t supposed to be a “fun romp.” It’s supposed to burrow down and cut us to the core, exposing the dirty intersection of humanity and technology and all the ways the latest tech is changing us or simply exasperating problems and tendencies we’ve always had. “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” starts out feeling like it’ll fall into the classic Black Mirror model. After all, as the title indicates the story is about far more than just a pop star breaking free from a bad contract.
The “Rachel” (Angourie Rice) and “Jack” (Madison Davenport) in the scenario are two teenage sisters still grieving their mother while quickly realizing their emotionally clueless father is entirely ill-suited to the task of being their sole parent. So, Rachel turns to Ashley O’s catchy songs and female empowerment message for encouragement. Jack, meanwhile, buries herself in learning how to play bass along to all the old rock records her mom left behind.
Ashley 0 releases a series of Echo Dot-like devices called Ashley Too which have been uploaded with an AI modeled after her own personality. Rachel naturally has to have one and the little robot – voiced by Cyrus and brought to life with 10% practical on-set robot and 90% visual effects – quickly becomes her best friend.The episode merges this story with frequent cuts to Ashley’s surprisingly sad life, juxtaposing the cheery optimism of Ashley Too with the drab depression of her human counterpart. You never quite know where the episode plans to go with all of it, but since it’s Black Mirror you expect something sinister.
Is there some kind of ghost in the machine reveal brewing with Ashley Too? What kind of commentary are they going to make about Alexa, Siri, the limits of AI friendship? What exactly is going on with Ashley’s shady aunt/manager? And what are we supposed to make of Ashley’s frequent comments about writing all of her songs immediately after waking from lucid dreams?
The notion of all of this leading to Ashley being replaced with a hologram tour doesn’t even seem like a possibility. However, that’s exactly what happens along with her aunt also using technology to create a brand new album based on Ashley’s brain waves while she’s in the coma. The devious genius would have gotten away with it, too, were it not for that damn Ashley Too which malfunctioned and rallied Rachel and Jack to help the real Ashley.
To some, the moment the episode stops being about the sisters and more about Ashley’s mad dash to beat her aunt is the moment it stops seeming like Black Mirror. How can it be? It’s so funny! When the Ashley Too malfunctions and is able to access all of the real Ashley’s personality instead of just a censored 5% of it, she turns into a foul-mouthed Miley Cyris bitching about fans never keeping their end of the bargain. It’s hard not to laugh at just about every single one of her lines.
It’s entirely possible this isn’t the ending Brooker originally intended. As he told SciFiNow, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” had the most turbulent journey of any of Season 5 episode. “I ended up rewriting the script several times and completely changing who the characters were, changing the time frame for the whole thing drastically, because you get to the point where you go ‘this is unwieldy and it’s not quite gelling’, and that process takes a long time.”
Some of that change might have been inspired by Cyrus herself. As Jones admitted, “It obviously echoes Miley’s life, so she felt it was a very personal story for her, and she brought lots of details to the film and lots of personal anecdotes and observations that we worked into the script.”
So, the script settled into a commentary on “entertainment and celebrity and the changing forms of entertainment and ownership over your artistry and the ability to manipulate art…and also about celebrity and influence on young, impressionable children.” Neil Riley spent two months planning and designing the franchise-record 560 VFX shots before they ever started shooting, and Black Mirror newbie Anne Sewitsky – most known for co-creating the Norwegian series Monster – capably stepped in as director.
The “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” we got is thus about a teenage superfan getting a crash course in the difference between celebrity and reality. No matter how blurred that lines get thanks to technology an age-old truth remains: the image you see on screen – be it on TV, your phone, or computer – should always be viewed with a healthy degree of skepticism.
Plus, a pint-sized, foul-mouthed Miley Cyrus is just the best.
Brooker has described the ethos of Black Mirror as being quite simple: it’s always about “wish fulfillment that maybe turns out to not be such a good idea after all.” In that sense, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is classic Black Mirror: a fan gets her wish to befriend her favorite pop star but learns more than she bargained for.
Normally, that scenario would turn super dark. Here, it turns into a lot of laughs as well as an action movie race to stop a bad lady from doing something evil with holograms. What exactly it means for a still living person to have their brain mapped to a little robot is left hanging in the air as are any number of deeper, more philosophical directions Brooker and company could have taken the story. As is, though, I’m fine watching little Ashley Too rocking out to Nine Inch Nails. It beats fretting too much over the looming ethical debates over hologram tours. That’s coming and it’s totally the type of thing Black Mirror would normally tackle with characteristic cynicism, but I’ll take a fun romp like this.
What about you?