Meet Ashley O, a disillusioned pop star played by real-life pop star Miley Cyrus. She has a super controlling aunt-manager (auntager?), preaches empowerment to all of her fans, and has a cookie cutter, goodie-two-shoes image to maintain because she’s presumably from 2004. When we meet her in “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” she’s in the middle of an interview with a TRL-like show and announces the latest extension of her brand: Ashley Too, an EVE-like doll that has Ashley’s voice, asks fans about themselves, and tells them stuff like, “If you believe in yourself, you can do anything.” (Beebo is not shaking.)
Ashley Too arrives on the market at the right time for one particular fan: Rachel (Angourie Rice), a lonely high schooler who loves Ashley O and spends her time watching Ashley’s music videos because she doesn’t know anyone at her new school and her father is too consumed by his work: finding a humane way to handle mice. When Ashley Too is announced, Rachel asks her dad to get her one for her birthday.
Rachel’s father comes through, and Rachel starts pouring her heart out to Ashley Too, much to her moody sister Jack’s (Madison Davenport) annoyance. Jack prefers the Pixies and is contemptuous of Ashley’s empowering pop music. Through Rachel’s conversations with Ashley Too, we find out that Rachel and Jack recently lost their mother, which accounts for the entire family’s very palpable sadness. Because this is Black Mirror, you’re primed to suspect that Rachel sharing so much with Ashley Too can’t lead to anything good. The eerie pauses Ashley Too takes to processes Rachel’s words before responding are definitely unnerving. Alas, the show never actually does anything substantial with this element.
Jack isn’t the only one who bristles at both Ashley O’s image and her new doll. The pop singer herself is also visibly uncomfortable by it all. One night, she wakes up and starts writing a song about the prison of her image. “See the animal in the cage you’ve built/Are you sure what side you’re on?” she sings as she plunks out a sad accompaniment on the piano (While the lyrics are borrowed from Nine Inch Nails’ “Right Where It Belongs,” the words also made me think of Cyrus’ “Can’t Be Tamed” music video). The scene is clearly trying to say this is the real Ashley, whereas the one her fans hear in her pop music isn’t.
Her auntager Catherine (Susan Pourfar) overhears this barebones song and notes that it’s “kind of a departure.” And this “departure” scares her because it’s “obtuse bulls—t” and won’t sell. So, Catherine meets with Ashley’s technological director Jackson and shady concierge doctor Monk to figure out how to make sure Ashley doesn’t damage her image and keeps pumping out the pop tunes that her fans love. They realize that upping the dosage of her medicine isn’t enough.
Meanwhile, Rachel’s “friendship” with Ashley Too continues to grow. In fact, Ashley Too gives Rachel the confidence to enter her school’s talent show and perform an Ashley O song in front of the school. Midway through the performance, though, Rachel trips, and on the car ride home, she dejectedly says she let Ashley down. That idea disgusts Jack, who proceeds to steal Ashley Too and hide her in the attic.
At the same time, Catherine discovers that Ashley hasn’t been taking her medicine and plans on breaking her contract because she’s tired of doing this. But Catherine only sees dollar signs, so she drugs Ashley, places her in a coma, and uses under-explained technology to extract new songs from her comatose brain that she plans on releasing.
When Rachel’s Ashley Too overhears a news report about Ashley’s new music, it causes a glitch, which leads to Rachel and Jack discovering that Ashley Too is actually a replica of Ashley’s mind, in other words, an A.I. The sisters accidentally remove the doll’s limiter, which allows all of Ashley’s personality to come through. I’ll admit, I loved Cyrus’ snarky performance as Ashley Too. It was funny and probably the best thing about this sleepy episode.
From there, things become all about plot. Ashley Too leads Rachel and Jack on an adventure to wake up the real Ashley and expose Catherine’s plans. When they infiltrate Ashley’s Malibu home, Ashley Too actually tries to kill the real Ashley by unplugging the machines that are keeping her alive. And the episode does absolutely nothing with this! It never comes up again.
Luckily, though, Ashley Too just ends up waking the real Ashley up. From there, the women and the A.I. dash over to a stadium, where Catherine is presenting the next frontier in her plans to control Ashley’s life: An Ashley hologram that will tour the world singing the new music that’s been extracted from her brain. Yes, the first 60 minutes of this episode built to the obvious and shallow idea that pop star holograms are kind of creepy. Anyway, Rachel, Jack, and Ashley arrive in time to foil her evil plan.
In the show’s epilogue, we see a newly liberated Ashley performing a very punk song with Jack in a dive bar. Rachel and Ashley Too are seated at the bar, because the episode just decided not to care about the loneliness Rachel felt or the dark aspects of this Ashley Too A.I. In the end, Rachel and Ashley Too are basically best friends and that’s totally okay, nothing to worry about, technology is great. At the same time, two of Ashley’s old fans run out of the club because they hate her new sound, which sends a very clear and lame message: Pop music bad and fake, rock music good. It’s the same shallow and dated view of popular music that A Star Is Born had, too. Black Mirror usually makes insightful and interesting points about technology and culture as a whole, but this just felt lazy, disappointing, and removed from how we actually talk and feel about popular music today.
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