In Black Mirror’s “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” series writer and creator Charlie Brooker examines technology and pop stardom through three characters; like a sound engineer working on different audio levels outside the recording booth, he tries to balance your investment in each of their plotlines, but ultimately the symmetry feels off.
The narrative follows Rachel (Angourie Rice) and Jack (Madison Davenport), two teens who recently moved to a new neighborhood with their mouse trap inventing father. Rachel is shy and spends most of her time with headphones plugged in, watching the upbeat pop music videos from her favorite artist Ashley O (Miley Cyrus); meanwhile, her sister Jack picks away at a guitar and rock and rolls to The Pixies, Sonic Youth, and The Savages. For her 15th birthday, Rachel gets the gift of her dreams – an Ashley Too AI assistant doll that can hold conversations, play music, and give positive encouragement, all with a personality and voice based off of Ashley O. With Ashley O essentially by her side in the form of Ashley Too Rachel begins to develop a bond with the doll, much to the rising concern of Jack.
Just like the AI doll that was modeled after her, Ashley O radiates empowerment; through interviews and her music she looks to be a person always able to take on the walls of hardship created by life. However, behind the scenes there are hidden cracks in the façade as Ashley struggles with pop stardom and finding authenticity in her music while dealing with her controlling aunt-turned-manager Catherine (Susan Pourfar).

This is a lengthy episode of television with a runtime of just over 60 minutes. Brooker tries to make you care about Rachel and Jack but over time the strength of their storylines and characterizations dwindle; this is especially true for Rice’s Rachel, who is gradually reduced to a one-note fangirl who repeatedly tells her Ashley Too doll, “I’m such a huge fan.” Rachel and Jack essentially end up feeling like bandmates at a concert who fade to the background alongside their more captivating third member.
That third member is Cyrus’ Ashley O/Ashley Too, whose roles allow the actress to take center stage and captivate your attention. Casting Cyrus as the wig-wearing pop sensation is quite inspired, as it’s a role that the actress and musician has lived in actuality. From 2006 to 2011 Cyrus played Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel series of the same name about a teen that lived a life of duality by putting on a blond wig and becoming a superstar; taking on this role from Disney at a young age put Cyrus in music videos, movies, and even on actual concert tours ­across the US and Canada where she partially performed in character.
In one scene, Ashley sits in front of a dressing room mirror with Catherine before stepping on the stage. “It feels like I’m wearing somebody else’s skin,” Ashley laments. “Ashley. Look. You’ve got 20,000 fans out there, waiting to see the you they love. Their folks bought them tickets. They’re so excited, they’ve been waiting for this for months. Don’t let them down,” Catherine responds. Through moments such as this and ones throughout the episode, Cyrus performs with an emotional honesty. Your brain can’t help but wonder if her taking on the role was like looking at an old music video about life in the pop industry with similar beats from her Hannah Montana days. With the help of Cyrus, Brooker and episode director Anne Sewitsky also get to have some fun with the pop performance aspect of the episode; we get to see clips of a music video for Ashley O and see her perform a pop take on Nine Inch Nails“Head Like a Hole.”

Brooker is able to show some interesting social commentary on technology throughout the episode, such as the commodification of pop stars and our relationships with AI assistants. When an artist isn’t compliant, could we just use a Tupac-esque hologram in their stead at a concert? Is there a line crossed when we become friends with an Alexa-like AI? These questions are thought-provoking, but the episode unfortunately doesn’t find a way to harmonize these ideas fully into the story, so it ends up feeling scattered as a whole. With the unbalanced handling of its three main characters also mixing with a great performance from Cyrus, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” ends up averaging out to a decent episode of Black Mirror, whose quality you can’t help but wish was better.