The Season Three episode “San Junipero” marked a turning point for Black Mirror. Not only did it win the series its much-deserved first Emmy, but the episode established a new tone for this beloved techno anthology. “San Junipero,” which followed the romance of two women in a phantasmagoric beach town in 1987, proved that Charlie Brooker’s creation could do much more than analyze our fears and anxieties in an increasingly advanced world. Black Mirror could be sweet. Black Mirror could be heartwarming. Technology could be … good, rather than a tool for terrible people to do terrible things. This seems to match Booker’s vision of the show. When I spoke to him in 2016, Brooker told me that he loves technology, but it’s people who are to blame for misusing it.
“If you look at technology, it’s amazing, it’s miraculous. The problem is that we are sometimes clumsy or there are unintended consequences,” he said. “I get frustrated when people say, ‘This is a show about saying Twitter is bad.’ It’s not that. We use technology as a McGuffin to tell the stories. And it’s usually about what’s going on with people.”
Junipero was one of the first episodes of Black Mirror in which this seemed fundamentally true. Technology could bring these two women together. For all the complexities it adds to the world, technology can also improve our lives.
Since then, Black Mirror has worked to expand its tone. Episodes like Season Four’s “USS Callister” struck a balance of ’60s sci-fi cheese and near-future horror. And now, with its three-episode Season Five, which debuts on Netflix June 5, Black Mirror finds a similar vein with the episode “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” finding the line between levity and serious analysis of the ways in which humans abuse technology.
The episode stars Miley Cyrus in a meta-role as a wig-wearing pop star named Ashley O, who, in her personal life, is quietly grappling with depression while enduring an abusive manager who is also her aunt. Meanwhile, a lonely teenage girl becomes obsessed with a new robot doll based on Ashley O.
Like other Black Mirror episodes before it, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” looks at the nature of loneliness in a world connected by technology. Rachel, the young teen played by Angourie Rice, finds companionship in the Ashley doll that has been downloaded with the pop star’s personality. Ashley, meanwhile, is struggling with her own personal identity and her public persona that’s tightly controlled by her business managers. Without giving away the twist, what begins as your typically anxious, dark episode of Black Mirror, suddenly becomes something more akin to a fucked up Disney Channel Original movie where Rachel and her sister Jack must team up with the Ashley doll to rescue the real Ashley.
What’s amazing is the eery and sometimes hilarious meta references to Cyrus’ real life. Her character and the real Ashley are differentiated by only a metallic wig, as you might remember from Hannah Montana. The heist scenario to rescue the real Ashley is full of Disney-type gags that feel like they’ve been lifted and placed into a twisted scenario.
It also gives Cyrus the chance to play what’s effectively three different characters. There’s Ashley O, a bubbly, wholesome teen idol with family friendly messaging; the real Ashley O, a lonely woman suffering from depression and abusive handlers; and Ashley Too, the robot inhabited by the woman’s real, uninhibited personality. Cyrus does an incredible job at every level. Her range—from drama to comedy—is truly impressive and easily the best acting performance of her career. It’s a fascinating role that’s both a callback and departure from her roles of the late 2000s and early 2010s, and fittingly one of her few substantial acting parts of the last five years.
“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is also a great example of what Black Mirror needs to do more often. The anthology has become reliably dark and horrifying to a fault. That tone has become expected, to the point where I wasn’t really in the mood to watch another depressing three hours of Black Mirror. But “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” didn’t take itself so seriously. It had some levity. It was fun. And that was refreshing.
Maybe Black Mirror can be funny more often. And, while we’re at it, maybe Cyrus can act more often, too.