As the title suggests, there are three protagonists to this story. Rachel (played by Angourie Rice) is an impressionable teenager struggling to cope with the death of her mother, and as a result has become a bit of a wallflower at her new school. Her older sister, Jack (Madison Davenport), is dealing with the same trauma by adopting a goth look and a harsher attitude. When the episode begins, Rachel has become obsessed with a bouncy pop star named Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), whom Jack perceives as a manufactured music-industry creation. As it turns out, both sisters’ impressions are a little bit right—Ashley is a songwriting talent, but one who’s been stuffed into an unforgiving corporate machine that refuses to let her experiment. The episode follows the siblings and Ashley as they all strive to figure out what independence means to them.
The three young women are eventually united by a strange bit of merchandise called Ashley Too. A cute, six-inch-tall robot with bright-pink hair and baleful, glowing eyes, Ashley Too is pitched by the singer’s label as a sort of mini-Ashley, a cybercreation that can play music and dispense helpful platitudes. But because this is Black Mirror, far more is at work beneath the surface. Through some creative hacking, Rachel and Jack discover that this commercial product is actually a fully functioning person of sorts, a mental replica of the real Ashley trapped in a tiny plastic body.
This story thread intrigued me the most, but it arrives late in a muddled tale, a third-act plot twist in an episode that flirts with disparate themes. There are the different ways in which the two sisters’ depression manifests, with Rachel retreating into herself (and her Ashley fandom) while Jack lashes out against the world. There are the business machinations of Ashley’s label: Her manager plies her with drugs and eventually induces a medical coma in order to extract songs straight from her brain. And there’s the very real invention of a holographic musical act, called “Ashley Eternal,” whom the execs create to do all of Ashley’s work without her pesky personality getting in the way.
Any one of these concepts could support a Black Mirror episode of its own, and Brooker does a solid job interpolating them, cutting between Ashley’s betrayal by her managers and the sisters getting to know their Ashley-bot. Cyrus, a seasoned television performer in her own right, is especially charming when voicing her technological clone, who barks angrily at her owners about her right to exist and corrals them into a (superfluous) car chase to try to rescue the “real” Ashley’s comatose body. The insidious maneuverings of Ashley’s management team come across as particularly overwrought because the episode doesn’t have much time to devote to their motivations (simply put, they want money). But one scene stands out as a classic piece of grim Black Mirror humor: A grievously angry song bouncing around Ashley’s brain is modulated and smoothed out by a machine until it sounds like empty-calorie pop music.