That’s right – do not refresh this page. Your device has not turned on you, playing cruel tricks of the mind, subverting all you know to be true.
This is not really about the rest of Black Mirror‘s three-part fifth season. Of course it isn’t. If you have already watched all three stories, you will know that in conventional, thought-provokingly technological dystopian terms, the last of those episodes is by far the weakest of the three. ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’ is, frankly, a bewilderingly light-toned and light-hearted addition to the anthology.
It pales next to ‘Striking Vipers’ – a tantalising new take on a familiar Black Mirror concept, the virtual-reality ‘grain’. It explores dilemmas over the moral boundaries of sexual simulation while at the same time, raising intriguing points on sexuality’s relationship with friendship – all while beautifully recreating video-game hyper-realism, doing that Black Mirror trademark thing of worlds within worlds, and recalling the film Moonlight.
It pales next to ‘Smithereens’, a stripped-down, vintage Black Mirror present-day tale that seems to promise a deconstruction of one technological phenomenon – taxi-hailing apps – but progresses to something distinctly different, a modern-day Taxi Driver with a scathing, direct commentary on social media and the very real perils of smartphone addiction. That’s without even mentioning the excellent central performances of Andrew Scott and Topher Grace.
So why is ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’ better than those thrilling, rich worlds, if it is, in reality, exponentially worse?
The answer lies in a virus; one that has long been spreading. It is in every news outlet, blog and culture site from here to San Junipero, and it is all-consuming.
It is the dreaded need for ranking Black Mirror episodes.
No-one is really sure when it became such a phenomenon – it has always been there to some degree, but the purists really came out of cyberspace around about the show’s switch to Netflix and suddenly nothing was as good as ‘The Entire History of You’. Nothing as profound as ‘Be Right Back’. Nothing as well-written as ‘White Christmas’. The same people had probably decried the need for a Christmas special at all.
There is a whole separate article or a hundred already written about this stuff, but that doesn’t make it alright. It is something of a sad reflection of the fervent fans of a seminal show that will be loved and watched for years to come, as we watch with bated breath to see which of its imaginings become reality – at least the ones not already so. And plenty of those fans have been underwhelmed by season five as a whole, not just this offending episode.
It is not to spoil this season to say there is nothing as utterly mind-bending as the very cream of Black Mirror – no gut-wrenching twists a la ‘White Bear’. No minds bent to quite the ‘Hang the DJ’ degree. No epic, all-consuming bleakness reminiscent of ‘Hated in the Nation’.
But there is an episode that could have been a straight-to-TV Disney movie, and therein lies 2019 Black Mirror‘s true genius.
The sad things are as follows: Firstly, Miley Cyrus is great, playing a fictional version of herself believably and with a laudable, straight-up message about mental health. The show is getting panned for casting her. Secondly, the bulk of the jokes do work, particularly courtesy of Marc Menchaca’s loving but hapless father and his failing rodent-trap inventions. The episode ‘s criticism has dismissed this refreshing tone as throwaway. The robot Ashley is a source of much of that tone, which shifts towards Deadpool-lite territory in the episode’s latter stages. It is fun – God forbid Black Mirror ever be that. We want death’s cold, inescapable grasp! We want eternal bleakness!
‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too‘ expands and progresses the Black Mirror universe by compression and regression. It brings in mega-star Cyrus to play a predictable role. It throws gags about with abandon, not caring much whether they hit their mark, attempting to ramp up the humour to levels unseen before on the show. It features algorithmic pop-music and a slapstick scene involving a man called Bear. And most insultingly of all to the irate Twittersphere, a robot doll that dances and gives makeup advice.
This is without even mentioning two contrasting, well-drawn familial story-arcs between the central characters; one between Rachel (Angourie Rice) and Jack (Madison Davenport), one between Cyrus’ Ashley and her controlling Aunt Catherine (Susan Pourfar). It is without mentioning the empathetic portrayal of Rice’s character, exemplified in a school talent-show scene. I hope the story’s kind heart finds younger viewers well.
Charlie Brooker’s answer to the snobbish purists and their incessant ranking lists is to put something out that will incense them all to no end, landing itself smack-bang at the bottom of those lists. It is among his greatest plot twists. No-one is mentioning how a lift was required after ‘Smithereens’ sent us to bed solemnly self-aware, in truly familiar Brooker fashion. No-one is mentioning season two’s ‘The Waldo Moment’ and how once dismissed, it has since become a cult favourite.
Some will not accept that no episodes of the show are objectively superior. Only different, with part of its brilliance tied up in the ways different stories speak to different people in different ways. Those same people have come to expect one thing from Black Mirror, and Black Mirror is having none of it. It is far too clever – far too complex – for that.
Black Mirror is intrinsically fatalist, and at its core would always be a fool-proof fail-safe – a doomsday device designed to come into force when its time came. To detonate when required, to save the show from reduction to rankings, ratings and predictable superlative on that ironic medium of the internet.
‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’ might just be that fail-safe. ‘Bandersnatch‘: not but a decoy.
The future is here.
Black Mirror season five is on Netflix now