The Cardinal Sin of Netflix’s ‘Depp v. Heard’

Through three grueling episodes, the new docuseries plays like a highlight reel from hell.

The Cardinal Sin of Netflix’s ‘Depp v. Heard’
Actor Amber Heard looks on during Johnny Depp’s defamation trial against her at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia, on April 13, 2022. Photo:EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/POOL/AFP (Getty Images)

Little over a year ago, as “Amber Turd” trended on Twitter (the first time), I booked an appointment with a new nail technician. In an attempt to make the next hour of filing, buffing, and painting feel a little less procedural, she asked me what I did for a living. Upon my answer of “journalist,” she had a more pressing question. Did you cover the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial? What came next began as a benign exchange, then became a battle of wits, and finally, ended with bitter resignation (on my end). Her mind was made up: She pitied the pirate man. My cuticles paid the price.

Such conversations will be swiftly summoned to mind when you watch Depp v. Heard, a wearying, three-part docuseries from Emma Cooper (The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes) that premieres Wednesday on Netflix, the same streamer that will soon host Depp’s return to acting. Not at all unlike the maddening debate surrounding the trial, it’s quite likely that the docuseries will make you wonder why you engaged at all.

Across Depp v. Heard’s three parts, there is no narration, no expert testimony, no legal analysis, and finally, no apparent point other than to show that a lot of other people pitied the pirate man, too. Instead, via clips of testimony from Depp and Heard played side-by-side with an onslaught of trial coverage (mostly on YouTube, TikTok, and Twitter), the docuseries makes clear that many spectators were overwhelmingly biased against Heard but fails to interrogate that bias; doesn’t dissect how trafficking in conjecture was lucrative for looky loos; and refuses to do more than speculate about the anti-Heard trolls that cemented this as “one of worst cases of cyberbullying” ever.

At this point, we know that Heard not only lost in Fairfax County, Virginia, court but also in the court of public opinion. The odds weren’t always stacked against her: In 2020, Depp lost his first libel suit against The Sun, which called him a “wife beater” in a headline. Attorneys for the tabloid proved the article was “substantially true,” and a judge ruled that 12 of 14 alleged incidents of Depp’s domestic violence against Heard had, in fact, occurred (Depp denied he assaulted Heard). Depp’s second suit against his ex-wife, in which he claimed defamation in answer to her infamous Washington Post 2018 op-ed, stemmed from a solitary sentence: “Then two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” Heard never specified Depp was her perpetrator, but that mattered little in the end. After a grueling seven weeks in Virginia, Heard left the country. Depp was renewed as a rockstar cum artist cum model cum actor cum director. And the rest of us? Well, we now know where our friends, family, colleagues, and nail techs stand when it comes to alleged abuse and likely wish we didn’t.

Episode 1 of Depp v. Heard, titled “Truth on Trial,” opens with a reminder that this was “one of the first high-profile defamation cases post-Me Too to be heard in court.” Indeed, its importance couldn’t be understated given the precedent it was predicted to set in cases where women allege intimate partner violence. Then, there’s a hard cut to some guy in a Deadpool mask crudely commentating on YouTube. He isn’t the only one. The first five minutes of Depp v. Heard are inundated with footage of the trial’s online audience—a perilous few of whom were actually versed in defamation proceedings let alone Virginia law, and the overwhelming majority of whom were ordinary (and occasionally profoundly bizarre) people. “There’s no one here for Amber Heard,” one YouTube commentator gleefully giggles over footage of Depp’s legions of fans angling for courtroom access as if this were the Eras Tour, some in Pirates of the Caribbean costumes, others holding signs of support. Here, Depp v. Heard is at its most astute. The internet, as the docuseries could’ve demonstrated with a single episode, wasn’t just judge, jury, and executioner in this trial. It also got to be an expert witness because, you know, freedom of speech—that is, until, a woman writes an op-ed in the Washington Post.

Depp v. Heard claims it’s “neutral,” yet it omits much mention of Heard’s defenders, who were never quite as visible or vocal as Depp’s. In fact, the bulk of included commentary is directed at Heard and so unrelenting in its cruelty that a person who never engaged with the trail might wonder whether there was any criticism—hell, even skepticism—of Depp; I can count on one hand the number of times any pro-Heard sentiment is shown. That the docuseries includes reports that Depp wanted the proceedings to take place in Virginia and notes the presence of cameras in the courtroom is contextually helpful in showing how things devolved into what many described as a PR campaign to clear Depp’s name. But then, there was the meme-ification of it all. Much of Heard’s testimony wasn’t just ruthlessly mocked but made into celebrity-endorsed TikTok trends, undercutting her claims in real time, while memes of Depp’s behavior in court never seemed quite as unsympathetic. No one, the docuseries shows, was laughing at Depp, only with him.

This isn’t to say that Depp v. Heard spares the more unsavory parts of Heard’s testimony. The audio recordings in which she called Depp “a fucking baby” while saying she hit him and her questionable relationship with the American Civil Liberties Union, which said it ghost-wrote the op-ed at the center of it all, are included. Then again, the docuseries, if its stated intention was to “interrogate the role social media played in the trial,” requires as much: Those revelations were swiftly treated as tally marks for team Depp and breaches of trust for anyone who might’ve empathized with Heard. A clip plays of The Bachelor’s Nick Viall bemoaning her betrayal on his podcast—the one where he, a guy most famous for trying to find love on a reality show four different times, gives adult women advice on how to date men.

In Episodes 2 (“Breaking the Internet”) and 3 (“The Viral Verdict”), spliced footage shows the way Depp and Head responded to some of the most shocking claims in the trial. When Heard was prompted about the first time Depp allegedly hit her, she provided explicit detail about the carpet in the room and wept. When Depp was asked about the incident, he offered little but a quiet denial. “She’s acting,” we see the Deadpool mask man tell his viewers from a sad-looking hotel room via YouTube clip. “She’s lying.” Then, when Heard tearfully detailed an alleged sexual assault wherein she said her then-husband used a liquor bottle to penetrate her, the docuseries cuts to Depp sipping coffee and avoiding eye contact.

Again, Depp v. Heard doesn’t miss an opportunity to note how utterly unreceptive much of social media was to Heard’s claims. “I’m feeling bad for all the survivors out there that just watched this performance, because I’m not buying it, and I’ve gotten so many messages from so many of you who have been through similar experiences and you’re not buying it either,” one YouTube commentator told his viewers at the time. Depp’s passivity—his shrugs, sips of water, and bored scribbles—either went unscrutinized or was perceived as proof that he couldn’t possibly have done the horrific things Heard accused him of. (One of the only instances Depp appeared visibly affected by the proceedings is when a video of him kicking cabinets, throwing things around their kitchen, and yelling was played in court. When the camera cut to him, he was seen closing his eyes.) And yet, it seemed like Heard’s every move, word choice, and facial expression became a reason to doubt her. The docuseries assumes its audience already knows why.

The internet, as the docuseries could’ve demonstrated with a single episode, wasn’t just judge, jury, and executioner in this trial.

Notably, the appalling unsealed evidence that wasn’t admissible in the trial isn’t included in Depp v. Heard, which feels like a glaring omission given the fact that Depp’s own supporters paid to have it made public and its contents are quite damning for him. The docuseries also would have benefitted from spending more time on how Andy Signore, one of Depp’s most vocal defenders on YouTube, was reportedly canceled during the Me Too movement and has since capitalized on criticizing celebrities who accuse men of sexual misconduct. After the trial, Depp, as we see in Depp v. Heard, invited Signore to a gig and told him he watched his coverage. That there’s no accompanying comment here is a disservice. The clip, I suppose Cooper thought, speaks for itself.

Such is Depp v. Heard’s cardinal sin: How does a docuseries laying bare the worst social media backlash against a survivor of abuse in recent memory fall so flat? Because it relies fully on its audience to do all of the interrogation. Trusting the terminally online—each one with an algorithm that makes it possible to engage only with content that reaffirms their beliefs—to tune in and do so isn’t just a tall order. It’s antithetical to the docuseries’ subject matter. Some spectators are always going to find Heard unbelievable; to them, Depp v. Heard won’t be the highlight reel from hell that I watched but a highlight reel full stop. My nail tech, for instance, probably isn’t going to watch this and change her mind.

Many of us already knew that Depp drank and used to excess, and that witnesses testified that he called Heard—his then-wife—a “slimy whore” and “a fucking used up trash bag.” We knew of Depp’s disturbing text messages and destructive behavior, and that Heard occasionally fought back. By the end, what’s left unclear is what there is to be learned from Depp v. Heard. That the internet can be vicious, sexist, and terribly stupid because people can be vicious, sexist, and terribly stupid? No shit.

Ultimately, I was reminded of a quote from Lee Berlik, an attorney I spoke to about the trial last June. “I know for a fact all these people with their opinions haven’t even read the op-ed. How do you even have an opinion on what it implies?” he said. “But the reality is, people don’t care. People just want to pick their side.” They certainly did then. And, as I saw while scrolling through the comments on Netflix’s post of the Depp v. Heard trailer, the battlelines are still drawn.

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