Dangerously close to rampant melodrama, Cobra Kai’s most anticipated season to date just about keeps its fast-moving feet on the ground.
Who knew that this YouTube originated series would turn out to be such a pop cultural success? Maybe we should have seen it coming, given how popular and beloved The Karate Kid (and to an extent its sequels) remains over 35 years on. Daniel-san and Mr Miyagi permeated the cultural consciousness of the 1980s to the same degree as Indiana Jones or the Terminator or Marty McFly. In a cheesy, all-American way, they extolled the virtue of Eastern philosophy on Western coming of age tropes, with Daniel LaRusso finding the personal balance in his life, and the martial art that developed his confidence, that allowed him to discover his way in the world. The sequels tweaked the formula but, much like the Rocky pictures of the same era, the core idea of The Karate Kid remained the touchstone.
Hence why Cobra Kai used the central conflict of that original movie as part of its concept, yet joyously flipped the script. This wasn’t a show, across the first season, that was directly about the grown-up Daniel LaRusso, the handsome All-Valley champion and wax on-wax off mentee of the sage Miyagi, but rather the teenager he bested in the final – Johnny Lawrence. Cobra Kai’s first principle lay in examining what happened to the loser, the kid who didn’t win the day and win the girl, and pick up The Karate Kid mythos of lost father figures around a broken, angry, disillusioned figure who re-adopts the misguided, first strike mantra of his cruel mentor and tries to use it to regain self-respect. The surprising brilliance of that first season is how we came to understand Cobra Kai as a series that introduced practical shades of grey within the delineated good/bad dichotomies of a simpler time.
While still entertaining, the series has lost a little of that as it expanded the idea, and the ensemble, into what the third season represents: fun, silly but overblown melodrama with only sparks of self-referential awareness that keep it grounded.
This is nevertheless a step back in the right direction after a second season that unfortunately misfired.
Cobra Kai’s first year remains the simplest and clearest in terms of logical concept.
Johnny and Daniel become rivals once more, Johnny revives Cobra Kai, and trains a new ‘Daniel-san’ in kind, impoverished Ecuadorian teenager Miguel (Xolo Mariduena) to win the All-Valley Tournament against his wayward son Robby (Tanner Buchanan), sponsored by Daniel serving as a replacement Miyagi. The phyrric victory of Cobra Kai and for Miguel made sense, overcoming Daniel’s success in the first film and, to an extent, rewriting history to validate the ‘no mercy’ mantra Johnny doesn’t really believe but is the only thing he understands. It was a clean, very well-executed arc which, with the return of John Kreese (the delightfully menacing Martin Kove), Johnny’s mentor from the first film, at the end of the season, laid a capstone on Cobra Kai’s resurgent origin story. Johnny had become Kreese, to an extent, by the end of that first season.
The second, therefore, was designed to extend these archetypal narrative ideas at the heart of the Karate Kid mythology. Johnny first fell under Kreese’s spell, as a hard man lying about the kind of redemption the series has laid out for Johnny himself, only to become aware of the man’s duplicity as his creed infects the young characters who form the backbone of Cobra Kai’s angsty, The O.C. style teen drama. If we put aside the comic ludicrousness of half the school being highly competent martial artists, Cobra Kai revels in emotional teenage complications the karate serves to heighten.
Miguel is caught between two girls, Daniel’s impressionable karate-girl daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) and sassy, tough girl Tory (Peyton List – no, a different one with the same name); Sam is caught between Miguel and Robby; and beyond that a whole host of micro-conflicts within the inhabitants of the Valley play out, such as between openly socially awkward geek Dimitri (Gianni Decenzo) and Hawk aka Eli (Jacob Bertrand), a former ultra nerd with a cleft palette who, to avoid merciless ridicule and bullying, reinvents himself and eventually turns into the same kind of bully as a means of coping. So many of these conflicts, teenage romances and clashes between the warring ideologies of Cobra Kai and the rival dojo Daniel revives across the second season, Miyagi-Do (formerly ran by his legendary mentor, who following the death of actor Pat Morita in 2005 has passed away in the history of the series), come to a head particularly in second season finale No Mercy, but the season falters because it takes far too seriously the intense youthful rivalry between these teenagers.
Boasting an epic extended fight sequence across the school, violent enough even for teachers to run away admitting they don’t get paid enough to wade in and stop them, the finale sees Miguel almost killed in a fight that extends beyond karate into a combination of personal angst, teen rebellion and classic youthful miscommunication. They fight because they lack the skills to talk to one another about their issues, and are riven with the kind of self-absorption that often clouds teenagers lives, and while Cobra Kai always makes the point that violence solves nothing, it also revels in the martial arts fury these kids unload upon each other to satiate youthful American and Western audiences who have been reared on physical combat as a literal expression of conflict.
In Season Two, however, it momentarily forgets that the show was designed never to take any of this seriously.
Season Three does, to it’s credit, attempt to spiral back to that self-awareness at points, melodramatic and angst-ridden as it remains.
The beauty of William Zabka’s performance as Johnny lies in how anachronistic he is. In many ways for he and Daniel, time stopped after around 1985 and hit pause until 2018 when the series started. It’s hard to imagine either of these characters having an existence outside the world of American appropriated karate, and particularly with Johnny. He is unfrozen as an ‘80s throwback who still calls women ‘babes’, has no idea how computers work, and dresses like he’s two decades younger.
Zabka plays him, however, as a stubborn former pretty boy of the MTV generation with heart, if not smarts, and in Season Three the writers revive the humour much of the second year lacked. Moments such as Miguel coaching Johnny on the ways of Facebook as he reconnects with Ali, the girl he and Daniel rivalled over for her affections in the first film, is joyous to watch. Side note, but Cobra Kai is one of the rare series that brings back every single original actor from the ‘80s films – from Elisabeth Shue, who arguably had the best career of everyone involved, right down to the girl who played Yuna, the Japanese girl in the tree Daniel rescues in The Karate Kid Part II. It really adds to the authenticity of this revival.
Shue’s return as Ali feeds into the better episodes of the season as she encapsulates one of the key themes of this latest season: consequences. While the young karate kids have to deal with the fallout from No Mercy, as Miguel slowly regains his ability to walk, Robby faces the punitive cost of his actions and Sam the latent psychological trauma of violence that went too far, Johnny & Daniel both have to face their pasts to move forward.
Mid-season, Ralph Macchio reconnects as Daniel to Miyagi’s home in Okinawa and learns from another former adversary additional ways of building on Miyagi’s wisdom, while Johnny has to see Ali as a middle aged woman and mother of her own in order to let go of the idealised fantasy of what she represents. “It’s great to visit the past sometimes, but you can’t live in it” Ali says, as Shue comes in as a sage to guide Johnny toward revelation and realisation, one Cobra Kai has telegraphed from the beginning – that he and Daniel are more alike than they would admit (Ali literally says this, in case you worried Cobra Kai was ever subtle) and by working together they can achieve more than as adversaries.
It helps, in which case, that we have a pantomime villain in place with Kreese in order to give them a mutual enemy for a future season.
This is where Cobra Kai sometimes grows confused, and often moves close to self-parody, because at points in finale December 19 the series edges near to outright murder.
We get a pleasant reconstitution of Return of the Jedi, as Kreese (Palpatine) encourages Robby (Luke) to strike Johnny (Vader) down, but the series at points teeters on the edge of forgetting this is a teen drama for the Marvel generation at heart. It’s a family show filled with ‘superheroes’, kids who learn karate in order to find empowerment, but often lose their way due to bad judgement, poor teaching and mentors who need guidance of their own and, like Johnny, are still learning themselves. Murder has no place here, and darkness sometimes threatens to compromise what Cobra Kai is, as does the over-ambition at points.
Credit to them for threading Kreese’s origin story across the ‘60s, as he goes from bullied nice guy to hardened Vietnam karate kid himself, but it only serves to accentuate Cobra Kai’s tonal imbalance at points. On the one hand, it works to humanise Kreese while solidifying him as the series’ arch villain. Cobra Kai works to try and add shades of grey, if not exactly complexity as everyone is a very recognisable archetype, to each character but it at points comes at a cost. Cobra Kai is always at its best when it remembers the lighter, empowering and comedic realities of what the show is, and the films it came from.
That happens, for the most part, during the third season, even if it again decides to partly end the series on a multi-faceted brawl that simply repeats the events of No Mercy, and once again suggests the teenagers’ literalised internal rage is going a step too far. Daniel’s Japanese sojourn has a sweetness that works well, as does Johnny’s continued development into the kind of mentor he never had. If anything, we need more of the grown ups at points and less of the teenagers, whose narratives often feel quite circular – particularly any romantic entanglement Sam is embroiled in.
The charm of those aspects is gone by this point. They all need to start growing up and Cobra Kai, as it enters what presumably could be some kind of runway toward an ending across the next couple of seasons, would do well to further dial into the central thematic ideas of the Karate Kid mythos – the archetypal adoption of Eastern philosophy to temper the in-built rage of the American teenager, and allow their father figures, mentors and guides to show them a path toward peaceful adulthood,
It needs a little more mercy. Mr Miyagi would surely approve.