First released on YouTube in 2018, Cobra Kai is a show I initially slept on. In fact, the debate surrounding the original Karate Kid is one that I was ignorant to before the premise of Cobra Kai brought me up to speed.
The first two seasons of the series brilliantly explored the moral ambiguity that the original 80’s film failed to. Providing an emotional complexity that helped the Karate Kid franchise finally land a kick after years of poor sequels and reboots. The series’ extension from the originals allows for the characters of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), and John Kreese (Martin Kove) to return as sensei to the current generation of youth in Miguel Diaz (Xolo Mariduena), Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser), Robby Keane (Tanner Buchanan), and Tory Nichols (Peyton List), along with a whole host of others.
Season 3 picks up where Season 2 left off, with Miguel in hospital after the ‘karate riot’ at the high school. The lead characters are all feeling the after effects of the fight. With Johnny, Daniel, Sam, Robby and Tory all at their lowest point, and the remorseless John Kreese finding opportunity in the chaos by looking to reinstate Cobra Kai to its former glory.
The shows season-long narrative follows this same idea, with each character striving to find the best version of themselves and overcome their demons. It is here where I feel the show finds it greatest strength in the season, with the show-runners spending plenty of time fleshing out each character to finally put them where they need to be at this point in the series.
Having taken 30 years to get there, Johnny and Daniel arrive on the same page by joining their dojo’s to go up against Kreese’s Kai. Miguel, armed with his hilariously inconsistent facial expressions, and Sam follow similar narratives in battling physical and mental scars the Season 2 battle left them with. While the hard times suffered for Robby and Tory is easily manipulated by Kreese to lure them deeper into darkness. Even smaller characters like Hawk and Demetri are given plenty of the spotlight. This speaks to the deft hand the creative minds behind Cobra Kai have given to the show that the new faces are just as compelling as the old ones, with specific mention to Tanner Buchanan and Peyton List specifically who feel like they really come into their own in the roles of Robby and Tory in this season. Kreese’s backstory gets fleshed out nicely with the use of semi-regular flashbacks (similar to Johnny’s in the prior seasons), giving way to the origins of Kreese and Cobra Kai’s merciless approach to life and karate.
Cobra Kai is at its best when committing to its characters arcs, so it’s a shame then that the overall message of the show fails to find the same balance. The writers are seemingly unable to fully commit to the message of positive change and exploration of toxic masculinity because of the over-abundance of nostalgia that the series relies on. Nostalgia isn’t instantly a negative (a show based off a beloved 80’s film will of course have more than it’s fair share of it), but the way the show clings to the cliché’s of ‘badass’ one liners and long fights as a way of indulging in those nostalgic feelings drags it down a little this season.
Thankfully, Season 3 ends with an eye towards the future by addressing this very issue. The return of Elizabeth Shue reunites the main trio of Ally, Daniel and Johnny, and with her return (along with the earlier appearances of Chozen and Kumiko from Part II) comes the responsible hand that the show has been missing. Ally effectively fans the flames been Johnny and Daniel (at least temporarily) and brings them together with the message that one cannot live in the past.
This development leaves the table set for a fantastic Season 4, with the one/two punch of fully fleshed out characters and a focused message making it feel like it could be a finale for the show. Seasons 1 and 2 left us all with questions and eager to see more, while Season 3’s ending feels like we have an end goal in sight. That final scene of Johnny and Daniel joining their dojo’s at Miyagi Do set to Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight’ is a wonderfully chilling end point for the season, with the pieces in place for the Under 18’s All Valley Karate tournament to, yet again, be the stage for men in their 50’s to settle their decade long scores.
I genuinely don’t know how the show is this good.
By Brandon Bethune