Anyone who has watched the three seasons of Cobra Kai – the follow up to the very successful Karate Kid films of the 80s – knows that much of what takes place in the present day is a product of what happened in the past. Series creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg obviously have taken great care to make the series something new while remaining an homage to the beloved films.
If you have not seen the series, the basic story is that Daniel La Russo and Johnny Lawrence (the great Ralph Macchio and William Zabka) – in over 30 plus years since the events in the films – have gone into totally different directions. Daniel is now the owner of a successful car dealership, while Johnny is a down and out handyman who drinks too much and has never really recovered from his loss to Daniel in the All-Valley Karate Tournament.
Macchio and Zabka give equally fine performances throughout. Johnny’s downward spiral includes a breakup with his wife Shannon (Diora Baird) and alienation from his son Robby (Tanner Buchanan). He is forced to do odd jobs to make ends meet before getting an idea to start a new dojo called Cobra Kai, despite his own history of being mistreated there by his former sensi John Kreese (Martin Kove).
Meanwhile, Daniel has a very prosperous business that he runs with his wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler). He has two children – Samantha (Mary Mouser) and Anthony (Griffin Santopietro) – and his life seems nearly perfect. He even uses his two victories in the All-Valley contests as part of his advertising for the agency.
The obvious trajectory for the first two seasons was an inevitable showdown between Daniel and Johnny. Once Johnny establishes his dojo, Daniel is outraged that Johnny could bring back something so destructive as Cobra Kai.
Johnny’s first student is the bullied Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), and they develop a bond similar to Daniel’s and Mr. Miyagi (the late great Pat Morita) in the films. The key difference is that Johnny has a harder edge when working with Miguel, and this does attract a group of bullied high school kids looking to turn the tables on their oppressors, making his new dojo successful.
Daniel decides to start Miyagi’s dojo again with a lone student – Robby, Johnny’s estranged son – not knowing the relationship between Robby and Johnny. As Daniel begins to train Robby, he continues to seek spiritual guidance from Miyagi.
The Johnny-Daniel rivalry spills over into the second generation that now attends the same high school where Daniel and Johnny went. Daniel starts Miyagi Do in response to Johnny’s dojo, eventually training Samantha too. Samantha is dating Miguel, but then they break up because he continues to train with Johnny, and she starts a relationship with Robby. Miguel begins seeing Samantha’s rival Tory (Peyton List), and the arrival of Kreese at the end of season one is an ominous sign that things would take a turn for the worst.
During season 2 Kreese’s extreme methods begin to take a toll on Johnny, who had hoped to run Cobra Cai differently than Kreese. Although Johnny was a tough teacher, he was not brutal and sadistic like Kreese. However, during season 2 Kreese’s methods start attracting more students, and Johnny is pushed out of the way as Kreese’s hold on the dojo strengthens and he eventually takes the place over financially.
Season 3 is in some ways the best of the series. Without going into spoilers, season two ended with a terrible brawl in the high school, resulting in a very serious injury to Miguel, who was fighting Robby. Robby runs away, everyone is blaming Daniel for training Robby, and Johnny cannot come to terms with the fact that he indirectly is responsible for Miguel’s condition.
This season becomes the War of the Dojos. There are numerous instances of bullying, fighting, and stealing. While it is easy to hate Kreese’s bunch, as they go after Samantha and the rest of the Miyagi students, we must remember that it all goes back to Kreese, who is engineering these conflicts.
One aspect of season 3 that is important is giving Kreese a back story. Young Kreese (Barrett Carnahan) is seen in Vietnam and going though difficult situations. These flashbacks show how a series of circumstances formed the person he was to become. Villain back stories like this are not meant to excuse their present behavior, but do provide insight into how they become what they are. These flashbacks certainly make us understand what made Kreese the guy we love to hate.
Hanging over the whole series is the spirit of Miyagi. The writers slip references to him in the right places, and Daniel’s whole journey is influenced by his relationship with Miyagi. While Daniel remembers the man fondly, he finds it difficult to replicate those teachable moments he had with Miyagi while teaching Robby and Samantha.
This season is such a pleasure – and includes memorable faces from the films – and Macchio and Zabka continue to be a joy to watch as their characters both handle different challenges and hope to become better as teachers and as people. The last scene of the season will put a smile on your face – it’s a moment many of us have been waiting over 30 years to witness.
I highly recommend Cobra Kai. If you’re not familiar with the original films, it would be helpful for you to watch them before watching the series. It is not completely necessary, but seeing the films first will enable you to enjoy the series more and appreciate all the little Easter eggs and the familiar faces that pop up along the way.
The ten 30-minute episodes are so well crafted, I cannot help but not want them to end. I binged-watched the series over two nights (five episodes a night), but when it was over, I felt like I wanted so much more. I have a feeling so will you.