When Cobra Kai released in 2018 for YouTube Premium, I wrote it off as the usual gimmick rooted in nostalgia to gain subscribers. I never even looked up a review. I made up my mind, and that was it. Now available on Netflix, I figured, why not? After powering through the first season in one night, I can honestly say Cobra Kai is the best show I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Cobra Kai focuses on Johnny Lawrence, the original antagonist from the 1980s Karate Kid, but reintroduces us to a jaded man ruminating in the past. He is depressed, antisocial, drinks-and-drives, and doesn’t care about recycling or beating the shit out of teenagers. He’s developed a form of learned helplessness by letting his loss at the Under 18 All Valley Karate Tournament dominate his self worth over the next thirty years. To add insult to injury, he is haunted by the success of his high school nemesis Danny LaRusso, which he can’t seem to escape and only fuels his self loathing.
It is difficult for me to pinpoint what makes this show so good. One explanation, out of many, is from one small piece of dialogue. After Johnny finds the inspiration to re-open Cobra Kai from one of the worst movies of the 1980’s, Iron Eagle, he tells his first student Miguel, “I’m going to teach you a method of karate your pussy generation desperately needs.” I would argue this show is something every pussy from every generation desperately needs.
In the first Karate Kid, Cobra Kai’s mantra, “Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy,” was the product of bad teaching and poor implementation. It mutated into tribalism based on an authority bias towards their sensei John Kreese. As Mr. Miyagi said, “No such thing as bad student. Only bad teacher.” Which led impressionable teenagers to become bullies and the villains in the first Karate Kid.
Ironically, in a world where cyberbullies and micro-aggressions exist, the once frowned upon teachings of Cobra Kai are exactly what children/adults of today desperately need. Something that leads to endless full body laughter as Johnny tries to understand and navigate political correctness, identity politics, cyberbullying and the internet.
For example, after Johnny overcomes his bias that women with “hollow bones” can’t do karate, he is bewildered to hear his new student Eisha describe cyberbullying. Johnny explains when he was a kid you bullied people to their face. Implying we’ve fallen so far as a society that there used to be honor in bullying. It used to take courage to confront someone. Nowadays it doesn’t and seems to explain the exponential increase in cyber bullies and trolling.
When Johnny is instructing his first full class, he walks around insulting his students, pointing out their flaws until another student says you shouldn’t make fun of someone’s physical appearance. Which is correct, but Johnny uses this opportunity to teach his students about managing their expectations and how you can’t expect people to always do what society dictates. That just because you are insecure about something doesn’t mean it will to go away; Or that others will tiptoe around what might hurt your feelings. Instead, he teaches them to have courage and confront their demons. Create a standard for themselves and to not make excuses.
With his own style, Johnny encourages his students to be badass and to not be losers. Which seems harsh, but was somehow endearing. He relates to the students and lets them know he was just like them, but to be badass he had to, “shed his loser skin”. These lessons begin a transformation for everyone at Cobra Kai, including Johnny. Once the villain in someone else’s story, Johnny becomes a hero and a mentor of his own.
He’s not belittling everyone for his own sake. Instead, he is redefining the meaning we assign to simple words or ideas. “Don’t be a loser,” doesn’t mean they are losers, it means don’t let people walk all over you. Most importantly, that social constructs are not gospel. For example, a black-belt signifies an expert rank in karate. However, according to Mr. Miyagi, “In Okinawa a belt means no need rope to hold up pants.”
Mr. Miyagi tells Danny in The Karate Kid, the lesson of balance is a lesson you can apply to life, not just Karate. The same way Johnny teaches his students, “Strike First and Strike Hard” is about giving it your all. Seizing the moment or Carpe Diem for any Dead Poets Society fans. That “No Mercy” means life shows no mercy and you have to be strong to overcome adversity and its badass when you do.
It’s great to see Danny LaRusso capitalize on his success after all this time. It is also nice to see a studio bring back a multifaceted and complex character. Instead of reintroducing a character after 30 years so they can piss all over them and portray them as chumps (Disney Star Wars).
Danny still has all the charisma, charm and determination from the movies and I was happy to see him grown up, successful and with a family of his own. He’s a member of the country club he had to sneak into as a teenager and you can see how he was driven to have the things he didn’t have during his youth. But what makes him such a complex character is even after everything he’s learned and overcome, he is still stuck in the past just like Johnny.
Danny is incapable of accepting that Johnny and Cobra Kai have changed. Instead, he is being defensive and acting based on what he believes Cobra Kai stood for over 30 years ago. Danny doesn’t seem to realize how much he is struggling without the guidance of Mr. Miyagi. Especially when you see Danny clinging to his memories of being a victim; Or how he uses his perception of the past to justify his behavior towards Johnny and the new Cobra Kai. Danny forgot what Mr. Miyagi taught him about forgiveness; “For person with no forgiveness in heart, living even worse punishment than death.” Which makes Danny’s pettiness hard to excuse because it’s not like he didn’t have great guidance.
Danny represents how success and wealth don’t solve your problems or make you any more open-minded. Instead, Danny has a chip on his shoulder and comes close to assuming the role of the bully in this series. Especially when Danny manifests his personal vendetta against Cobra Kai. For example, having them banned from the All Valley Karate Tournament for life. Which luckily gives Johnny another opportunity to shine.
It’s also worth mentioning the incredible relationship between Johnny and his student Miguel. Miguel doesn’t have a father and was insecure. Johnny is alone and his teenage son hates him. Each character was exactly what the other person needed, and they each helped the other grow in a way I found relatable without being sappy or cliche. Johnny teaches him to stand up for himself, and Miguel teaches Johnny diplomacy. It is also a glimpse of the relationship Johnny could have had with his sensei as a teenager and how the companionship and validation all young men covet can be misappropriated.
One of Johnny’s best moments (there are many) is when he appeals Cobra Kai’s lifetime ban. He says:
“I know Cobra Kai had its number of problems in the 80s. That’s why I left. But my Cobra Kai is different. It’s a place where kids can come and feel like they belong. Where they won’t get picked on just because they’re losers. Because they’re unique. I’ve watched first hand as my students have gotten stronger… gained confidence… learned how to stand up for themselves. Cobra Kai is making a difference in these kids’ lives. And honestly, they’re making a difference in mine as well.” (Mine as well).
Turns out the lifetime ban was for the original Cobra Kai owner John Kreese and another pony-tailed d-bag antagonist from Karate Kid III. It had nothing to do with Johnny Lawrence. His Cobra Kai was an opportunity to right the wrongs of his past while doing something he loved. Meanwhile, Danny is convinced it was all an evil rouse and everyone was deceived. Which is actually a textbook definition of cognitive dissonance:
“Cognitive Dissonance is belief confirmation. Instead of effecting change, the resilient mental stress restores psychological consonance to the person by misperception, rejection, or refutation of the contradiction; while seeking moral support from people who share contradicting beliefs, or acting to persuade others that the contradiction is not real.”
Some of my favorite parts of the show are when Johnny and Danny let their guard down. There are moments where they communicate and realize they have more in common than they thought. The scenes where it seems like they could be friends are fun and I feel myself hoping they will become best friends. I know in pop culture “shipping” is for characters viewers want to get together. Well I’m ready to ship Johnny and Danny on the H.M.S Best Friends Forever.
Their biggest hurdle is accepting they are possibly wrong about each other and it threatens the time and value they have invested in their personal narratives. In order to overcome their differences, both must confront their past. However, their inability to do so coincides with what the old Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese taught, “a man who confronts you, he is the enemy. The enemy deserves no mercy!” which means any disagreement or issue absent a consensus is constantly treated as the enemy and a threat. Which makes everything discriminately treated as such.
It’s ironic during a time of intersectionality, victim signaling, inclusion and heightened sensitivity, people are more defensive than ever and refuse to show any form of vulnerability. Jordan Peterson says the only solution to extreme bi-partisanship is through individual, humble improvement. In the case of Danny and Johnny, if they took less time fortifying their rationalizations for their feud, they would find they are two men with similar goals and a lot in common.
In the end that is what makes this show so good, because the only clear antagonist is closed-mindedness and the unwillingness to let go of the past. You can see the story unravel and ultimately the “good guy” and the “bad guy” are purely a matter of perspective. I could empathize with both sides and found the moments where the characters almost find a middle ground suspenseful and impactful. That’s because ultimately there were no sides, just the subliminal significance assigned to the line that divided them. Also known as the “Us vs Them” mentality.
As the wise child from The Matrix said, “There is no spoon. Then you will see it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.” Which means that change is not only a conscious choice, but that it starts with the individual. In other words, putting our best foot forward. Studies found that simply working together or finding common goals can minimize or even eliminate intergroup conflict.
Cobra Kai is another multifaceted hero’s journey that touches on the all too common, lingering and existential questions about life, what it all means and how to exist together. Cobra Kai does an outstanding job of lining its story with these questions, and I found myself on the edge of my seat as the answers elude them. It’s funny how even in a Karate Kid series, Mr. Miyagi seemed to have all the answers in the movies. Even in Karate Kid 4 when he tells Julie, “Answer only important when ask the right question.” And, “When you have full respect of self, respect for others, that answer comes.” But probably the most important is, “Never stop war by engaging in one.”
What I’m trying to say is that Cobra Kai is great. Can’t wait for Season 3, for people to “have courage and be kind,” and to start putting their shopping carts back.