Season 3 has arrived!
When Cobra Kai first came out I was nervous. Like most people I’m sentimental about certain shows, movies, and books. I didn’t want to see the wonderful Karate Kid characters created by Robert Kamen treated poorly. We all recently watched Luke Skywalker get tied up to the back of a Chevy and drug across the landscape of three sequel movies, so I didn’t want Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence to suffer the same fate.
To my great relief, the Youtube-turned-Netflix show is an interesting exploration of character. Cobra Kai didn’t take long to find its footing and managed to introduce almost a dozen characters that were unique and engaging.
That all being said, I thought it would be fun to recap some of my biggest questions and takeaways after having watched the show. Be warned – this is spoiler heavy. If you aren’t done with the show, consider binging it and then coming back.
I’ve broken the article up into two major sections:
- Show Thoughts – my reflections on the crafting of the story
- Karate Thoughts – my questions and takeaways on how karate is represented throughout the show
One caveat before you continue – this is just a TV show, and a fun one at that. It doesn’t necessarily need as much analysis as I’ve done in this article. Please disregard the whole thing at your convenience.
Show Thoughts – Reflections on the Storytelling and Structure of Cobra Kai
Johnny’s Struggle was a Joy to Watch
80’s bad guys are generally pretty one dimensional. In the original movies, Johnny was a blast but his character arc was pretty straightforward. A rich kid who joined a karate school, had some toadies hanging around him, and made life hell for the new kid. In the Cobra Kai show though, William Zabka breathes an incredible amount of life into the character, allowing us to view him then-and-now in a totally different light.
The most interesting quality of Johnny is his persistent conflicts. He seems to be at odds with himself at all times as he clings to what made him special in high school while realizing those same qualities have led him to ruin. This conflict is played out in many subtle ways every time he is on camera. For example:
- Johnny is cold and removed to protect himself from reality, but still decides to step in when he sees a young boy in trouble.
- Johnny is a deadbeat dad but feels compelled to accept Miguel into his life.
- He is a drunk loser but persistently tries in vain to pull himself out by getting odd jobs.
- He’s racist and xenophobic but in a way that reflects ignorance and self loathing more than true hatred.
- He wants to help the young people who come to him but only has access to the lessons of his own instructor, inadvertently steering his students in the wrong direction.
Zabka plays these elements off of each other expertly leaving the audience both rooting for him and against him, hoping he makes the right decision. Just as notably Zabka guides his performance between strikingly emotional and legitimately funny moments which draws the viewer in even more.
The Kreese Backstory Made a Surprising Amount of Sense
I think we all just accept Kreese as a vintage bad guy that is rotten to the core. He is fun and hateable. But much like with Johnny, Cobra Kai manages to give him more nuance and depth than I anticipated.
It was well established in the movies that Kreese was a Vietnam vet who carried a lot of emotional baggage around with him. In Karate Kid III we learn that he saved fellow veteran Terry Silver on multiple occasions, resulting in a perceived debt that Silver shows up to honor.
Kreese’s backstory is brushed over briefly in the movies but in Cobra Kai we actually meet Kreese’s mentor, an elite captain who has experience in Korean Tang Soo Do. The captain also happens to have very black-and-white beliefs regarding friends, enemies, life, and death. it’s from this source that Kreese not only gains his martial ability but also his ‘no mercy” mindset.
In the end Kreese is forced to drop his would-be mentor into a big pile of snakes, which is likely where he sourced the name of his dojo. Thanks to these small flashbacks we see where Kreese’s sociopathy comes from and are even able to sympathize with his struggle.
That’s a lot to pack in while so many other characters in the show are running around having dramas!
Did You Notice the Lord of the Flies Theme?
If you came to Cobra Kai for the kung fu fighting or the heartthrob teens, this portion of my article is not going to interest you.
During his stint in Juvie (which seemed to go by really fast, see the time vortex section below) Robbie Keene can be seen reading Lord of the Flies by William Golding. This was a clever little moment put in by the writers and/or director and has more bearing on the show than you might suspect.
In Lord of the Flies an airplane full of pre-teen children crash land on a deserted island, stranding them without any adult supervision. The children, wholly unequipped to deal with the situation, soon find themselves without guidance or leadership. As a result, each child’s tendencies and character slowly surface as they all jocky to find solutions to their immediate problems and establish some form of social architecture amongst themselves.
One character, Ralph, seems to show leadership qualities and begins organizing the survivors. The children elect him as leader, but a second faction emerges as the more rough-and-tumble Jack forms a separate group of hunters. Gradually we see characters fill in the gaps and exude a variety of character traits – intelligence, cowardess, bloodlust, and so on.
The true crux of the book is the examination of how factional group-think develops and how quickly decency can devolve when bad leadership is in place. Ralph, the defacto leader, routinely displays doubt about his own competence and vacillates between decisiveness and passivity. Jack, who serves as Ralph’s main antagonist, constantly raises paranoia and alarmism on the island while undermining Ralph. Meanwhile Simon, the most sensitive and nurturing of the group, retreats further and further from others on the island. Roger, the most chaotic of the group, becomes more emboldened while serving under Jack’s faction, eventually eclipsing the violent tendencies of his own leader. The end result is a spiraling upward of anxiety, fear, and aggression leading to the torture and death of multiple children.
Cobra Kai puts those themes to immediate use in the juvenile detention center where Robbie finds himself trapped. Keene feels alone and abandoned, unwilling to believe either LaRusso or Lawrence have his best interests at heart. Keene also has to navigate a faction of bullies that are seemingly deadset on his misery.
From a larger perspective though, Cobra Kai displays Lord of the Flies themes throughout the entirety of the show. Cobra Kai tells its story utilizing two layers – the original characters (Kreese, LaRusso, Lawrence) and the new characters (Diaz, Keene, etc.).
The Original Characters:
- Daniel LaRusso – LaRusso finds himself thrust back into the karate world, sensing a need for his leadership. Much like Ralph in Lord of the Flies, LaRusso’s intentions are good but his abilities as a leader are lacking, often leaving him unsure and indecisive.
- Johnny Lawrence – Johnny displays strong, decisive traits, but his aggression and anger often leads those under his care to danger and ruin.
- John Kreese – Kreese, who acts as if he is under the leadership of Johnny, slowly undermines him and introduces more severe, more aggressive, and more chaotic elements than Johnny ever wanted. This behavior mirrors Roger in Lord of the Flies.
The New Characters –
- Sam LaRusso – Much like her father, Sam finds herself as a sort of de-facto leader of the Miyagi-Do dojo. She’s the most experienced karate practitioner and the other students look up to her. Unfortunately, she finds herself having to make difficult decisions and struggles with the consequences. She is a Ralph character.
- Miguel Diaz – While soft and thoughtful at the beginning of the show, Miguel is quickly conditioned into the mindset of his instructor Johnny. Miguel exhibits the aggression of his sensei and becomes a leader in his own right of the Cobra Kai dojo. Unfortunately the “No Mercy” mindset leads to injury and foul play at the All Valley Tournament. Miguel is a Jack character.
- Hawk – Technically beneath Miguel in hierarchy, Hawk often agitates situations. As Miguel begins to pull back from Johnny’s more aggressive lessons, Hawk dives deeper into them. Eventually Hawk betrays his old sensei (Johnny) in favor of the extremist Kreese. Hawk is a Roger character.
If you’re a fan of this kind of literary connection, I would encourage you to play along and place Tory, Robbie, Demetri, and the others wherever you think they might fit. There’s room for interpretation here, even in the connections I made above.
Cobra Kai Seems to Exist in a Time Vortex
There’s a widely accepted assumption that the modern attention span lasts about a nanosecond before we flitter away to the next thing. Certainly there are some compelling examples of this (Facebook, Instagram, what-have-you). Unfortunately content creators often ignore the flipside: our desire for longterm engaging experiences is still running strong.
Consider the following:
- Quibi recently shut down after about 6 months of operating time. The main assumption Quibi made was that people wanted 5-6 minute TV shows that would fit their modern attention span. Turns out, not so much.
- The Joe Rogan Experience is one of the most popular podcasts in the world and is still growing fast. The run time for the podcast is usually 2-3 hours of slow, casual conversation.
- Two of the largest grossing franchises in recent history were Lord of the Rings and Avengers. Avengers Endgame had a runtime of 3 hours.
- Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Witcher, The Crown. One hour run times and are often binged for 3-4 hours in a row.
- You are reading this massive article about Cobra Kai (thanks btw!)
You get the idea. I won’t deny that we have a societal issue with multiple screens and addiction to dopamine reward mechanisms like Facebook, but the desire for engaging long form content is still extremely high. The modern audience is patient when you tell a good story.
Cobra Kai rushes some things. Miguel goes from a hapless nerd to beating up 4-5 older bullies in the course of 5 episodes. He doesn’t just survive, he turns into John Wick and is beating their asses. Don’t confuse this for what happened with Daniel in the movies. In Karate Kid I Daniel never beats up the whole Cobra Kai dojo. Mr. Miyagi buys them some time and then manages to teach Daniel just enough to eek out a win at the All Valley Tournament (some might say illegally). Daniel never goes John Wick, and certainly not after the first 1-2 months of training.
This impatience also manifests itself in weird ways with the action on the show. These kids are beating the snot out of each other on a weekly basis and yet their wounds heal almost instantly. Even Miguel after his disastrous spinal injury seemed to go from “might never walk” to “karate fighting” in a scant few months. I believe the show made an assumption that the audience needed to see big fights almost every episode and that we would get bored and impatient if it didn’t happen. This resulted in a lot of logical and realistic leaps in order to hypothetically satisfy a meandering audience.
Snowflakes and MAGA’s – Too on the Nose with the Satire
The journey of Johnny reintegrating into society was a really nice narrative tool. Because of his emotional trauma and drunken haze throughout his 20’s and 30’s, Johnny is just now reemerging into society almost as if from a time machine. He struggles with modern times because he is so out of touch. He bounces humorously off of things like vegan food and asthma. On one hand, we laugh at Johnny for not understanding how far we’ve come in understanding technology, medicine, and societal acceptance. On the other hand we laugh with Johnny as he observes oddball modern trends set in front of a superficial L.A. backdrop.
That’s the good part. Unfortunately, Cobra Kai loses control of that tight storytelling in a lot of other ways as we see a smattering of callous, cartoonish representations of cultural extremes.
Throughout the show our main characters are constantly barraged with soft, ineffective Los Angeles snowflakes (to quote Kreese) who can’t seem to do their jobs. Teachers are obsessed with safe spaces, micro-aggressions, and other zeitgeisty buzz words that are stale. The teachers also cower at the first sign of trouble and have no ability to lead or control their student populace. Police are lethargic and incompetent, citing impotent protocols while desperately hoping the problem goes away on its own.
The local government council session in season 3 manages to pack multiple embarrassing moments into a few precious minutes. The council board, which seems to be a commentary on diversity in its own right, is led by a woman who is incredibly easy to sway and manipulate. Kreese ingratiates himself by insisting she be referred to as “councilperson”, because…you know…gender pro/nouns. In the same scene we see a gritty old man complaining that “there is an ordinance to change the name of manholes to maintenance covers. Do you know what we called manhole covers back in my day? Manholes!” lol lol lol. Gender pro/nouns, so topical so funny.
This feels like the showing is playing to its most basic audience members. The kind of people who spend most of their time sharing political memes on Facebook and yelling about the youth. Why do that? The show already has a vehicle for clever social commentary in Johnny and a way to juxtapose him off of an extremist like Kreese. Rise above this easy nonsense.
Conspiracy Theory – The Show Takes Place Entirely Inside of Miguel’s Coma
I enjoy mulling over the possibility that the camera is an unreliable narrator. Normally we trust the protagonist in a story to recount events accurately but some stories are told from the perspective of a character who will embellishes, lies, or perceives the world in a skewed manner. What if Cobra Kai exists entirely inside of Miguel’s mind?
Think about all the inconsistencies that start to add up if we believe the camera is skewing reality:
- Kids become taekwondo masters, able to beat up 5-6 bullies, in their first few weeks of training
- Weekly beatings barely show a scratch and wounds are healed almost instantly (Miguel himself takes a massive rib beating in season 3 with few ill effects)
- Major injuries are recovered in 1-2 months, not years (namely Miguel’s ability to walk)
- People outside of the three karate cults seem hapless
- The kids inside the dojo(s) learn that staying in the cult and resorting to violence is what solves their problems
- Characters that initially show skepticism, like Amanda LaRusso, eventually realize that dojo fighting is the solution
Perhaps Miguel met all of these people but slipped into a coma. Now he is filling in the gaps, a mixture of wish fulfillment and nightmare. Getting the cutest girls in school and standing victorious at a martial arts tournament. Meanwhile, experiencing setbacks and injuries because somewhere his mind is reminding him of his current coma state and a need to rise out of it. Probably not though.
Karate Thoughts – Reflecting on the Representation of Karate and Kobudo
Where we See Karate (and Where We Don’t) in Cobra Kai
In the original movies Daniel is taught techniques that are karate-ish. They resemble the fundamental basics and stancework most dojo(s) would teach. Of course, they take some liberties with the crane technique, drum technique, etc., but that’s fine – it’s a movie. In Cobra Kai we do see some moments where karate is represented:
- Characters do bits and pieces of kata
- Chozen introduces the idea of pressure point striking, which is rooted in karate concept
- Characters do basic blocking that are often taught to karate beginners
- Daniel whips out the classic hand stand technique (just kidding this is silly)
The Cobra Kai dojo, while called a “karate school”, is actually Tang Soo Do. Terry Silver mentions this in the third movie and we learn explicitly that Kreese was taught Tang Soo Do while in Vietnam. Tang Soo Do was heavily influenced by Japanese karate, but isn’t the same thing. Johnny’s technique reflects this Tang Soo Do background (Zabka actually earned a TSD black belt in real life after the original movies).
Here’s the kicker – we see students from all three dojo(s) performing techniques that are largely based on tae kwon do combined with tv kung fu and some light grappling. It looks fun on film, and we’ve all grown accustomed to this kind of on-screen action. But it’s a far cry from the source karate material.
Miyagi-Do is Not a Particular Karate Style
Similar topic to the aforementioned, but with a little more detail.
Individuals in the karate world were tickled when a picture of Chojun Miyagi kept showing up in the TV series. But as mentioned previously – Miyagi-do isn’t really a karate style at all. It’s not Goju-Ryu, although we see some small influences (like bits of kata and gi patches) which serve as an homage to writer Robert Kamen’s personal experience in the art. Miyagi-do is not Shito-Ryu either, despite Fumio Demura’s personal impact on the movies.
In Karate Kid II we see a smattering of karate portraits borrowed from various styles. They are described as ancestors to Mr. Miyagi. The photo below is described as Miyagi Shimpo, the founder of Miyagi-do karate (but it’s usually assigned to Aragaki Seisho in real life):
This is all fine as long as we don’t attempt to assign a particular style of karate to Miyagi-do. Like the portraits on the wall and the techniques used, it’s just a collection of stuff used to make a show.
Kobudo Probably Needed Another Year in the Oven
Karate Kid II featured a few kobudo implements (weapons) as Daniel took on his new rival Chozen. The nunti was featured prominently, which was a pleasure to see because even in karate/kobudo circles this weapon is somewhat niche. Cobra Kai decided to ramp up the stakes by integrating kobudo into season 3.
Yuji Okumoto and Pat Morita showed good competency with the weapon in Karate Kid II. They kept the techniques basic and usage to a minimum. Anyone who has handled a nunti will tell you, you don’t do a lot of tricks and gimmicks with this weapon. Outside of Miyagi breaking the handle with his pure man strength, the whole thing feels believable.
The poor teens in Cobra Kai were asked to recreate the kind of action we might see in a Bruce Lee movie. In fact, the nunchaku used by Tory are of the style Bruce Lee made popular (black handles with a chain attachment). Unfortunately, the nunchaku used in karate/kobudo do not look like that. The traditional construction is plain wood with a rope connector, which might seem like a small detail but if the show went through the trouble of showing off Chojun Miyagi pictures why not continue that attention to detail in something so prominent as a climactic fight scene? If they needed the metal+black version for visual interest perhaps Tory could have brought them from her Cobra Kai dojo instead of picking them up inside the Miyagi dojo.
The kobudo element was problematic from the start. When Daniel is coaching Sam on the bo it feels like neither of them had touched the weapon before beginning filming. I believe another year of getting familiar with kobudo implements would have gone a long way in making this part of the arc worthwhile.
Young Viewers Deserve More than Lip Service to The Ethics of Karate
I’ve heard that a lot of parents are enjoying this show alongside their kids. It makes sense, the parents can revisit the original characters while kids can take the wild ride with the younger cast members. The problem is that the real heart of the original movies is only paid lip service, brushed quickly aside to make room for more brawls or romantic intrigue.
When you watch Cobra Kai as an adult you get some enjoyment from the nods to the original movies. Daniel loosely quotes Miyagi’s lessons and starts off every student’s training with karate-centric chores. The problem is that none of those lessons are ever lingered upon because the show is constantly keeping the pace moving. They don’t want their audience to lose interest and they need to cover ground for a myriad of major characters. This leaves those original lessons as little more than nostalgic footnotes. Individuals who aren’t familiar with the source material would barely notice.
On one hand I enjoy the struggle of both Johnny and Daniel as they attempt to guide the children in their lives. They try to communicate lessons about having mercy and using karate for defense only but their actions immediately undermine those words as they both routinely resort to violence and petty behavior. Even in season 3 after Daniel supposedly navigates through his uncertainty arc, he still thinks booting up his dojo and meeting fire with fire is the best choice. Having moral ambiguity in these characters is cool and interesting but at some point the viewer should be able to discern the real karate path of ethical action from the missteps taken by our major characters and I don’t believe that has been executed clearly enough.
In the original movies we see Mr. Miyagi make difficult choices that lead away from violence and confrontation even at the cost of his pride. He only resorts to action when cornered or when needing to protect Daniel. Cobra Kai gives these moments a brief nod (like when Daniel walks into the Cobra Kai dojo for a confrontation and walks away without fighting) but almost always undermines it shortly after for the sake of storytelling sizzle.
The truth is, in the world of Cobra Kai, the best bet for all of the kids in the show would be to get out of karate entirely. They would stop getting into gang fights and could actually learn other forms of conflict resolution. Staying in the karate cults, or switching between them, only serves to increase their personal confusion and dig them deeper into moral and ethical pits. I have to predict that we’ll see a turn toward cooperation and resolution in the coming 1-2 seasons, but since they’ve spent three seasons setting a basis for what motivates the characters into certain actions a change of heart will seem too sudden and unconvincing. The real lessons are already imprinted in the viewer’s mind.
I, like many other millennials, have used the original Karate Kid as a source of inspiration even when the real martial arts world doesn’t live up to that hopeful movie standard. I’m not confident Cobra Kai is setting itself up as the same kind of guidepost for Gen Z.
Cobra Kai May be Timelier Than It Knows
Based on my previous segment you might think it’s all doom and gloom for the message of the show. Not so! In fact, there may be a more valuable takeaway than is obvious on the surface:
The original Karate Kid movie showed us what senseiship could be. Cobra Kai showed us what senseiship shouldn’t be.
The problematic behavior of Daniel, Johnny, and Kreese is reflective of many karate teachers in the real world. They speak loftily about concepts like self control, self respect, courtesy toward others, etc. But a quick glance at their personal behavior and you’ll see them acting petty, showing little self control (especially online), and bemoaning the world around them. They demonstrate the hypocrisy of Daniel, the social stunting of Johnny, and the extremism of Kreese. Granted, they don’t usually physically abuse their students like in the show, but the lack of wisdom and emotional maturity is certainly present.
My complaint about how Cobra Kai lacks the hopeful messaging of the movies may, in fact, be it’s most important takeaway. The original movies showed us the aspirational benefits of karate. Cobra Kai shows us a more superficial, more insidious, and more harmful reality. Let’s make sure our younger viewers understand the difference.