DISCLAIMER: Spoilers abound for Season Three of Netflix’s Cobra Kai. You’ve been warned. Proceed at your own peril.
Cobra Kai started out as the little-show-that-could. After an initial run on YouTube, the next entry in the “Miyagiverse” catapulted to the stratosphere. It was peculiar at first, thinking about a show centered on The Karate Kid franchise that wasn’t one of Hollywood’s tired reboots. After all, the third installment of Daniel LaRusso’s story premiered over 30 years ago. Is there still a place in the market for The Karate Kid? Would the demographic be solely comprised of middle-aged folks embracing nostalgia?
I’d like to think Stranger Things ushered in this current obsession with the past, particularly with ’80s pop culture. Netflix’s biggest series paved the way for the streaming giant’s next big show. But instead of focusing on The Karate Kid‘s titular hero, Daniel LaRusso, Cobra Kai brings us back into the karate world via the film’s villain: Johnny Lawrence. Cobra Kai finds time for the characters we already know while introducing us to fresh blood that’ll undoubtedly extend this universe.
Fast forward to January 2021. Cobra Kai helped us ring in the new year with its Season Three debut. After two fast-paced seasons, does the show manage to keep the momentum flowing, or do its punches fail to land?
Cobra Kai‘s third season picks up where the last outing left off — Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) is in critical condition in the hospital no thanks to Robby (Tanner Buchanan) kicking him over the railing at school. Johnny (William Zabka) is spiraling out of control. Firstly, his former sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove) returns to town and overtakes the dojo. Secondly, Miguel’s mother vehemently blames Johnny for her son’s condition. Thirdly, his rivalry with Daniel (Ralph Macchio) continues to thrive. Lastly, his son Robby is now on the lam.
Sam (Mary Mouser), Daniel’s daughter, is suffering from PTSD after her terrifying battle with Tory (Peyton List). The school undergoes a security makeover since the massive karate battle left it on a violently tenuous tightrope. Eli a.k.a. Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) is still a major prick who ends up breaking his former best friend Demetri’s (Gianni DeCenzo) arm. Well, later in the season. Amanda (Courtney Henggeler), Daniel’s wife, continues to be the voice of reason even amid all the darkness.
Essentially, everyone’s in the abyss when Season Three rolls around. Bitter rivalries have torn friendships asunder and sowed seeds of discord that otherwise wouldn’t exist if those damn kids never learned karate.
Karate solves everything!
Season Three does something I didn’t think was possible — it raises the stakes. Additionally, Cobra Kai manages to keep the fight scenes interesting. It’s difficult to not go the way of tedium when every tense situation devolves into karate. However, karate is the crux of Cobra Kai. While its heart is self-acceptance, I’d say the meat and bones of the show are definitely karate-based. If the fight scenes are weak, then there’s no sound reason for Cobra Kai‘s existence. Thankfully, the show continues to inspire where that’s concerned.
The karate scenes themselves, especially in Season Three, help propel the story forward. Notably, when Sam confronts Tory and faces her fears in the season finale’s grand fight sequence at the LaRusso household. In that same scene, Miguel is almost back to speed after his injuries. Johnny and Daniel tag-teaming against Kreese is another moment that springs to mind wherein our characters develop through karate. The fighting style plays an integral part in the story and becomes a method of storytelling all on its own.
Another aspect of this season I enjoyed: the parallels between Daniel and Johnny’s respective journeys. This season of Cobra Kai, more than ever, reveals just how much alike these supposed “foes” are. Daniel returns to Okinawa where he reunites with Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) and Chozen (Yuji Okumoto). He also, in a way, rekindles his connection to Mr. Miyagi and retools his sense of direction through his late sensei’s everlasting wisdom. Meanwhile, Johnny meets up with his ex-girlfriend Ali Mills (Elizabeth Shue), which is the best-kept secret of any show ever.
Through these sequences, both Daniel and Johnny learn from their past. In Johnny’s case, he clings to nostalgia like a moth to light. Reuniting with Ali helps him move forward, particularly where his relationship with Carmen (Vanessa Rubio), Miguel’s mom, is concerned. Daniel gets much-needed closure with Chozen and the latter even teaches Daniel some lessons. The symmetry between Daniel and Johnny’s storylines is pleasing to watch, especially since Cobra Kai has been striving to “redeem” Johnny from the get-go. Perhaps he was never a full-fledged villain, to begin with.
Performance-wise, Zabka continues to deliver. He imbues Johnny Lawrence with nuance aplenty. In a show that often goes the cheesy, overdramatic route, Zabka’s work is grounded in reality. We sympathize with Johnny. Johnny morphs into a fleshed-out character beyond serving as the punchline for every ’80s joke. From the teenagers’ side, Mouser stands out to me. Cobra Kai does an excellent job this season of laying the groundwork for not only Sam and Tory’s final showdown in the finale but giving us insight into Sam’s emotional trauma. Mouser does a superb job of taking us inside Sam’s mind as she grapples with PTSD.
Kove is the show’s Big Bad, through and through. He’s your stereotypical 1980s villain — pompous, grandiose and colorful. While there are not a lot of subtleties to John Kreese, I can appreciate that he holds fast to the foes we’ve seen in movies gone by. The show does implement flashbacks this season of a young Kreese and his origin story. As interesting as the flashbacks are, they don’t add much to what we already know about him. It’s quite clear from the start that war embittered Kreese.
Betrayals and alliances!
Season Three is all about betrayals and alliances. Daniel and Johnny form a tenuous alliance to find Robby. When Sam and Miguel become close again, Robby feels betrayed by Sam. By the finale, Hawk and Demetri reunite after a feud that lasted multiple seasons. Robby essentially turns to the Dark Side by joining Kreese. I will admit — that moment is a mite too predictable given Robby’s tumultuous upbringing. The writers do a great job of planting the seeds for Hawk’s eventual side-switching. These moments are subtle with the heft of the work noticeable in Bertrand’s performance. When we encroach season finale territory, Hawk’s transition to the “good” side feels like a natural one.
This season falters where Robby’s story is concerned. He spends a good chunk of time brooding in a juvenile detention center, extricated from the core group, and fighting with a bully that’s simply a throwaway character. His switch to Kreese’s side is expected and happens all too quickly. Robby’s character development, the progress he made with Daniel, is tossed out of the window for the sake of the plot.
“Send that to the internet!”
Overall, Season Three delivers the goods as promised: drama and karate. The show never tries to be something it’s not, which I can appreciate. You don’t watch Cobra Kai for gripping, nuanced performances. This isn’t Sundance. However, the series capitalizes on the cheesiness and melodramatics that are quintessentially ’80s — everything’s big, bold and boisterous. Every fight sequence is accompanied by an ’80s-inspired, electric guitar-laden score. The drama is heightened. Perhaps what makes Cobra Kai work is the fact that it embraces The Karate Kid‘s over-the-top nature and channels it into the modern age. In short, the show is just plain entertaining. It’s fluffy fun that doesn’t take itself too seriously and provides the audience with oodles of intricate fight choreography. Not to mention, a kickass classic soundtrack.
Basically, ignore this review and just enjoy the show, warts and all. Now, send that to the internet!
Cobra Kai Seasons 1-3 are currently streaming on Netflix.