By Saidat Giwa-Osagie
In the ’80s, people couldn’t wait to rent The Karate Kid from Blockbuster; today they can’t wait for Cobra Kai to stream on Netflix. How things change – and how they don’t. It’s unusual for a cinematic crane kick to reverberate through the pop culture consciousness. Yet here we are, in the third season of the Karate Kid spinoff TV series. Unlike Netflix’s erasure of Blockbuster, Cobra Kai doesn’t diminish the impact of The Karate Kid. It builds on its steeped pop culture legacy and stands on its own merit as a series worthy of acclaim.
Season three picks up as everyone reels from the Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai brawl that concluded season two. Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) awakes from his coma and faces the harsh reality of his life-altering injuries. His assailant and nemesis Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan) flees town fearing imprisonment. Meanwhile, karate senseis Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) confront their never-ending feud’s far-reaching consequences.
While previous seasons of Cobra Kai established how Daniel and Johnny’s coming-of-age shaped them in adulthood, season three shows the two men wrestling with their legacies and their impact on the next-gen karate kids. Both bear the brunt of ill-reputation following Miguel’s hospitalisation. They are so entrenched in the mythologies of Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai; it is difficult to distinguish their personhood from their karate.
Karate Kid was a coming-of-age story for Daniel and Johnny; season three of Cobra Kai is their coming-of-middle-age tale: marked by self-atonement and self-improvement. Johnny sheds his old habits and Cobra Kai skin. Daniel’s soul searching takes him back to Mr Miyagi’s Japanese hometown, where he reunites with old foes and friends from Karate Kid 2. Both men discover unexpected answers from unlikely sources. Despite their fundamental disagreements, the two rivals aren’t so different after all.
The ambiguity of who’s good or evil in Cobra Kai is a recurring theme and defining aspect of the show. Sam (Mary Mouser) tells Daniel, “I thought we were the good guys,” in a moment of disillusion following season two’s violent duel. The late Mr Miyagi’s wisdom echoes throughout the episodes, reminding us there are “no bad students, only bad teachers.” In stark contrast, Johnny’s former mentor Kreese (Martin Kove) motivates students with the same old-school brutality that shaped his protege. It makes Johnny’s classes look Cobra Kai-lite. “Good is a matter of perspective,” a menacing Kreese bellows, returning Cobra Kai to its grittier origins.
Cobra Kai’s initial seasons relished in its novelty, in the possibilities presented by a Karate Kid universe. It answered the audience’s gnawing ‘where are they now?’ questions and established the new character backstories. Season three doesn’t abandon the series’ roots because it can’t, nor should it want to, given the show’s nostalgic heartstrings are central to its appeal. Instead, season three evolves the character arcs for its two leads to steer the show in a different direction. Cobra Kai isn’t about two men reliving the past; it’s about everyone learning from the past to create a different future trajectory.
The latest episodes also explore the humanity behind some of the series’ most hardened characters. Whether it’s Kreese, Cobra Kai’s bloodthirsty recruit Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) or Tori (Peyton List), the show gives us a peek behind their steely exteriors. Cobra Kai’s writers have done a great job of giving the newer characters believable depth and exciting stories in their own right. The storyline between Hawk and former pal Demitri (Gianni Decenzo) is just one example of the show’s considered storytelling. Mouser’s portrayal of Sam’s mental trauma throughout the 10 episodes results in an impactful crescendo. Nothing is wasted.
Miguel and Robby’s rivalry worsens because of Johnny’s divided loyalties between his mentee and son. Tanner Buchanan gives a convincing performance as the neglected Robby, in search of a loyal father figure. Maridueña’s Miguel hits his stride as the sympathetic karate champion, trying to forge his own identity and maintain the peace. Miguel also provides some of the series’ funnier moments as an occasional mentor, addressing his sensei’s moments arrested development. Both the adults and the teens have some growing pains this season.
Cobra Kai isn’t the show you watch to decipher mysterious plot twists. The storylines are mostly formulaic, but surprising where it counts most. Its California settings and lighthearted feel captures the peppy and upbeat spirit of 1980s Americana, retrofitted for 2021. Not to mention, the carefully curated ’80s soundtrack is a delight (‘In The Air Tonight’ never sounded so good). The show knows it is cheesy and sweet, but not schmaltzy. Yes, Cobra Kai revels in nostalgia but only where it serves the story. Simply put, Cobra Kai is good, old-fashioned fun with a generous dose of action.
Overall, the new episodes will go down as the funniest Cobra Kai season yet. Small but humorous performances from Brett Ernst as car salesman Louie LaRusso Jr are scene stealers. Amanda LaRusso (Courtney Henggeler) is given more scope in the third season as a voice of reason and a protective mama bear willing to dole out her brand of no mercy. Macchio gives a likeable and measured performance as Daniel LaRusso. You get the sense he understands the magnitude of his role and what the series means to fans, carrying the role with dignity. Zabka’s comic timing and deadpan delivery bring plenty of laughs in season three. The running gag of his Luddite habits and loyal dedication to a bygone era plays to humourous effect. This is not to say Zabka lacks dramatic range; his depiction of a frustrated and regretful Johnny is palpable and balances the humour with serious weight.
As Netflix gears up for the fourth season of Cobra Kai, the newest episodes position the series for an exciting future. As expected, the action set pieces are a visual treat and move the story forward in a compelling manner. More observant viewers will delight in the subtle and symbolic Easter eggs related to the Karate Kid films. The penultimate episode is a highlight well worth the wait, and it segues nicely into the final episode.
Season three’s finale is more resolute than season two’s equivalent, even if it is a more haphazard episode. Nonetheless, its emotional payoff is satisfying and will leave you hankering for season four. In an era of countless TV and film reboots, Cobra Kai is a welcome revival. Given the events of season three, it’s clear that the show is hitting a new stride. There are still more stories left to tell in this series, karate chop and all.