It was only a few years back when the YouTube Red series Cobra Kai premiered to an eager base of fans ready to experience an action-comedy drama that brought back fond memories of the blockbuster film, Karate Kid. Despite a great fan following on YouTube Red, Cobra Kai only felt its giant boost when it finally debuted on Netflix in the summer of 2019, reaching the #1 spot on Netflix’s top ten most watched shows, and #1 in Nielsen Ratings nationally (Nielsen ratings measure audience viewership and ratings nationwide).
Cobra Kai builds on the legacy of the Karate Kid movie series, while also exploring the full story of what happened then and what has happened since.The two enemies from the first movie, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) are now middle-aged men. Still their lives seem to be rooted by the consequences of the original film’s ending, where Daniel kicks Johnny in the head and wins the All-Valley Under 18 Tournament, all thanks to his wise and great mentor, Mr. Miyagi (played by late Pat Morita).
The show released its third season on January 1, 2021. So without further ado, we’re going to strike first, strike hard, and show no mercy with this review of Cobra Kai’s third season.
– – – – Warning: Potential Spoilers Ahead! – – – –
Season 3, much like the previous seasons, has received a lot of critical and audience acclaim. We start the season revealing the consequences of what happened at the end of Season 2: Johnny Lawrence is broken and giving up on life again, Miguel Diaz is in a coma, Johnny’s son Robby is hiding from the law enforcement, and Kreese is operating Cobra Kai.
By far, the plot of the series is brutally compact with a lot of poetic throwbacks to the film trilogy. However, I believe the third season’s plot sells us short. We see a semi-repeat of Season 2 with Miguel helping Johnny impress girls and Johnny growing his relationship with Carmen Diaz, Miguel’s mother. Even the season finale depicts a rematch of the fight that literally happened in season 2. Among many others, an interesting one is the rehashing of the whole love triangle with Robby getting angry at Miguel and Sam “falling in love again.” The season seems to be reiteration of what already has happened, which is a key recurring theme in the series. Hopefully the creators of the franchise take the lessons they bring to the table: to their hearts as well.
The plot isn’t so great, but there is a plus side to that: the season becomes redeemed by the narrative. A narrative is often binding, no matter how expansive. Like Star Wars. The third season follows the Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai dynamic, but it isn’t the teachers fighting it out this time. It’s the students. Sam LaRusso is willing to take things into her own hands, Hawk won’t stop bullying Demetri. Robby is willing to live by the Cobra Kai creed, you have a lot of the key character arcs of Season 2 culminating to their greatest peak. You can tell the story is being a little lazy, but essentially it just ends up like the Return of the Jedi from the Saga of Star Wars. The story has way fewer risks, but the result is somewhat more appealing: This season brings a renewed focus to the new characters — building their relationships, building their motivations for future seasons.
The Layering: Shading it together
What Cobra Kai’s third season does, is what movies and television series are constantly trying to do right. The layering. Adding motivations to characters, so you know it isn’t some white-headed nose-less wizard just trying to do stuff because evil is something to enjoy (if you didn’t get that reference, please search up “JK Rowling”). There is a composite and uniform slate of ideologies that make Cobra Kai so compelling to watch. This is why I believe the show has broken so many records to achieve ultimate success.
In season 3, we see the story delve into John Kreese’s background. A bullied teenager, with a mother suffering from mental problems on the verge of committing suicide, who then ends up enlisting to go to Vietnam. He fights in the war, loses his best friend to Vietnamese soldiers after failing to learn the “no mercy” lesson taught by his military superior (NOT EVEN REALIZING that his military superior actually withheld information about his girlfriend’s fatal car accident). As this storyline develops, Cobra Kai becomes dark very quickly. Kreese then ends up being forced to fight with his military superior. In this scene, you see the brutality that has formed the man we saw in Karate Kid and learn more about this season.
And here’s the bigger theme of Cobra Kai: everyone, in their own way, makes sense. Kreese failed to learn “strike first, strike hard, no mercy!” And when he did, he lost people he cared about, he suffered mentally and physically, but most of all: the regrets of those failures create the “monstrosity” which exists in the founder of the Karate Dojo: Cobra Kai. But we’re only skimming Kreese here, when we explore Daniel LaRusso, we explore Johnny Lawrence: you realize their fighting isn’t even over ideologies, of whose karate teachings make more sense. It’s about the people they care about: Daniel cares about Robby, he’s learned to accept Miguel-Sam’s relationship. Johnny has begun to care more about Miguel’s mother: he isn’t shy of who he WAS, when he talks to Ali; returns to the Karate spotlight by launching his dojo.
Is Nostalgia Getting too Much?
Let’s face it, the nostalgia on Cobra Kai makes you laugh, cry, scream, and take the show even more seriously. The past is what makes Cobra Kai’s present all the more endearing. It’s the basis of Cobra Kai’s success. The return of the old characters, and settings, and more importantly the dividing attitudes of society on survival in the real world. Cobra Kai, using this very nostalgia, has transformed this show into one about the hard route with a slate of moral values, and the shortcuts without an exact slate of moral values.
But we reach a point eventually in season 3 and ask ourselves: has the nostalgia reached its peak? Season 1 and 2 masterfully depict the continuation and evolution of what once was, while keeping core ideas intact. Season 3, meanwhile, is reminiscent of the post-Lucas Star Wars films. We see Daniel finding out about a whole new karate technique (Luke projecting himself across the galaxy), old villains who are now supposed heroes like Chozen (Boba Fett saving Baby Yoda), and a bit of copy-paste from Season 2 (Force Awakens copying A New Hope).
There’s very little at stake in Season 3, but….
There’s a Very Good Setup
Sam LaRusso, Miguel Diaz, Robby Lawrence, Tory Nichols, Daniel, Johnny, Demetri, Kreese and his gang … everyone has something to look forward to in the next season. Everything is suddenly at stake. The All-Valley Tournament next time isn’t some beef-bashing on love triangles: A dojo will close, a set of values will triumph, characters reach the peak of their arcs. No matter the shortcomings and great moments from Season 3, the fourth season will be worth the watch.
Written by Yousaf Quereshi