Cobra Kai: A Study in Character

This is one of those instances where I feel sheepishly behind the curve. This show came out something like four years ago (seems a bit hazy on whether it’s 2017 or 2018), and when it was first announced, no one expected it to be any good. For one thing, it debuted on YouTube’s television service, and while YouTube may be great for a lot, original, sponsored programming by recognizable names isn’t it.

For another, the story was one that doesn’t feel like it needs telling. Cobra Kai picks up where the Karate Kid movies left off, set in the same universe, only in the modern day and age. The story follows Johnny Lawrence, the bully from the first film who was defeated by the now legendary kick. That defeat sent his life into a tailspin, and now he’s a heavy drinking (they never outright say drunk but man, does he drink a lot) loser who’s unable to keep down even his part-time repair jobs. Meanwhile, Daniel Russo has transitioned his successes in martial arts to success as a car salesman, running the dominate car lot in the valley.

Distraught, Johnny just tries to scrape by. that is, until he encounters Miguel, his lanky young Hispanic neighbor. Miguel is the new kid, likes more nerdy things, and happens to be the product of a two generation single mom situation (at least we don’t see grandfather). Naturally he’s bullied relentlessly at school. Johnny intervenes, not as a real adult should, but as a hot mess should: by beating up the bullies with karate. Naturally Miguel is impressed, and the two re-form Cobra Kai dojo.

Danny, seeing this, freaks out. There’s also some more plots involving Danny’s daughter, Sam, and Johnny’s son (and the worst character) Robbie. But overall the story tells the forming of the dojo and Danny’s attempts to stop it.

The plot stays relatively simple, though with several complications. The Cobra Kai dojo grows as Miguel starts to show real talent and character development, thus leading to some issues regarding Johnny’s training methods. See, that’s part of what makes this interesting: Johnny didn’t initially change Cobra Kai’s very 80’s action movie mantra: Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy. When following that to the letter, you get a bunch of cheating bullies who will pick on the weak and strong alike.

But what makes this interesting is how they handle that. The mantra works for this batch of Cobra Kai students on some level, because they’re not those at the top of the food chain. It starts with Miguel, but the second student, Aisha, is an overweight black girl who’s bullied at school because she’s fat and smart. Johnny tells Miguel to beat the crap out of her, and when that doesn’t deter her, she wins his respect and admiration.

Then several other “nerds” and outsiders are added into the fold. My personal favorite is Eli, a kid with a lip deformity who is relentlessly teased for it. Mix that with nerdy pursuits and an obnoxious best friend, and Eli’s at the very bottom of the social run. Johnny teases him about the lip directly, almost bullying him, but when Miguel calls him out on it, Johnny points out that it’s pointless to hide it. Everyone’s going to see the lip: that’s the narrative that Eli’s body writes for him. It’s up to Eli to change that narrative if he wants it to change.

This is part of what makes this so fascinating. Johnny’s techniques are very much what we wouldn’t consider “PC” by today’s standards. He mocks students, teaches them to punch first, and regularly puts them in danger. However, he also takes the time to apply his own life lessons: life won’t treat the students fairly. And when they rewrite their narratives, Johnny treats them with the respect they’ve earned. He acknowledges who they are as “badasses” and tells them to be more forward.

This works great, as the show masterfully shows us these various kids developing more and more. We see Miguel, Aisha, and Eli (who becomes “Hawk” for reasons I’m gonna try to avoid at the moment) grow as people. They become more sure of themselves, more confident, telling off their oppressors, striking back, and taking initiative in their own lives. It’s great character writing and development, and it has the potential to actually teach some important lessons along the way.

If the show stopped there, it would probably be disingenuous. This is the same dojo and motto that created a 80s’ era group of bullies (though the show does a great job showing what things were like from Johnny’s end, building on the movie’s already strong foundation of defying the typical norm there). So naturally the kids go a bit too far, particularly Hawk. In fact, I’d say Hawk has one of the best villain arcs I’ve ever seen in a television show, as his strength begets confidence begets arrogance. He becomes a fully dynamic villain: we know where he started and we see why he is who he is today. I actually found myself disappointed when the show essentially decides that every younger person needs to redeem themselves (it’s one of the two areas I’m a bit disappointed in).

So what makes the show is Johnny’s acknowledgement that he’s pushed the kids too far. He decides that honor is also important, and that you aren’t badass if you’re picking on the weak and defenseless. I love that phrasing: it shows that Johnny hasn’t changed his ideals fully, but adopted them in a manner befitting a person who’s undergone change and what he has experienced.

Mixed in there is Danny’s story. He’s too caught up in the past, and launches to defend the Valley against Cobra Kai without seeming to fully realize what’s going on. He takes every opportunity to read evil into Johnny’s intentions, and the show does a brilliant job of demonstrating how both he and Johnny cannot let go of their past. This is what holds them back as men in almost every respect (and it’s a reoccurring theme and issue with both).

There are some downsides. The character of Robby, who is Johnny’s biological son, is a mess. He’s introduced as this too cool, too handsome rebel who skips school and does crime. He then gets in with the Russos in order to mess with his father, but gets involved with Danny’s Miyagi-Do Karate. This transition just feels a bit too sudden, and the show never seems to quite know what to do with Robby. I’m never a fan of whenever he’s on stage, though his actor may have something to do with it (he looks like every bully from a Disney channel movie ever).

Sam Russo’s character goes back and forth as well. At times she’s well done as this strong girl, and at times she’s annoying. I do think that she at least gets better development than Robby, though perhaps not as much as the other kids. It takes until around Season Four for her to fully develop in interesting, dynamic ways that help hammer home the overall themes of the show.

At the end of the day, Cobra Kai didn’t have any reason to be good. It initially sounded like something that was birthed to create memes and build on nostalgia. It’s entire purpose at first seems like “well what if the bad guys in this 80’s’ movie were right?” I certainly wasn’t interested, and if I hadn’t consistently heard good things, I probably wouldn’t have started streaming it one day while sick and not stopped until I’d watched the entire first season.

Because the show builds incredibly complex characters around a relatively simple plot and a pretty strong theme. It takes what we’ve all learned from the past and tries to make something new with it, combining old ideas with new ways of thinking to attempt to create something wholly original and new. If you’re interested in character driven shows, particularly those that focus on teenagers though may only be for older teens, and/or you like a good dramedy (one of my favorite genres) with some admittedly kickass fights, this is likely the show for you.

9 would be better, but I can’t overlook some dumb plot choices, the late stage Hawk redemption, and literally everything involving Robby as a character

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