A good friend of mine once observed, “nostalgia is paralysis,” but on Netflix’s Cobra Kai, there’s no ailment that nostalgia can’t cure. Despite the show’s brilliant premise—decades later, what happened to the bully who received his comeuppance during the climactic fight?—creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossburg have increasingly, and fatally, drawn from the drying well of the Karate Kid series for their soapy twists and turns, standing on the shoulders of franchise “icons” so small you’ll be forgiven for not remembering them.
That’s not to denigrate the actors from Karate Kid II and III that the trio brought back; even they acknowledge that their movies weren’t great. And indeed, there is real potential in an inventory—and an interrogation—of a past moment that seemed to mean so much at the time, but has largely been forgotten by the rest of the world. And, admittedly, there’s a fleeting joy that comes from reuniting these actors in their iconic roles. But Cobra Kai spends entirely too much time reliving what its showrunners—and to be fair, maybe some longtime fans—consider to be these films’ glory days, only to abandon the deeper meaning (much less dramatic weight) of its seeming raison d’etre: to question if those days were ever actually that glorious.
By season five, which premiered Sept. 9 on Netflix, you can’t help but feel sorry for Johnny Lawrence. Not only has Johnny lost Cobra Kai a few times over, abandoning being an instructor altogether, but Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) has effectively become the show’s central protagonist, precisely because Johnny decided to move on, grow up, and repair the damage he caused by fixating on the past. As a result, Johnny is largely absent from the main “plot” of the show, which involves the return of the calculating Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) and his nefarious plot to “control the Valley.”
Hilariously, this is exactly how Silver’s ambitions are defined—never mind that what LaRusso is referring to every time he says this is a potential monopoly of San Fernando Valley martial arts schools, and we later learn, an international chain of affiliates. (That this is a world where children have no other options for extracurricular activities or opportunities for self-improvement is a notion the show brilliantly dares not to acknowledge.) What Johnny’s doing instead is seeking out his student and surrogate son Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), who went in search of his absentee birth father, and bringing along his own biological son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) in hopes of mending three relationships at once—his with each of the boys, and theirs with each other.
When Johnny discovers that his girlfriend (and Miguel’s mother) Carmen (Vanessa Rubio) is pregnant with their child, he buckles down, cleans up his act, and tries to implement some healthier and more consistent habits. Recognizing that he risks losing people who bring meaning to his life, he forgets entirely about karate and starts acting like a grown-up. This sounds like it would be boring—he renovates his apartment and gets a job as a ride-share driver—but his awkward progress actually makes for both great comedy and emotionally enriching growth.
Daniel, meanwhile, becomes obsessed—and I mean obsessed—with Terry Silver, who infiltrates the same white-collar community where he and his wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) are fixtures, and becomes convinced that Silver is orchestrating a complicated psychological operation not only to gain “control of the Valley,” but to ruin the LaRussos’ marriage and, if possible, their lives. It’s a development into which the show never bothers to build any kind of reality check, but it’s impossible to not to think “Oh, he’s clearly gone crazy” while watching Daniel try to convince Amanda that the fight he is having with her, about Silver, is actually the direct and intentional result of a complex mind game by Silver to drive a wedge between them.
As aggravating as it is to watch Daniel blow up his life while believing that he’s fighting a malevolent opponent, his choices offer an object lesson that stretches directly back to the origins of the show: don’t hold on too tightly to the past, or it may jeopardize your future. His mania brilliantly illuminates how holding onto old grudges can be even more damaging than holding onto old glories. Instead, Amanda eventually leaves him and goes to visit her cousin Jessica (Robyn Lively), who was Daniel’s friend during his brief period under Silver’s tutelage. Jessica unfortunately confirms all of Daniel’s concerns by explaining to Amanda what a number the sensei did on him, so their marital reconciliation comes with a renewed commitment to stop Silver and to return control of the Valley to, one supposes, anyone who can complete a correspondence course in karate instruction.
And so, determined to restore “justice” to the Valley—and never to ask the question, “Am I listening to what I’m saying as an adult man with a family, a career, and a pretty good life”—Daniel contacts Johnny and pleads with him to help stop Silver at all costs. The closest pop culture comparison to draw to this moment is in Heat when Nate tells Neil McCauley where Waingro is at the exact moment he and Eady are on their way to escape the cops—and for Cobra Kai, Johnny’s decision to join Daniel’s fight is almost as heartbreaking. Johnny has turned his life around. He lives like an adult. Even if not always thoughtfully, he communicates his feelings and encourages the kids he parents, or mentors, to communicate theirs. And now he’s part of a profoundly stupid fight for control of the Valley which he would likely never hear about, and would never impact him again, because Daniel has not only built his life around the past, but is determined to build everyone else’s life around it as well.
That said, watching a “successful” person get consumed by their success—or the perception of it, anyway—can develop into a thought-provoking character study. Certainly it’s as likely, and interesting, an outcome as it was for Johnny to become a washed-up nobody after his loss. But the creators of the show don’t seem interested in examining that idea more closely. From the first season, Daniel has always been the kind of insufferable friend that no one can stand in real life, precisely because he thinks his frequently unsolicited advice—collected from a thoughtful, taciturn mentor whose lessons were drawn from simple and practical activities—offers transcendent wisdom. The basic principles of Miyagi-do were common sense and kindness, but Daniel regurgitates these insights like no one in 2018, or 2022, has glanced at a feel-good internet meme, most of which his pearls of wisdom could boil down to. (To be fair, Johnny probably has not ever glanced at one.)
But as low as the show tries to bring Daniel by the halfway point of season five, its story pivots on validating his insane paranoia, which undercuts every one of those more substantive ideas about the legacy that chases these men as much as they may or may not be eager to leave it behind. It doesn’t help Daniel or Johnny’s evolution that Heald, Hurwitz, and Schlossburg never provide more than one-dimensional motivation for Terry Silver’s evil schemes.
Again, it would be more interesting if he were just a dickhead businessman who Daniel becomes convinced is trying to destroy his life, and destroys it himself in the process of “stopping” an adversary who, Mariah Carey-style, does not know him. But even after staging a hostile takeover of Cobra Kai, Silver’s plans are never fused with a comprehensible psychology; he’s mean and manipulative, but why? I’d even accept the answer, “because nobody ever asked him why,” but the show certainly does not possess that much self-reflection.
But in an era where more shows are created than ever from the ashes of existing intellectual property, the only thing that seems to matter with a series like this is the quantification of callbacks and references. That would be fine—and in fact, the return of Sean Kanan as Mike Barnes, Silver’s former protégé, leads to a surprisingly charming reconciliation. But there’s a difference between extending a role and deepening it, and the showrunners do a whole lot of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. Or maybe the show isn’t about re-framing The Karate Kid around the loser’s perspective, and the whole thing was a bait-and-switch to honor Daniel LaRusso, and I’ve been bamboozled by Terry Silver.
But ultimately, what remains frustrating about Cobra Kai is that the more time elapses and the more story gets told, the more it feels as a whole like a missed opportunity. The show’s structure is otherwise clear; the teen characters exist to carry on the conflicts of their forebears, to perform choreography that (with all due respect) the older actors can’t or won’t do themselves, and to inject more of the soapy, simplistic melodrama that made the original film (and to a lesser extent its sequels) so much fun. But when characters in their mid-50s are still holding onto grudges from four decades ago—and they’re not pausing for a second to question why this is still important to them—it’s simplistic, but it’s not soapy, and it’s no longer fun.
It’s been 38 years since the events of original film, and somehow Johnny Lawrence still isn’t even the main character in a show that was explicitly supposed to be about him. A Cobra Kai season six seems inevitable, so if it’s unlikely that Daniel will ever do any real introspection, maybe at least let Johnny finally grow up? Otherwise, these characters really are going to keep fighting until someone gets sent home in a bodybag—and that would be the audience, bored by the repetition.