Sweep the Nostalgia, Or Why Cobra Kai Does and Does Not Suck

80’s Nostalgia has been going on so long that the teenagers who were doing it 15 years ago are now grown up and have kids of their own. Do they nostalgize their nostalgia? Is there anything else? Are we permanently stuck? Does this whining help? No to all, and the questions have become boring. The culture is stuck, but something that can’t go on forever, won’t. So let’s at least observe and honor a show that connects the past to the present, as opposed to Stranger Things, which could have been set in any time, and is set in the 80’s because of course it is. Cobra Kai is better than that. Better than it needs to be, really, even with it’s flaws.

I wasn’t going to watch Season 3. Season 2 disappointed me so much that I declared myself done with it. I relented, and I’m glad I did, but the exercise of watching it has kicked loose a need to express what I have observed. So grab your gis and give me 20; this is gonna be a long one.

Daniel-San, Show Me Save the Franchise

The algorithims, it is said, dictate our content. That’s the entertainment consequence of the digital age. You can make whatever you want, but if you want it to be seen, you gotta keyword it, and the audience better already exist. And given that everything new that’s come into existence this century has to fight through the noise to find it’s audience, it’s a much safer bet to regurgitate something that people already know and like. That’s why Ridley Scott is farting around with new ways to re-tell Alien. That’s why the most ambitious sci-fi work of this year is going to be the second attempt at a film adaptation of a novel from 1965, because we haven’t had enough space-opera epics Ludovico’d into our drying eyeballs just yet.

And that’s why Cobra Kai exists. I don’t think they spent a lot of time at the pitch meeting. If the whole thing took longer to green light than the words “Dude, they made a Jem and the Holograms movie. Karate Kid is bound to have more legs” took to say, I’d be very surprised. Maybe they had coffee first.

But, and there is a but, the mama birds behind this particular regurgitation actually took the time to stir up a fresh take on the property. Which, they were bound to do, as the creative team behind Karate Kid had already spread the premise thin. There had already been a sequel, and a third movie that was basically the first movie, but dumber, and a protagonist gender-swapping, practically non-canon fourth movie, and a crappy reboot. The well was dryer than the radiator in Mr. Miagi’s Yellow Ford. If the team wanted to get in on the Algorithim’s Munificence, they needed something new.

Which is to say, something new and something old. Cobra Kai is a delicate balancing act between two impulses: a full-on fan-service smorgasboard, which bows to the need of hyperfans to have every part of the Canon Respected, and a partial inversion of the original film’s premise. That’s right, we’re going to Reference All The Things, and tell it from the point of view of the Bad Guy.

As it turns out, Karate Kid worked best when Daniel LaRusso had an antagonist on his level. That’s why Karate Kid Part II, for all it’s charms, ultimately feels odd. There’s no real reason for Daniel to be invested in anything that’s happening on Okinawa; he’s just there. Daniel doesn’t really understand why these people are like this, or how he’s supposed to Not piss off the angry Okinawan Guy. He doesn’t get it; neither do we. It’s Okinawans in the Mist. Good Score, though.

And that’s why Part III is tired. Ponytail Guy (No, I don’t remember his name. Yes, I know the younger version of him appeared in Season 3. I know he’ll be back. I do not care. He’s Ponytail Guy) is a cartoon on a level beyond John Kreese, who always came across, apart form his obvious PTSD, as a very grounded guy. Grunts who came home from ‘Nam nihilistic and anti-social was a trope that was already becoming overdone by 1984, and the number of them was definitely overstated, but they existed. Hence the first movie had plausibility. The third had none. The idea that a successful Mr. Business caricature would concoct some twisted Machiavellian scheme to … win a karate tournament in the Valley, never made any sense, and the movie itself can’t resist laughing at its absurd antagonist (“Waaa…. WAAAAaaaaaAAAA….”). The franchise never laughed at Kreese (and it still hasn’t, to its credit).

Ultimately, Karate Kid is a basic movie about literally fighting back against bullying, with some Zen meditation on the downside of violence sprinkled on top. You can only repeat that riff so many times before it loses its impact, so the only thing to do is play it backwards. Thus, we take a cue from the YouTube Protagonist Inversion Culture (“Why The Rebels Are Really the Bad Guys in Star Wars”), and we dust off Johnny Lawrence, who’s been MIA since the beginning of Part II. The Classic 80’s Movie Bully gets to be the Protagonist, and as soon as it was announced, even people who moan like crucified martyrs about Reboots of Endless Trash admitted that they kind of liked the idea.

The Counter-Culture Rug-Pull

Johnny Laurence is what Generation X wants to remember itself as: free, swaggering, indifferent to trends, making his own way in the wild world, utterly true to himself, a bit down on his luck at times, because he’s just too badass for the world to handle. We were too real, too cool, too beyond this petty world.

Daniel LaRusso is what Generation X actually is: conventional, out of his depth most of the time, and entirely content to sell cars and make dorky commercials in exchange for the big house with a zen garden. Making money and small acts of aesthetic whimsy are the only things we’ve ever understood.

The pattern of the show followed this rug-pull. First Season gives us the promise of a reconfigured Cobra Kai, an upturned middle finger to a softened, puritanical culture. And it largely delivered on that promise. We not only observed a dojo return to existence, we saw the ethos behind it raise its hooded head. Strike First – because if you’re gonna be in a fight, that’s the smart way to do it. Strike Hard – because otherwise, you might as well not bother. No Mercy – because the wicked world has none for you. In Sensei Lawrence’s hands, this mantra is not malice born of revenge on the world, but an honest assessment of what he’s seen and lived. It’s a way to go forward, not merely nostalgize his past.

The whole point is to bring back from the past what was good and useful, and leave what was destructive and unecessary. The Cobra Kai ethos is a warrior ethos, and while it doesnt’ want to admit it, Current Year Culture sees something there it misses. Violence doesn’t go away by disavowing it, and the show puts this point in Miguel’s mouth in Season 3. The implicit challenge to Current-Year “toxic masculinity” fretting is practically counter-cultural, and what made it worth checking out.

But Second Season turned that upside-down, and I hated it. On the one hand, it’s good to not utterly invert the original Karate Kid. It’s become a bit of a meme to sneer at Ralph Macchio, and a “Why Daniel LaRusso is really the Bad Guy” is a YourTube Hot Take that pre-exists Cobra Kai. But it’s garbage (and Macchio is an executive producer on the show, so thank the man, nerds). Daniel LaRusso is many things, not all of them good, but one thing he isn’t is a coward. He earned that victory in the first movie. At the moment of agony, when even his sensei is telling him he can throw in the towel with honor, he refuses. This isn’t about some trophy, Miagi-San. This is about proving to these roided-up clowns and their cult master that I’m as good as them. I will not accept an Honorable Mention. So pull out your Zen Magic and fix my leg, sensei. Victory or Death.

That’s the essence of heroism, as all good 80’s action movies knew. So yes, let’s not flip the script all the way and make him villainous. The back-and-forth between LaRusso and Lawrence is an essential part of Cobra Kai, and interesting precisely because neither of them are utterly in the wrong, but they’re driven by their past to mistrust and antagonism. There’s an element of Faulknerian tragedy to it: two men unable to escape the past. I appreciate not having to despise LaRusso, and appreciate the fact that he’s just a decent guy trying to do the right thing, as best he sees it.

That doesn’t make Miagi-Do’s rise to counter Cobra Kai in Season 2 any more interesting. The Miagi-Do kids are sparkless, frankly, and other than being against Cobra Kai have no reason to be there. The Cobra Kai kids, right or wrong, are scrappers, who join their dojo not to learn Zen mantras but to become strong in a world that has no use for them. This isn’t an educational exercise to them, it’s struggle. No such energy or need is found in Daniel’s boring daughter and the handful of other kids who are only there to fill the card out. Even Robbie Lawrence, the intense wild card of Season 1, angry and quiet in equal measures, becomes a drone under LaRusso’s tutelage.

We have a Structure problem as well. If Daniel’s not the bad guy, then against whom do we struggle? Here the logic of Fan Service imposes itself. You can’t not have Kreese return, so you build him up to be exactly the same character he was 35 years ago, saying and doing the exact same things. This way, you can have both Johnny and Daniel fight against him, and by the end of Season 3, that’s exactly where we are. Cobra Kai becomes what it always was, and the premise of the show cannot be but undercut by this. What’s the point of it all, if in the end, we’re just fighting the same fight we’ve already won? Is Daniel gonna honk Kreese’s nose at the end of Season 4, while Johnny makes fun of Ponytail Guy (“Waaaa… WAAAAAAAA….”)?

{No, probably it’s gonna be Johnny vs. Kreese, on the karate stuff, and Daniel vs. Ponytail Guy on the business stuff. Because we spent all that really interesting time on the business struggles of LaRusso automotive. Or something.}

When you start watching something intriqued with possibilities, only to discover that, some shifts and jumps aside, new ideas don’t really exist, it kills the pleasure. So, watching the Boring Kids fight the Not-Boring Kids, largely because of Who’s Dating Who, and knowing full well that the Not-Boring Kids have to lose, because they’re being made into cartoon villains and/or the pawns of a cartoon villain, left me in absolute indifference. Miguel getting his back messed up was the only thing I didn’t see coming, and I liked it not at all. Miguel is clearly the new Daniel LaRusso, i.e. the mildly ethnic kid living on the wrong side of the tracks who’s new in town and has no dad and needs a Teacher to show him The Way. Miguel and Johnny is the most significant relationship in Cobra Kai, as Daniel and Miagi were in the movies. Miguel’s ability to apply what his sensei teaches him defines his character arc, just as it did for Daniel back in the day. Seeing him broken on the school steps is a blow to the Cobra Kai ethos, and one that, again, seemed like an undermining of the show’s very premise.

In retrospect, I can be accused of throwing the towel in before the third act. TV shows have cliffhangers for a reason. Much as I didn’t like it, the ending of Season 2 effectively created low points for Johnny and Miguel. Watching the both bounce back from those low points, struggle to reconstruct themselves, wasn’t boring to watch (not like the Okninawa Fan Service of Daniels’ arc. I started washing dishes to avoid having to listen to Mr. Miagi Letters. Is there nothing else you can do with this guy than have him pine for his dead teacher?), and both end up stronger for it. So in the end, if the actual Cobra Kai is monstrous again, the functional Cobra Kai (the new Eagle Fang dojo) becomes at the end more or less what it should be, the hungry scrappers we know and love. The hatchet between Laurence and LaRusso seems finally buried, and we can build something new, so that the younger generation doesn’t have to get caught in the wars of their elders.

A Tale of Two Nerds

The struggle to move beyond the past is best exemplified in a set of side characters who’s relationship serves as a leitmotif for the series. Eli and Demetri, two dweebs who befriend Miguel early on, get drawn into the ancestral war of Cobra Kai and Miagi-Do without either of them having any understanding of it. Eli, flinchy and timid, with a scar on his lip from cleft-palate surgery, prefers to hide in negative space, avoiding even being seen. Demetri comments on the social maelstrom around him with that affectation of urbanity that nerds put on to appear above their surroundings. Both are strategies for dealing with their low social status and regular bullying by other boys. Theirs is a long friendship, born of necessity. Miguel, by administering a whooping on the bullies in the school cafeteria, brings these two into the world of Valley Karate.

Neither of them are suited for it, at first. Eli joins Cobra Kai, recieves the nickname of Lip from Sensei Lawrence, and, practically catatonic from humiliation, is told to “flip the script” if he doesn’t like it. This isn’t mere bullying, but Hard Truth, and it works: Eli gets a mowhawk to draw attention away from his lip. Johnny approves, and henceforth, Eli is known as Hawk.

He takes the opportunity to build an entirely new identity to heart. He trains hard, gets a huge hawk-wing tatoo across his back, cheers at the All-Valley Under 18 tournament, and attention from girls for the first time in his life. The script is flipped. Cobra Kai has made a weakling into a warrior.

Of course it goes to his head. Why wouldn’t it? What 16-year-old boy has the wisdom to become suddenly powerful without at least the temptation to embrace the dark side of Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy? But other than some very mild hazing of newbies, all of Hawk’s negative actions are at least partially driven by an intense loyalty to his new clan. Cobra Kai becomes everything to him, the locus of the good. All who cross it must be made to pay, by any means necessary.

This includes Demetri, whose pseudo-intellectualized distancing is revealed as a cover for his almost unbreakable learned helplessness and social ineptitude. He’s the Kid Who Won’t Shut Up. The only time I’ve perhaps ever sympathized with John Kreese is when Demetri, wandering into Cobra Kai after hours, runs into Kreese and takes it upon himself to start critiquing the man’s war tatoos. Book Smarts has a habit of dismissing the value of Street Smarts, often in direct proportionality to the degree of intelligence, and so closes the mind off from social awareness. This is Demetri’s problem. He refuses to value anything he cannot learn in school. This makes him the most difficult of the Miagi-Do students, as he won’t stop whining about the difficulty of learning to train his body. Only by infinite patience and extreme methods does LaRusso get through to him.

The parallax of their character arcs wrecks their frienship. Hawk wants nothing to do with anything of his old life, Demetri has nothing but scorn for the new. They fight, they humiliate each other in public, they fight again. Demetri knocks Hawk into the Trophy Case during the Season 2 Finale fight. Hawk breaks Demetri’s arm in the middle of season 3. The lifelong friends are enemies, and barely better off from where they started. Hawk becomes a cartoon villain, Demetri, Miagi-Do’s mildly competent mascot. It was painful to watch.

But again, low points. The show builds both of them back up. Demetri manges to dial back on the helplessness, becomes a good soldier, even slightly cool. Eli spends the third season starting to question what he’s become, as Kreese brings in the very bullies and top-dogs that harassed him into Cobra Kai. He finds himself forced to make a choice about loyalty, and to whom he ought to give it. He makes the right choice, and solves the problem for both him and Demetri.

This relationship, removed a step from the soap-opera spasms of the ongoing LaRusso-Laurence feud (they’re not children or child-substitutes for either man, nor are they romantically involved with any such child), is one of the best things on the show, to my mind, and captures the themes of it. Hawk and Dimtry’s diverging arcs become a meditation on the subject of friendship and enmity. By what criteria do you put someone in either category? How far can you go in defining things like “in-group” and “out-group”, and how much does either matter? We might wish, like violence itself, to watsh these concepts away in a sea of Good Intentions. But that’s unlikely to succeed, because the past has its way of calling to the present. Cobra Kai works in bringing these truths to light, so whatever clownery comes in Season 4, I’ll wait for the last act.

Your Side, My Side, and the Truth

Making predictions is a good way to make a fool of yourself, and if there’s one thing Game of Thrones and How I Met Your Mother has taught me, it’s that I can’t expect to have an ending that fits what I like. But you can’t not wonder what happens next, and every now and again I’m right. So herewith, what I Think Happens Next:

  • Johnny and Daniel Become Friends. Not only has the show been pushing them together and ripping them apart over and over again, which can really only end one way, both of them need it. Daniel doesn’t seem to have many friends, and Johnny’s old Cobra Kai buddies are all distant from him in a way. They’ll head-fake us, and maybe low-key it, but it’ll happen.
  • Robby and Tory Get Redemptions. The kids, they’re kids. They’ve screwed up, but a show that makes the effort Cobra Kai does to show everybody’s side is not going to abandon them to the teachings of Kreese’s Dark Side. I have no idea how it happens, but they’ll find a way.
  • Ponytail Guy Will Cook Up Something Nefarious. Something schemey and stupid, which will involve Amanda LaRusso in some way. It will be the B Plot of the season, to be resolved concurrently with the All-Valley Tournament.
  • Samantha LaRusso Wins the All-Valley. We’ve never had a girl champ before. Miguel already won, so him winning again would be repetitive. Instinct tells me Miagi-Do gets the win this time, although Eagle Fang will do respectably well. No other Miagi-Do kid is important enough (except Demetri, who I don’t see winning), and this completes the Passing of the Torch.
  • Johnny Gets his Dojo Back. Eagle Fang takes over the strip-mall location, completing the arc. The only alternative I foresee is Johnny and Daniel combining their dojos into Eagle Tree Karate or some such. Which could happen, but I don’t know if I want to bet on it.

Who knows, though? We’ll find out at some point. Anyone who has better predictions, drop them in the box below.

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