An Encomium of Pankot – In Defense of Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom

I’ve written on the Indiana Jones series before, explaining the problem I had with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. A lot of people complained about the tiredness of that movie, the strain of it, and they were right to do so. But for me the problem was theological:

So sure, say the movies, Indiana Jones, may be a swinging adventurer and more of a graverobber than an archaeologist, but even he knows how to deal with something man was not made to covet. This provides a moral undertone to the films that allows them to rise above all the blunt violence; even to put that violence into some kind of context where the blood matters and makes sense. When at the very end of Last Crusade, the Knight of the Temple salutes Indiana, the gestures doesn’t feel hokey or out of place. Our modern Hero Adventurer has proven worthy of his ancestors.

Now compare that to the latest film, which was about…aliens.

Yeah.

Part of the problem is the shift from an interwar adventure to a Cold War struggle. The Nazis made good foils for Indy, because they really were the sort of people who would have liked getting their hands on the Ark and the Grail and the Holy Lance and such. Nazism was occultist and Nietszchean. But Soviet Communism was brutally athiest. No KGB officer, however dashing with a saber, would do make any effort to obtain an ancient artifact, save to blow it up. The idea that a sacred object could actually do anything undermines dialectical materalism. So the idea that KGB would spend a rouble chasing Native American legends simply doesn’t work.

Indiana Jones and the Blah of Whatever“, Contentblues.com

It wouldn’t be overstating matters to say that the Indiana Jones movies are the last pulp films in which mystery and sacredness actually exist, and matter to the plot. Certainly the last notable ones.

But I’m not interested in talking about Crystal Skull, any more than I am in discussing the new film, still in production, which I have already abused. Which is to say, I abused Harrison Ford for doing it. And understandably so, for reasons I don’t feel the need to repeat. However, I will add a caveat, which is that Indiana Jones is without question the best character that Harrison Ford ever created (yes, actors create characters. Writers only provide the limits), a mix of adventurer and scholar, rogue and saint, who genuinely deserves the name of “hero”.

And I’m going to argue that much of his heroism was first brought to light in the second film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Temple of Doom is no one’s favorite. General normie opinion has Raiders in front, with Last Crusade a close second (some contrarians like me enjoy reversing these), and Temple of Doom fun but inferior, but at least better than Crystal Skull. There are good reasons for this. Raiders was the first one, which always has the virtues of originality and narrative freedom, establishing the canon as it goes. Plus, the love-interest in Raiders is everyone’s favorite, because she’s actually given space to be a character, rather than simply a foil (Aesthetically, however, who wouldn’t prefer Elsa Schneider from Last Crusade?).

I’m sorry, but Karen Allen cannot compete with this.

However, having watched ToD for the first time in a long time over the weekend, it has risen in my estimates. And I’m well familiar with it: my dad taped it off of HBO back in the 80’s, and I watched it a lot. It’s still not my favorite, that’s still Last Crusade, but it’s virtues are clearer, and it’s vices to my mind overstated. Like Back to the Future, Part II, and The Empire Strikes Back, it has the benefits of being the trilogy’s odd man out.

Two things need to be said about this film, both of them obvious. First, this is a dark movie, both literally and figuratively. Most of the second half of it takes place underground, in mines and corridors and pits, where they only light is torches and the Hadean glow of lava. The characters are routinely hemmed in, pressed on, squeezed, and nearly dropped into the center of the earth. So long do we spend in the belly of the beast that when the freed slaves emerge into sunlight for the first time in forever, we feel it with them. Like Gollum, we almost forget that the sun exists.

This matches the theme of it, which is largely about slavery; both physical, literal slavery, and spiritual slavery. The cultists force people to drink “the black blood of Kali” which makes them brainwashed drones. Indiana Jones himself becomes victim to this, and is freed only by the cleansing pain of fire (a subtle reference to Lord Agni? Perhaps). There’s an irony there, as the cultists sacrifice people to the lava pit after magically ripping their living heart out, a savagery that seems more Aztec than Hindu (then again, Hindus were somewhat devoted to the suttee, or widow-burning). Around all this, there is an army of child slaves, emaciated and beaten, digging in the earth for precious gems and sacred Shankara stones, the film’s maguffins.

These stones do not actually exist, nor is there any tradition of them existing. Shankara is another name for Shiva, one of the principle deities of Hinduism, who is invoked as the force of goodness, as against Kali, the cultists’ butchering cthonian goddess. In reality, of course, Shiva and Kali are consorts, but let’s just acknowledge that the Hinduism of this film is Movie Hinduism, bearing little resemblance to the reality (yes, the Thuggee did exist, yes they were murderous. They did not rip people’s hearts out and dump them in lava pits, and they had no megalomaniacal plans for world domination. They were criminals who preyed on travelers).

Indiana Jones takes the legend of Shankara Stones about as seriously as we do. The sacredness of these rocks is nothing to him but a chance at “Fortune and Glory”. He wants the stones, so he throws himself into the bowels of the earth to take them. He is already enslaved by the lust for them, casting aside a chance to spend a night in Willie Scott’s bed to hunt for them. Becoming a brainless devotee of Kali, ready to cast Willie into the lava at Mola Ram’s command, is but an intensification of what is already going on.

There is nothing in Raiders or Last Crusade that equates to the horror this film inflicts on its viewers. Watching Nazi faces melted by the wrath of God, or Donovan withering into dust for drinking from the false Grail, is one thing: those men were villains and they deserved their comuppance. Watching an innocent, unnamed man tortured and burned into nothing, his beating heart bursting into flames in a cruel priest’s hands, is altogether different. Indy was beaten by Nazis, buried by Nazis, nearly blown up by Nazis, but the Nazis never enscorcelled his soul. This film is dark, a vision of hell and sin against which the other two are but madcap journeys.

The second thing to say is that this film Does. Not. Stop. From the opening table confrontation between Indy and a Chinese gangster in Shanghai, the movie rolls from spectacle to spectacle, stopping for breath only to set the scene for the next rush. We do not have learned discussions among academics pourring over dusty tomes in libraries. We do not see Indy teaching a class. This movie has no time for that. Car chase, shootouts, bailing out of planes, whitewater-rapids, escaping from locked rooms, armed combat with temple guards while Willie sinks into the flames, roller-coastering over the fiery abyss, fleeing an underground flood, all culminating in a battle over a collapsed rope-bridge while hungry crocodiles writhe in a feeding frenzy in a river at the bottom of a canyon.

This dizzying pace benefits the film, but also has drawbacks. On the one hand, the movie is never boring, never wallowing in arcana or any more expository dialogue than it absolutely needs. Even on the journey from the village to Pankot Palace, there’s always something happening.

On the other hand, the pace can make the film, despite its savage vision, seem strangely light and unreal, half a joke. I suspect that’s the purpose of the song-and-dance number that opens the movie: Willie Scott singing “Anything Goes” in Chinese in the Shanghai nightclub, before our hero even appears. Bizzarely, the camera goes back into the Lion’s mouth from which Willie first emerges, where there’s an entire sound stage featuring two kick lines of dancing girls, tapping away to the heart of the song. Willie emerges again to sing the song’s final line, and everyone applauds.

However, the audience in the nightclub had no way of seeing the dancers. What’s on the other side of the lion’s mouth is walled off entirely. Only the movie audience saw it.

It’s tempting to think of this as just a meaningless continuity error, but this is Spielberg we’re talking about. He knows what he’s doing. This scene, so utterly discordant from the rest of the movie, is the director winking at us. “All of this is unreal, a dream. Don’t get lost in the details,” the movie is telling us. The song isn’t “Anything Goes” for no reason.

Does this cut against the film’s darkness? Yes, and I think that’s deliberate. One needs comedy and fantasy to relieve the grim horror. Which is why the other two characters of Temple of Doom’s heroic Trimurti are as important as Indiana Jones.

Everyone loves to hate Willie Scott. She lacks Marion Ravenwood’s chutzpah and Elsa Schneider’s wry humor. She, like the scene introducing her, is entirely out of her element in this rollicking adventure. Indiana Jones calls her “doll” and apart from her physical attractions finds her mostly irritating. The audience agrees. Nor she doesn’t have much in the way of redeeming characteristics: she’s shallow, arrogant, and doesn’t do much to get us on her side.

And that’s kind of the point of her. Of all the leading ladies in these movies, Willie is most like a classic damsel-in-distress. Not entirely so, she has a core of toughness that the movies busts down to, but she’s dressed up like a princess for a reason. Sacrifices in ancient religions were all about offering up what was precious. Willie Scott is precious, not least because she doesn’t deserve anything that’s happening to her, and everything that’s happening to her is entirely Indy’s fault. He dragged her away from her life in Shanghai for his own reasons, pulled her down into the depths beneath Pankot for his own reasons, and got her captured by the Thuggee. She’s as much his victim as Mola Ram’s. He has to pull her out of the hell he’s sent her to, quite literally. Only then can he be redeemed.

During the escape from Pankot she casts aside all her pretense and is finally a Team Player, freeing slaves and throwing rocks and keeping an eye on Short Round as much as he keeps an eye on her. She’s no warrior, but she does her best. Who among us, stuck in this gorge of peril, would do better?

Given that the movie is set in 1935, the year before the events of Raiders, continuity suggests that their association was brief. The movie doesn’t give us any reason to think otherwise. Willie’s attraction to Indy is as shallow as his attraction to her, and she knows it. She never becomes a devoted, wide-eyed school girl, because she isn’t. Good for her. Go in peace, Willie. You’ll never have to eat snakes again.

{No one in India eats chilled monkey brains! Yeah, that’s the point: what’s going on at Pankot appears to be civilized and orderly, but is actually twisted and cruel. While Indy is getting stonewalled by the Maharajah’s vizier, Willie is trying to eat normal food and can’t. Even the British Captain, an old India Hand, is quietly disturbed by what’s going on. Only Indy seems not to notice.}

That brings us to Short Round, whom everyone enjoyed, and whom has now been condemned by the Priests of Intersctionality. The character is an echo of Gunga Din, of colonial associations of native assistants to the white interloper. Let’s just acknowledge that the character bears shallow resemblance to such, and then get right back to ignoring it. Short Round, or Shorty, is a chinese orphan boy, a victim of the Japanese, whom Indy has taken under his wing. Unlike Willie, Shorty has all but imprinted on Indy like a baby duck, parroting his speech patterns and serving him devotedly.

I say “all but” because in reality, the two are more like junior and senior partners than servant and master. The scene on the road to Panko in which they play cards while Willie freaks out at the local fauna shows us something closer to real friendship: they commiserate about what a pain Willie is, accuse each other of cheating, and start arguing with each other in Chinese. Throughout the film, Short Round has no problem telling Indy what’s what. There’s more equality in their association than their seems at first glance.

Willie, and the rest of us, meet Short Round for the first time and see a Kid. Indy knows different: he sees that Shorty is resourceful and tough as nails. It’s Shorty who has to rescue Indy from the spell the Thuggee have him under, so that he can rescue Willie. It’s Shorty who has do the same to the Maharajah, to stop him from using his voodoo doll on Indy (voodoo in India? Forget it, they’re rolling), saving him not once but twice. Nobody rescues Shorty from slavery. He breaks his own chains.

Of course, Current Year find Short Round to be absolute Cringe. A modern adaptation would do away with his accent and have him say something like “actually, I’m from Stockton. I don’t even like Chinese food. Where’s the hamburgers?”, because the safest way to have Asians in modern movies is to make them whiter than white men. Only in the 80’s could a boy from Shanghai actually be Chinese.

None of this really matters, because in Pankot, Shorty is just as much a stranger as the white people. So if the White SaviorTM narrative bothers you all that much, just remind yourself that a good bit of the work was done by the Chinese boy.

Of course, you’ll be missing the entire point of the movie, which is that Indy becomes heroic, in a classic sense, by restoring to the people of the unnamed Village not only their sacred stones but their children. Hero is he who restores justice and order under the gods, and nothing that happened in Raiders approximates this. The first Indiana Jones movie is a Maguffin Hunt, in which the maguffin becomes a literal deus ex machina. You might find that movie superior on points, but the sight of lost children running into the arms of their parents has a satisfaction to it that Top Men boxing up the Ark just doesn’t. At the end of the first film, Indy is furious that they aren’t doing metallurgy on the Ark, despite being a (blind) eyewitness to what happens when the unworthy touch it. In this movie, he recognizes that the Shankara Stone means much more as the sacred center of a community than as rock collecting dust in a museum. Whatever else he ever may have done, casting aside his own interests to save a village of strangers is more heroic than most of us will ever be.

Aesthetics vs. Prophecy: John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A.

The Boys at RLM Recently did one of their “list” re:View episodes, about the films of John Carpenter. Let the record state that I’m not the biggest fan of this particular format. re:View works best as an opportunity to dust off an old/forgotten piece of cinema, turn it over backwards and front and make a case for why it’s worth looking at. The episode about Freddie Got Fingered is perhaps the pinnacle of the series, in that Mike and Jay argue that Tom Green made an anti-movie, a deliberately nonsensical and ridiculous parody of the entire art of cinema. And while a deliberately bad movie is still a bad movie, giving Green the benefit of inention has merit. This is kind of critical reconsideration is what makes re:View worth watching.

Instead, we get a set of quick commentaries on the man’s entire oeuvre, in the format of a “ranking”. I hate “rankings”. They’re an attempt to impose empirical order on what is by definition subjective, usually justified with un-nuanced blather. The internet does not need to be more like Buzzfeed.

In any case, regarding Carpenter’s 1996 film Escape From L.A., Jay and Rich basically say what they’ve always said, which is that it’s an unoriginal reboot of Escape from New York, with the same plot and a bunch of mid-90’s CGI stuffed into it. Which is nothing more than what the mass of critical opinion on this film has been since the 90’s. Nor am I going to attempt to argue with it. Some may say that Carpenter did this on purpose, which means he degenerated througout the 80’s and 90’s from being Ridley Scott to being Tom Green. And besides, that’s pure conjecture.

But there’s another way to look at Escape From L.A.: as a piece of hidden prophecy. Behold, Brian Niemeier:

In the early 21st century, an American presidential candidate wins a highly unorthodox election by leveraging a national disaster. As the front man for an extreme moralizing movement, he oversees the implementation of sweeping neo-puritanical directives to enforce his sect’s moral vision nationwide. Federal law enforcement is tasked with prosecuting Americans whose speech and actions were tolerated before the election. Citizens guilty of no crime are stripped of their rights and assets without due process and are exiled from society for retroactive violations of the new moral precepts. The government uses an engineered virus purported to be lethal, but which turns out to be a slightly enhanced version of the flu, to coerce citizens.

Meanwhile, mass immigration has overrun American cities, especially Los Angeles, with a plague of poverty and crime. Despite the construction of a wall on part of the southern border, a full-scale third world invasion of America looms.

But enough current events.

Let’s talk about John Carpenter’s 1996 Escape from New York sequel/remake/parody, Escape from LA.

Escape From LA” – brianniemeir.com

And again, you can argue how much of these things Carpenter intended. But as Niemeier has it, there’s at least as much of a calling-out of the pieties of our age here as in say, Demolition Man. Action movies of this era have no kindness towards secular utopianists, because action movies depend upon the knowledge that achieving the good means fighting for it, that those who would abuse civilization will always be found.

In any case, he’s sold me on actually watching it, which the RLM guys did not do. Advantage Neimeier.

The Reproducibility Trap, Or Why Everything Original and Curated Becomes Re-Heated Crap

Somewhere on I-81 in Virginia, there’s a billboard for Cracker Barrel, because of course there is. If you find yourself on the interstate and there isn’t a Cracker Barrel within 30 miles of you, then start taking pictures of the alien plants and the non-Euclidean geometry, because you’ve slipped into an alternate dimension. Anyway, this particular billboard caught my eye because of the slogan: “What’s the secret ingredient? Care.”

Now, I’ve eaten in many a Cracker Barrel, and enjoyed it every time, so I’m not coming from a place of dismissal. But there are 665 Cracker Barrel locations in the United States. How many Uncle Hershel’s Breakfasts do you suppose get served in them on a given day? Who invests care in them? How much?

To ask the question is to answer it. The cooks at Cracker Barrel are trained in making the food the way Cracker Barrel wants it done, so that whether you order an Uncle Hershel’s Breakfast in Tennessee, Arizona, or Maine, you are assured of getting the same meal. The cook doesn’t really care about the food, not in the same way as if he’d be cooking his own recipe. He’s following the Training. He’s working his shift.

Instead of care, the food at Cracker Barrel gets Quality Control, with Food Policies. Everything is 100% Sustainable and/or Raised Domestically, whatever that officially means. Stipulate that this isn’t just advertising, that the people who run Cracker Barrel actually want their food to have a level of quality and wholesomeness you won’t get at Denny’s. This is on-brand for them, and for the other thing they’re selling: nostalgia.

My point is that the ubiquity of Cracker Barrel is contrary to the image it’s selling. This isn’t their fault; it’s just what happens at scale. Perhaps the most relevatory film about American business of the last ten years is The Founder. Watch it and you’ll realize that there was a time when McDonald’s was revolutionary, a masterpiece of motion-study, space-management, and quality-control, when these things were new on the ground. The food was good too, simple and well-prepared. But the film also demonstrates, that at scale, commitment to care and individualization goes out the window. Why spend money refrigerating milk and ice cream when you can just make a milkshake with powder?

But at that moment, you’ve surrendered the thing that got you started. You’re no longer a chef, not even a businessman anymore. You’re a CEO, part of the network, part of the System. You may run your shop better or worse than others, but you’re a million miles removed from the customer experience. Yet however bad that sounds, it really doesn’t matter, because once you’ve created a product that reaches sufficient recognition, you don’t need to curate customer experience anymore. McDonald’s isn’t a burger joint, competing with other burger joints, it’s a brand, competing with other brands. The brand sells the burgers, not the other way around.

This is what’s happening in entertainment as well. People who bemoan the loss of original content might as well be speaking in Linear-A, for all the suits will hear them. A movie can succeed or fail at the box office. An Intellectual Property cannot fail once its hit critical mass. People screamed to the heavens about the Ghostbusters remake, and it bombed, but they made another movie, didn’t they? It doesn’t matter that its dumb, it doesn’t matter that they didn’t manage to create a Cinematic Universe out of it. It’s an Intellectual Property. It cannot fail, it can only require new recycling. There’s still a market for Halloween movies, isn’t there?

I’ve mentioned this before, and it’s been talked about on Shallow & Pedantic: the point at which the product no longer requires editing, because people who like it have become FANS. Fans aren’t always uncritical, but they’re always customers, and a hater’s dollar is just as good. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Therefore, you can screw up Star Wars as much as you want, and people will still buy tickets for it. This creates a perverse incentive for the creators. If I can butcher the story as much as I want, and pissed-off fans still buy tickets, then what difference does it make?

This is why they keep making Terminator movies. Of course they suck. Any film after T2 was destined to suck, because they could only make them by wrecking or rewriting the lore of the first two films. But if angry fans keep showing up, then announcing their criticisms to the world, then the brand still exists. Everyone hated Terminator: Genysis; but Terminator: Dark Fate happened anyway. Meanwhile, I haven’t seen a Terminator movie since 1991. I am utterly at peace with its flailing.

The only thing that kills brands is indifference. Either indifferent leadership and bad management, or worse yet, public indifference. People have been hating McDonald’s as long as I’ve been alive. It’s still there. The day people stop caring about it, forget in their head that it even exists, that’s the day it stops being a brand, and becomes an artifact for historians.

Oh Good, a New Indiana Jones Movie

Time for Low-Rent Clint Eastwood to Ride Again.

Am I actually supposed to care theat John Williams is doing the score? Is this what they’re reaching for now to put butts in seats?

The only question is Why, and there’s only one answer. No one is going to enjoy this. Harrison Ford is too old for this. He was too old for it in the last movie. It’s going to be regurgitated trash, that will almost but not quite pay homage to the movies that were actually good because they were made by artists in their prime. Nerds will fight about it on the internet, but enough dopes will buy tickets that it will cover expenses.

Shia LaBoeuf won’t be in it, you see. It’s all Shia LaBoeuf’s fault that Crystal Skull was bad. It’s all Hayden Christensen’s fault the Prequels were bad. It’s all Emilia Clarke’s fault Terminator: Genysis was bad. There’s always enough stupid people to keep these creaky franchises afloat.

What will the plot be? Who cares? Fighting Neo-Nazis for control of some maguffin. Throw a Boys From Brazil surprise in there, why not? Have some zombie ninjas, some drug dealers, some hippie alien cultists. DO IT. Indiana Jones has never been anything but a glorified B-Movie. Go all the way, so the real entertainment will be watching Harrison Ford looking around utterly bewildered, trying to glare his way through the existential crisis that his career has become.

You thought you were different, didn’t you, Harry? You thought you were special. You thought you were a Thesbian, you absolute chump. Have you seen any of your movies?

You thought that if you played a megalomaniac sweating in the tropics, or a disabled lawyer, you might get an Oscar. You don’t even have a Golden Globe, do you? You couldn’t even play Jack Ryan convincingly. That’s right, you got out-acted by a Baldwin. A Baldwin, you putz. How does it feel?

You should have done cowboy movies. You should have done a pirate movie with Cary Elwes. Or some cop movies that didn’t suck (Witness is good. I will give you Witness). You should have embraced your success, not run away from it, acting like you were above it. Because guess what? Here you are, 40 years later, and you’re still Han Solo and Indiana Jones. No one cares about anything else. Now, some of this isn’t precisely your fault. But you’d have done yourself a favor and played every kind of adventuring rogue there was. Not only would that mean there would be a bunch more franchises for Disney to feed off of, it would mean you’d have built an oeuvre everyone would remember fondly. Get yourself some producer credits and you could be profiting off the inevitable remakes instead of dragging your geriatric ass around the back end of the world trying not to lose your hat.

Yeah, I get it. Hollywood has its own rules. You’re just a player, not a power. Like I said, not fully your fault. But is this really how you wanna spend your Golden Years, squeezing one last drop out of a franchise that hasn’t been relevant since its target audience was in grade-school? There’s a reason you didn’t do one of these for a long time. Stop. They won’t do one without you. They don’t dare. You don’t need the money, do you? Go direct something. Go produce something. Hell, run for governor of California. You’d win in a walk. Do anything else but this. This is a waste of everyone’s time.

Is Kevin Spacey’s Probation Over?

Dude hasn’t been in a movie since 2018. He’s now set to perform in an Italian film directed by Franco Nero, so sayeth Variety:

“I’m very happy Kevin agreed to participate in my film,” Franco Nero said to ABC News. “I consider him a great actor and I can’t wait to start the movie.” Spacey declined ABC News’ and Variety‘s request for comment.

According to the Filmitalia website, the low-budget indie film follows “the rise and fall of a blind artist who has the extraordinary gift of making true-to-life portraits just by listening to human voices.”

Variety, “Kevin Spacey Set for First Film Cameo Following Sexual Assault Allegations.

Now, of course those allegations have gone nowhere, not even in civil court. Despite the sheer number of dudes willing to accuse Spacey of assault, he hasn’t spent a night in jail, and it doesn’t look like he’s gonna. That being the case, this Italian Job is probably a trial balloon for his rehabilitation. Robert Downey, Jr. got rehabilitated, and Mel Gibson’s on his way. If the movie does well, I expect the full-court press to wash him clean in the blood of Hollywood will come to the fore.

Alternate theory: He spends the rest of his life making tiny appearances in low-budget European films, like a lamer version of Roman Polanski.

Paradox Teaches History: EU4 vs CK2

A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry begins a deep-dive into Paradox Interactive grand strategy games, a subject after my own heart. He begins discussing Europa Universalis IV, a game I enjoy very much less than Crusader Kings 2 (I haven’t made the switch to Crusader Kings 3 yet, as I don’t think my graphics card can handle it, and I’ve better things to spend my money on than an updated graphics card just to play one game). My steam stats give the game away on this: I have like 500 hours, maybe, on EU4, over 2,000 on CK2. There are several reasons for this:

  1. I have always been a fan of the lives of Kings. Antonia Fraser and the Duc de Castries will never not have a place on my bookshelf.
  2. EU4 is a much more difficult game. Lots of requirements for actions, lots of things to manage, lots of economic agita. In other words, a lot of time spent staring at numbers and managing bells. It can feel like playing a spreadsheet. CK2 is relatively streamlined: gold, prestige, and troops are the only numbers you really need to worry about, and it’s relatively simple to get any or all of them going in the right direction.
  3. I hate hate hate the way EU4 does War. Fighting a war is agony. You HAVE to take fortresses, You HAVE to fight naval battles, and you can never never never be certain how a battle turns out. I’ve had fights where I outnumbered the enemy 2-to-1 and had my rear end handed to me. Not once or twice, but regularly. Certain countries (France, Prussia) are OP when it comes to “military culture” and can win battles standing on their head. There’s a mechanics of battle that I find deeply obtuse, so I’ve never figured out how to make England, for example, able to win a land battle (I’ve had people try to explain it to me, and it sounds nerdy as hell and a lot of work. I don’t play games to work).

Whereas, winning battles and wars in CK2 can be got down to a science. I have a pretty solid strategy:

  1. Make sure you’ve got at least half-again as many troops as the guy you’re attacking. 2-to-1 would be better, but I can win reliably with 150%.
  2. When you declare, collect all your troops in 1 spot. Make sure your army is balanced, and your commanders are competent.
  3. March on the province/realm you’re trying to conquer.
  4. Watch the attrition. If you need to divide your forces into smaller stacks to avoid attrition, do it. March carefully.
  5. If the enemy army is around, attack with your superior forces. If you avoid major mistakes and cowardly commanders, you will win 90% of the time.
  6. If an enemy army is not around, start sieging provinces down.
  7. After a siege is complete, attack the enemy army again. You’ll find that he likes to attempt to siege your territories while you’re sieging his. Marching back and forth a lot can be a pain, but it keeps your warscore ticking up.
  8. Repeat Steps 5-7 until warscore is 100%

Occasionally this won’t work, because somebody else will jump into your war suddenly, or a revolt breaks out, or your enemy has a crazy good commander who knocks your guys around like tenpins. It happens, but it’s rare. CK2 is really a Sun Tzu type of game: the goal is to arrange victory before a single soldier marches.

But this is all gameplay, and ACOUP is writing about how well this recreates history. Unsurprisingly given EU4’s complexity, he concludes it does a pretty good job at recreating what ruling a state in the early modern period felt like. If history games and the philsophy behind them interests you, I invite you to read it:

Maybe I’ll see Nomadland, Maybe I Won’t

I may have made fun of it a while back, but honestly, I don’t hate the concept. I might scope it if it rolls through one of the apps I have. I cannot, however, promise that I will do that. Movies in this era are largely an individualized aesthetic exercise, not a community one. The atomization of entertainment has accomplished this. There will be big tent things – Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones-type things going forward, but with diminishing returns I suspect. They’re expensive, and depend on a consumer base that can turn on you if you don’t give them exactly what they want. See, also, everything I’ve written about Star Wars.

This means that the future of the Oscars is in the Art House. The double-tier of Art Gratia Artis vs. Cinematic Circus for the Masses — Nomadland on one hand, Godzilla vs. Kong on the other — will become more pronounced. There will still be an audience for the Oscars, as there will be a lot of money in making sure there is (one might argue that all the dim Wokery of recent years reflects not just the actual sentiments of Hollywood but a need to generate controversey, live-action clickbait, if you will). But as a reflection of the people it will pass. It’s going to become a lot easier for most folk to simply not care.

This will become exacerbated as streaming becomes the normal way to see a film for the first time. Scorcese was fighting a rear-guard action. There might be a boomlet in going to theaters when the pandemic finally ends, but all the economic forces are shoving against prioritizing the theater experience. The younger generations are not as devoted to it. Family movie nights are going to be replaced by Family Movie Tickets on the Streaming Service of your choice.

And because of this, the films that make the most impact will be harder to determine. Netflix is famously secretive about its streaming numbers. Thus, the kind of box-office academy coup wherein a less-artistic but popular film (everyone talks about Shakespeare in Love, but does anyone remember when Titanic and Gladiator won Best Picture?) overwhelms the snobs’ favorite will become harder and harder to pull off.

This means that Oscars are going to be harder and harder to pre-game and will include more and more films that nobody has seen. It will eventually be as relevant as the Emmys. Huzzah.

Time for the Yearly George R.R. Martin Abuse Post

Every now and again, because I do not learn, I google the phrase “winds of winter”, the title for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series (remember Game of Thrones?). I do this because, nine years ago, I did this for “A Dance With Dragons” and happened to catch a blurblet that Martin’s publisher was expecting the book in a short time, or that it was mostly finished, or that it had indeed been turned in, or something like that.

When I did this today, I caught recent news. More specifically, an article in the Daily Express entitled “Winds of Winter progress: George RR Martin shares cryptic Winter is Coming image and more”

Click on it, to bring yourself to a vision of the nadir of journalism.

George RR Martin’s latest blog update arrived this week headed by an image saying “Winter Is Coming”. It’s not clear if this is the 72-year-old’s way of teasing that he’s approaching the finishing line, but the rest of his post may provide some clues nonetheless.

UK Daily Express, “Winds of Winter Progress”

Every journalist who uses the word “may” should be beaten with a tire iron and left in the desert. Spoilers: this article provides no clues, nor does the blog post it’s using as a source. That’s right, a newspaper that’s been around since 1900, is now farming clickbait out of George RR Martin’s pseudo-livejournal. It’s over, guys. The Matrix won.

But don’t take my word for it, I’m just a regular blogger and writer. I haven’t made millions shoving Robert Howard tropes into high fantasy and then left my fans twisting in the wind. Look at it yourself: Not-a-Blogging

Way back when on LiveJournal, when I started this column or journal or whatever it is, I called it my “Not A Blog,” because I could see that regular blogging was a lot of work, and I didn’t think I had the time to devote to it.   I was late on a book even then, though I do not recall which one.  I figured I would just make posts from time to time, when I had an important announcement, when the mood struck me, whatever.

People this is news to: 0

Number of words: 85

I might be starting to understand the problem.

I am hugely behind right now, and the prospect of trying to catch up is feeling increasingly oppressive.

After nine years of waiting for you not to complete, but just to organize the third act of this series, following a year the entire world spent inside, this is not what anyone wants to hear. Yeah, it must be tyranny itself to have to find ways to balance time writing against time spent on that day job you don’t have or taking care of kids you don’t have. Maybe an hour less swimming in your pile of money like Scrooge McDuck? I don’t wanna mess with your flow or nuthin’.

My life has become one of extremes these past few months.   Some days I do not know whether to laugh or cry, to shoot off fireworks and dance in the streets or crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head.   The good stuff that has been happening to me has been very very very good, the kind of thing that will make a year, or a career.  But the bad stuff that is happening has been very very very bad, and it is hard to cherish the good and feel the joy when the shadows are all around.

Gotcha, good is good, bad is bad.

Tell me more about how Tolkein’s universe is morally simplistic.

If any of you read the stories about me on the internet, you will know my good news.   I have a new five-year deal with HBO, to create new GOT successor shows (and some non-related series, like ROADMARKS) for both HBO and HBO Max.  It’s an incredible deal, an amazing deal, very exciting, and I want to tell you all about it… although it seems the press has already done it.   There are stories in all the trades.   You can read about it there.    (These days I almost never get to break any news about myself, the Hollywood press is always ahead of me.   Some of their stories are even accurate).   I will blog about it, I expect, but not today.

Good for you on your continuing exploitation of a series that a) is still unfinished, b) led to a show whose ending retroactively tainted the entire enterprise. I can’t tell you how excited I am to discover that there will be GoT prequels for nerds to get even madder about. Zippity. Do. Dah.

Also, why not blog about it? The hell else are you doing?

On the other side of the coin… well, I am now fully vaccinated, hurrah hurray, that’s good.   However, I have now lost six friends since November.  (Only a couple to Covid.   Alas, I am old, and so are many of my friends.   Valar morghulis, I guess).   And a seventh friend, a very old and dear friend who has been a huge part of my life for a long time, is in the hospital, very sick, recovering from surgery… at least we hope he is recovering.

Sorry for your loss.

That’s all. I’m not a ghoul.

Honestly, it is hard to dance in the streets even for the deal of a lifetime when another loved one dies every two/ three weeks, and that has been going on for me since November, when my longtime editor Kay McCauley passed away.

True, true.

If only there were some large project you could channels your energies into.

There’s lots more going on as well.   Meow Wolf stuff.   Railroad stuff.   Beastly Books has reopened, but the JCC is still shuttered.   The Jets traded Sam Darnold away.   I am going to be leaving my cabin in a couple of months.    I am close to delivering  PAIRING UP, a brand new Wild Cards book.

I don’t know what Meow Wolf is. It sounds like a joke I don’t want to get.

I don’t know what Beastly Books is. I’m guessing it’s a store. I live on the other side of the country from you, so I don’t care.

I don’t know what the JCC is.

You are the only man on earth who cares about the Jets.

I wish I had a cabin. You know what I would do there? WRITE BOOKS.

And he has to close with the one bit of news guaranteed to Red-Wedding the hopes of anyone mildly intrigued by the direwolf sigil that appears on top of the post (which The Daily Express found so interesting). Every time George R.R. Martin blogs about Wild Cards, a Stark child dies at the hands of his enemies. So good to know that in between mourning his friends and signing his checks, Martin finds the time to edit the latest entry in a series 0.00000000000000011% of his audience cares about. I’ll bet if I had those kind of customer appreciation strategies, I’d be a bestselling author, too.

I will tell you about some of this, I guess.   But not today.

What a Cliffhanger, you guys! I’ll just have to subscribe to your notablog so I can get the hot insights about the next derivative HBO series I won’t watch or dithering analysis of the Jets lineup or what glorified Funko-Pops based on GoT characters are now available. It’s a good thing the only reason I ever read this meandering tripe isn’t because I’m waiting for you to announce that you’ve finally finished the book you’ve been working on since my tween daughter was a zygote. I might be mad.

Some of you might be thinking, you know, I think he actually is mad. You know what, you’re right. I’m mad that this guy can’t ever scribble on his blog without reminding us that he doesn’t want to have a blog and then demonstrate why he shouldn’t. I’m mad that this guy vomits this non-tent and the media acts like a new layer of the Rosetta Stone just got unearthed.

Basically, I’m mad ’cause I’m jealous. Which is a low, unworthy emotion, speaking more about me than anyone else, that I will forthwith remove from my soul.

You know what would help?

Fine patrons of artistic merit taking a chance on a little magazine that could.

Click here to buy this new issue on our Gumroad.

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Blogging Lulls Begin Insidiously

You fail to blog by blogging to fail. Or failing to plan. Or deciding that you’ve got a bunch of projects occupying your mind and you can’t even begin to reckon on a subject for a post. Or, you don’t actually decide that, it just becomes the default and then you’re seven days into the month and you haven’t written anything and how could this happen and what is wrong with your COMMITMENT, BRO.

And sometimes you get one of these meta-posts started and suddenly you’ve come up with a real subject for it and you can transition into it and your meta-post just looks like a prologue, and then you can change the title and it actually becomes that. This is not one of those times. I am producing a post bereft of content, and I am fine with that. It is a truthful depiction of reality. Thus it is not actually bereft of content. I should write all my blog posts like this, so it can resemble a LiveJournal from 2008. That would be Throwback, but not so Throwback as to be obviously Trendy Nostalgia.

This means that we have reversed the polarity on Nostalgia. It used to be that Cool Nostalgia was aimed at stuff from 20 years ago, and stuff from 10 years ago was so lame we were pretending we had forgotten it. But that would mean being Nostalgic for 2001 now, and we’re still sniffing around the pre-Internet era. Who can even describe 2011 culturally? It was forever ago, and also yesterday. The whole century is going to be like this.

Even complaining about it has become lame. There’s no solution for it, except making something new, that excites people. No one wants to risk the capital for that. Or rather, they haven’t figured out how to do it, yet. Tenet was an attempt at that, but it didn’t take. So maybe the Stuck Culture that others have lamented is like the Trench Warfare of WWI. Nobody likes it, everyone’s trying to solve for it, but they haven’t figured out how yet. We’ve not had our cultural stormtroopers yet. And we probably won’t like that when we do.

Now I have started blogging about something else. Should I change the title?

Nah.

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.