Paul’s Holy War in Dune: Jihad or Crusade?

“There’s a crusade coming.”

Paul Atreides says that at the start of the Dune trailer, and some fans (including myself) are in varying degrees concerned. Has Denis Villeneuve pulled a “Sum of all Fears”, and catered to woke culture by censoring the idea of jihad from Frank Herbert’s story? Add to this that no Arabs were cast for the Fremen characters (Stilgar played by Javiar Bardem is Hispanic, and Chani played by Zendaya is African American), and one might wonder if Villeneuve is trying to keep Dune‘s holy war free of any implied Muslim and/or Arab association. (Which would be ironic, since other fans have been complaining about the lack of Arab representation among the cast; you can’t win with the woke crowd.) After all, it’s perfectly PC to portray barbaric warfare and devastation as the result of crusades. But leave the jihad out of it, you bigot!

In Herbert’s novels, of course, the Fremen are close analogs to Muslim Arabs. They’re a patriarchal warrior culture of the desert; they have a monopoly on a prized commodity (spice instead of oil); and their religion derives from an amalgam of religions emerging out of old Earth, the most influential being Sunni Islam. Under Paul’s messianic leadership they rise against the oppressive Corrino empire (and the Harkonnen lackeys) to lead a jihad across the galaxy — slaughtering over 60 billion people and sterilizing all life on over 90 planets. It’s a monstrous holy war that Paul agonizes over, and then rationalizes as a necessary or lesser evil, but few readers seriously buy that. The jihad results in devastation and a uniformly oppressive way of life that is far worse than anything experienced under the previous 10,000 years of Corrino rule.

By turning Paul’s jihad into a crusade, and (perhaps) leaving Arabs completely out of the cast, it looks as if Villeneuve could be trying to make a Dune adaptation that will pass the PC litmus test. If this turns out to be the case — that he has removed all references to jihad in his film for fear of stereotyping Muslims — then I will join the chorus of condemnation. But I think this is probably not the case. In Herbert’s books the term “crusade” is actually used as a loose equivalent of the jihad on a couple of occasions. Maybe the trailer just happened to include Herbert’s rare phrase instead of his common one.

But before going any further with the Dune universe, let’s review the differences and similarities between the Christian crusades and the Islamic jihad in our real world, since in reality “crusade” and “jihad” are not interchangeable.

The Christian crusades vs. the Islamic jihad

Here are the differences:

  • The crusades emerged (in the 11th century) as a response to the Islamic jihad and had no basis in the tenets of Christianity. It was a hijacking of the Christian religion. Reactively (defensively), the crusades were a long overdue counter to 300 years of jihadist warfare which had ripped away two-thirds of the Christian world, and was still pushing deeper into Christian lands. Proactively (offensively), the crusades introduced (what was for Christianity) a radical concept of sacred violence, effecting the remission of a knight’s sins for killing infidels. The profession of medieval knighthood didn’t allow for peace, and knights had been taught by monks that they led an inherently sinful life; now they were taught they could channel that sinful aggression into a sacred cause.
  • The jihad, on the other hand, under Islamic law, is derived from the Qur’an and has always been mandatory on all able-bodied male members of the Muslim community. This remains true to this day, in all four schools of Sunni Islam (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi) and Shi’ite schools as well. Unlike the crusades, the jihad takes two forms, the greater (al-jihad al-akbar) internal struggle to achieve personal purity, and the lesser (al-jihad al-asghar) military struggle to subjugate infidels (and eventually the whole world) under Islamic law. Both jihads are obligatory, the lesser as much as the greater. Unlike the Christian crusades of the medieval period, which were voluntary and non-essential to the faith, the Islamic jihad has always been a faith fundamental.

What the crusades and the jihad do have in common is the drive of religious zeal. For whatever strange reason, modern academics have difficulty accepting that people find holy war attractive on the strength of religiosity — that ideas about martyrdom and paradise can be in and of themselves psychologically rewarding, irrespective of social or economic factors. Rational people are capable of believing things which a lot of us consider crazy, especially when it comes to beliefs about the afterlife. Specifically:

  • Claims that the crusaders were mostly disenfranchised second sons disaffected with their lot in life, or that crusaders in general were colonizers intent on acquiring land abroad, are the products of dated and uninformed scholarship. Many crusaders were wealthy first-born sons, and most crusaders expected to be bankrupt by the cost of crusading, and to return home to Europe immediately after. Simply put: one did not improve one’s lot in life by going on crusade; just the opposite. Crusaders believed in the virtues of sacred violence for its own sake (despite and against the long-standing tradition of their savior’s pacifism). Holy war was a penitential act offering the warrior a way to bypass purgatory on his way to heaven. Medieval Christians were anxious about suffering in purgatory, however silly that seems to us.
  • Claims that jihadists are mostly poor and uneducated are PC fantasies. There is no correlation whatsoever between poverty and jihad. No evidence supports the idea that jihadists are unusually maladjusted, poor, or badly schooled. For jihadists, slaying infidels is a fundamental guarantee to paradise. To many Muslims — wealthy as much as poor — that is a psychologically appealing belief.

There hasn’t been a crusade in centuries. The Christian holy wars were foreordained to pass, never having a proper grounding to begin with. They had always cut against the pacifism of the New Testament, and the church knew it. Europe became more globalized and cosmopolitan, and it’s hard to do business with people while slaughtering them. (Capitalism has its faults, but religious war-mongering isn’t one of them; warfare is engaged rather for economic advantage.) In the secular state, crusading seemed archaic to secularists, religiously wrong-headed to religionists, and anti-Christian to Christians.

Jihadists, on the other hand, have remained routinely active since the 7th century, because of beliefs endemic to Islam. But no one likes to admit that for fear of stereotyping Muslims, and Islamic groups like CAIR have made a career of lobbying the movie industry to remove portrayals of jihad. Especially since The Sum of all Fears.

The Sum of all Woke Fears: Portraying Jihadists in Film

Hollywood bends over backwards for busybody groups like CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations. In 2002 the jihadist plot of Tom Clancy’s Sum of All Fears was, absurdly, turned into a neo-Nazi plot under pressure from CAIR. Obviously there are no neo-Nazis running around Europe blowing things up like Islamic jihadists are. The film was made acceptable to Hollywood sensibilities and the Arab lobby, but it was silly and unrealistic. Once you subordinate artistry to politics, you may as well quit your job as a filmmaker (Bob Kruger writes plenty about this). I never read The Sum of all Fears, but my father did, and I remember seeing the film with him, and he couldn’t believe how ridiculously the plot was changed for fears of prejudice. (And my father was a very liberal guy.)

Whether or not Villeneuve has pulled a “Sum of All Fears” in Dune is difficult to predict at this time. For now I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. For one, he has proven himself to be a damn good filmmaker, uninterested in genuflecting at the woke altar. His masterpiece Blade Runner 2049 pissed off the PC-police for supposedly objectifying women with “porno” images and the hologram character Joi. Commendably he never flinched. I suspect we’re going to get plenty of the jihad in Dune.

But the fact is, I’m just not sure. Even the best director can bend under too much pressure, and Villeneuve has already made one casting choice that I find bewildering: the character of Liet-Kynes, who has been turned into a female, which makes no sense at all (unless you’re just trying to score woke points). Liet-Kynes is the leader of the patriarchal Fremen; making a gender swap with this role is weird to say the least.

Even if Herbert used the term “crusade” as a rare equivalent with “jihad”, it was the latter term that so obviously summed up the spirit of his epic. That’s why he used it. From the desert planet comes the jihad, sweeping across the galaxy, waged by a people whose harsh culture and beliefs mirror those of Islamists. That doesn’t make Dune a signpost to bigotry anymore than a novel like Shogun is.

The Better Sequel — Dune Messiah or Paul of Dune?

With the release of the Dune trailer, I’m rereading the classic series along with some of the volumes written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. For twenty years I’ve spurned these sequels, prequels, and midquels, holding fast to the wisdom that sons trying to carry on their fathers’ literary torches are bound to disappoint. Especially when cranked out in obscene quantity: there are thirteen of these novels, and their reputation is shaky to say the least. But I was determined to try some, and Paul of Dune was a priority. Some critics call it the sequel that Dune deserved in the first place, rather than Dune Messiah; I was skeptical of this claim but now agree with it. Having read Dune–>Paul of Dune–>Dune Messiah in my marathon, I will now review the latter two and explain why Paul of Dune is the better sequel.

[Note: Paul of Dune starts one year after Dune and covers the six-year period of 10194-10199, the first half of the jihad. Dune Messiah starts twelve years after Dune, and covers the two-year period of 10206-10207, as the jihad is winding down. I’m going to review Dune Messiah first, however, since it holds primacy of place in the canon.]

Dune Messiah: 2 ½ stars out of 5

Dune was an impossible act to follow, even for a genius like Frank Herbert. When you write the best sci-fic novel of all time (it remains so after 55 years), you don’t do yourself any great favors. Dune had everything — family drama, political intrigue, wilderness survival, action, introspection — and never for a split-second cheated the reader. Dune Messiah has little of any of that. Instead it has shitloads of sulking, as Paul drowns in the self-pity of his messianic woes. The plot is sketchy, revolving around a conspiracy against this Emo-Paul; the conspirators range from the half-competent to the ineffectual, and succeed mostly in scoring philosophical zingers against each other that the reader can’t make sense of. Messiah is essentially a chamber piece that reads like an interlude between Dune and Children of Dune, showing how Paul’s reign fizzles out before his son Leto’s will begin. This could have worked fine, with a little more story and a lot less gas, but Herbert evidently wanted to write a sequel that was different from Dune in every single way, even to the point of ditching the essentials of narration itself.

Herbert’s goal was admirable: Dune Messiah demystifies Muad’Dib and shows that in becoming a god, Paul Atreides became a captive of his own command — powerless to stop the jihad that devastated the universe. All fine and well. The Dune series, after all, is about the self-defeating nature of charismatics and messiahs. The problem is that Paul’s demystification is presented in a navel-gazing cloud without any real conflict (aside from the conspiracy-plot and a few family quarrels). There is the return of Duncan Idaho — resurrected as a ghola named Hayt — but since Hayt admits upfront to Paul that he was sent to destroy him, the suspense over this point is muted.

That leaves the suspense to be carried on Paul’s inner torments. Normally I love this sort of thing. Thomas Covenant is my favorite anti-hero; he’s the most depressing and self-loathing savior you can find in a work of fantasy. But he gets epic stories that rise above misery porn. Dune Messiah has nowhere to rise because it hardly goes anywhere. Add to this that its characters — the dwarf Bijaz, the ghola Hayt, and others — speak in an abundance of riddles and paradoxes that seem designed purely to bamboozle the reader. Portentous dialogue stretches on for pages, and it’s too abstruse to feel like anything of substance is being discussed. Many readers will feel used, if not abused, that a brilliant writer like Herbert has exploited his talents to serve up nonsense that only sounds philosophically impressive.

The best part is when Paul goes out in disguise among the people of Arrakeen, deliberately walking into a trap, knowing what will happen to him thanks to his prescient visions. Sure enough, the stone-burner bomb goes off, dissolving his eye tissue and rendering him blind. But he can still see, due to his prescience as the Kwisatch Haderach, and this throws his Fremen followers into disarray, since it is their unyielding custom to leave the blind to die in the desert. Strong scenes unfold: Paul’s command that Tleilaxu eyes be shipped by the government for every citizen blinded by the bomb; Korba’s trial before the Fremen naibs; Duncan/Hayt and Alia dancing around their lust for each other. This all comes in the last third of the novel, and it helps redeem the novel from being a total dud.

What we never get in Dune Messiah is the intricate world-building of the other five classic novels — Dune, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Dune Chapterhouse. After the magisterial canvass of Dune in particular, that’s quite a come-down. We don’t see the devastating impact of the jihad on other worlds; everything is set on the god-capital of Arrakis, mostly inside Paul’s city-temple. We’re left in the dark about the mysterious Bene Tleilax, how they resurrect people (like Duncan Idaho), create Face Dancers, and how they bred their own Kwisatz Haderach (like Paul) who failed. These are far more interesting questions than pretentious riddles. Thankfully they’re answered in Paul of Dune.

Before turning to that better sequel, however, I should acknowledge the power of the closing chapter in which Paul walks off into the desert to die. His last words reverberate in the ears of the Fremen: “Now I am free.” For Duncan Idaho the words have added resonance, since his ghola body has just been liberated from Tleilaxu control. A stage is being set for a new dynasty, and there’s something genuinely heartbreaking in Paul’s realization that the future no longer needs his physical presence. It’s the messiah’s fate to be rendered insignificant by the religion he calls into existence. I just wish the tragic ending could have paid off an epic worthy of a Dune sequel.

Paul of Dune: 4 stars out of 5

My low expectations for this book paid off, but frankly I would have been impressed with even modest ones. Though not as literary as any of Herbert’s books, Paul of Dune is certainly well written, despite the naysayers’ objections. It’s the sequel we all deserve, picking up the year after Dune ends and throwing us into Paul’s holy war.

We’re treated to characters who are offstage in Dune Messiah: Lady Jessica, Gurney Halleck, the deposed emperor Shaddam IV, and the key players Count Fenring, his wife Margot, and their vicious baby daughter Marie who proves to be a match for Paul’s sister Alia. We see Dune Messiah‘s Korba, chief priest of the Qizarate, in the early days of the Qizarate before he betrayed Paul. Controversially, we get Princess Irulan penning Muad’Dib’s biography as a propaganda piece: The Life of Muad’Dib, Volume 1, is understood to be the equivalent of the novel Dune, and contains hyperboles and outright lies, which in effect retcons Herbert’s series. While this has pissed off many fans, I find it amusing and in line with Herbert’s purpose: messiahs are not only dangerous, they leave legends in their wake that can’t be entirely trusted.

I was glad to see Gurney Halleck return to his home world of Giedi Prime. After four years of commanding fanatical Fremen across the galaxy — and wanting to murder most of them for their barbarisms — he is finally relieved from jihad duty by Paul and sent to reform the oppressive Harkonnen cesspool. Readers of Dune will recall that Gurney was tortured in slave pits as a young man on Giedi Prime, while his sister was made into a whore in a torture bordello, and then eventually raped and strangled in front of Gurney. Gurney’s first act upon arrival is to shut down the slave pits, and then to seek out the “pleasure” houses, whereupon he commands that the proprietor (the very same who oversaw his sister’s torments) be garroted in public:

The administrators remained silent. The proprietor squawked, began to argue, and Gurney pointed a finger at him: “Be thankful that I do not first command a hundred soldiers to sodomize you — some of them with spiked clubs. But even though that is what you deserve, I am not a Harkonnen. Your death will be swift enough.”

With the barbarisms of the jihad still fresh in his mind, Gurney aims for less severe methods to punish as he governs. He refuses to emulate the religious rule of the Fremen, though they obviously have Paul’s approval, and it’s hard not to see an implied critique of Islamic law (Fremen religion is an amalgam of many historic religions, but mostly Sunni Islam) in our real world. Back on Arrakis Princess Irulan levels her own critique, as she lambastes Paul for his warrior-based religion that has replaced democracy and freedom:

“I see no advantage in what you are creating: a fanatically united populace under a charismatic leader, following dogma instead of a bill of rights. You have thrown out the complex — and yes, inefficient — bureaucracy of the Landsraad. But you cannot replace it with anarchy. We need a safety net of laws and procedures, a uniform code by which decisions on all planets are made. And yet, you seek to do away with everything that preceded you.”

Paul Muad’Dib nonetheless holds his ground. He isn’t the Emo-Paul of Dune Messiah, drowning in self-pity. He’s an emperor who by god acts like one, and mans up to the vile shit he must endorse and keep carrying out for the “greater good”. At one point he even disguises himself as a common Fremen and goes off to a distant planet to fight in the jihad alongside his fanatical followers. Paul has doubts and misgivings, to be sure, just like in Dune, but he isn’t paralyzed by them. There are many passages in Paul of Dune which echo his prescient visions seen in the first novel, such as the following:

Only he, Paul Muad’Dib, could see the whirlwind, and the far worse fate that awaited the human race if his jihad failed. As he forged ahead into the future, he saw hazards in every direction, death and pain on every side. He only knew that somewhere beyond this jihad, perhaps many generations later, lay a safe harbor. He still believed he could guide humankind along the correct, narrow path. He had to believe it. For those who could not see the large and subtle tapestry of fate, however, this battle was a slaughter of helpless civilians.

The “correct narrow path”, of course, foreshadows the Golden Path revealed to Paul’s son Leto in the later books — Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, etc. The Golden Path is basically the plan for humanity’s long term survival. As God Emperor, Leto will keep humanity bottled up for centuries under his oppressive rule, so that once people finally break free they will scatter throughout the universe and become more diverse and stronger than ever before. In other words, the Golden Path will instill in humanity a genetic and cultural hatred of oppressive rulers, so as to ensure that humanity will never suffer under tyrants (like Paul and Leto) ever again. But for now, all Paul knows is that his jihad and barbaric rule is the best of bad alternatives, “a flurry compared with the titanic upheavals that lay ahead in the path of human destiny, upheavals that would be far more deadly if the jihad failed now”.

And while Paul contends with the ugly impact of his jihad, old enemies put plans into motion to reclaim his throne: the deposed Shaddam IV, for one, and Shaddam’s old ally and assassin Hasimir Fenring. It’s Fenring who ends up being the chief antagonist of Paul of Dune, and I enjoyed how he ditches his ex-boss Shaddam (whom he disdains as a twit) to pursue his own nefarious plot against Paul: he and his wife Margot plan to steal the throne for their baby daughter Marie, who is a product of the Bene Gesserit breeding program. On top of this is a bizarre side-plot alluded to in Dune Messiah: the defective Kwisatch Haderach created by the Bene Tleilax, named Thallo. Thallo becomes friends with the young Marie, and they shape up to become a deadly duo before Thallo goes insane and tries killing everyone around him. (Little Marie puts him out of his misery with her Bene Gesserit skills.)

Paul of Dune was clearly written by fans who love the first novel and wanted a proper sequel; it wasn’t cranked out to milk the cash cow. I’m looking forward to reading more of the Herbert/Anderson books, especially the Butlerian Jihad prequels. Those look promising.

The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 2

Before starting my review it’s worth reflecting on the reputation of the entire Karate Kid/Cobra Kai franchise. Here’s the breakdown of critical and audience approval ratings on Rotten Tomatoes:

Karate Kid (1984) — 89% / 82%
Karate Kid 2 (1986) — 45% / 51%
Karate Kid 3 (1989) — 15% / 35%
Cobra Kai Season 1 (2018) — 100% / 96%
Cobra Kai Season 2 (2019) — 88% / 94%

A few points worth mentioning. There’s no denying the third Karate Kid film is one of the worst films ever made, but I remember liking the second film more than the first, and I’m certain that it was more widely cherished than these RT ratings suggest. The Okinawa setting, honor-shame codes, and fights to the death took things to a stronger level than any tournament could. And it was a commercial smash, more than even the original. It hasn’t aged well (anymore than the first has), but back in the day I thought it was the gem of the trilogy.

In any case, it’s clear that the new Cobra Kai series buries the Karate Kid trilogy, and I agree with this avalanche of opinion for reasons prefaced in my review of season 1:

If Cobra Kai is still the same Karate-Kid animal, it shakes things up enough to make it a watchable and in some ways even impressive miniseries. The Karate Kid I & II have aged terribly. As ’80s underdog films they were facilely one dimensional. The bad guys were ciphers with no backstories — Johnny Lawrence and his Cobra Kai gang completely unsympathetic jerks. The good guy was an endearing character, but he didn’t work very well as a karate protagonist. For one thing, Daniel LaRusso was a supreme light-weight, clocking in at about 120 pounds. His indentured servitude to Mr. Miyagi — waxing cars, sanding floors, and painting fences — was impossible to take seriously a way of learning karate techniques. As for Daniel’s crane kick, it was the sort of last-minute melodrama that won the day in other sports films of this era (like the quarterback sacking of Sean Astin’s character in Rudy, or the final hoop shot in Hoosiers). The Karate Kid was essentially a poster child for the Reagan years, optimistic about the underdog’s potential to “be all you can be”, really to the point of absurdity. Cobra Kai inverts this premise, so that the underdogs become the assholes — and the previous underdog becomes an even bigger asshole. That’s at least a story.

That story picks up where the first season left off, and wastes no time picking up where Johnny and Kreese left off three and a half decades ago — when Kreese literally tried to kill Johnny for winning only second place in the All-Valley Tournament. They proceed to beat the shit out of each other, which gratifies Kreese to no end, and by the end of the first episode Johnny actually allows the piece of shit to join his dojo as a deputy sensei. To give him a “second chance”. Any fool knows that Kreese can’t change, but Johnny is more vulnerable than a fool; he’s at a crossroads and beginning to change himself, and wants to eliminate dirty fighting techniques from Cobra Kai. On his rationale, if he can see the wisdom in modifying his creed, then perhaps so can his mentor who taught him the creed. Daniel, of course, doesn’t believe either one of them can change, and in short order resurrects Mr. Miyagi’s former dojo (Miyagi-Do) set in deliberate opposition to Cobra Kai. It has all the trappings of the classic trilogy — a Japanese garden, banners displaying axioms of self-defense, a tranquil atmosphere.

If season 1 was about the blurring of underdogs and assholes, then season 2 is about the elusive nature of mercy, no matter which of the two you happen to be. At Cobra Kai mercy is anathema, and yet Johnny wants to make allowance for it after seeing his son foully injured by his best student. At Miyagi-Do mercy is a virtue, but in the end out of reach to Daniel’s best student. The season flits back and forth between the two dojos: the punishing arena of Cobra Kai vs. the Elysian paradise of Miyagi-Do. Johnny puts his students in the mixer of a cement truck and makes them spin it by hand — a lethally dangerous exercise. Daniel puts his students on a circular wooden raft that capsizes unless their punches and kicks come in perfect harmony. Johnny’s students get drenched in cement; Daniel’s students get thrown into the pond over and over. Johnny later takes the Cobra Kais into the woods for a severe trial, while Daniel trains the Miyagi-Dos in alternating 100-degree outside heat and a walk-in freezer. The disciplines are opposite and exacting, and each produces a backlash. Miguel, like Johnny, increasingly questions the “no mercy” tenet (unlike Hawk and other students who worship Kreese), while Robby, frustrated by months of dance exercises and hyper-pacifism, finally lashes out and goes ruthless on Miguel when extended a merciful hand.

My view of Daniel LaRusso is considerably more positive this season, as he is much less an asshole. In the first season he went out of his way to shaft Johnny for the pettiest reasons — even going so far as to manipulate a business associate into doubling the rent in the strip mall where Cobra Kai operates (which shafts not only Johnny but all the other mall renters), and then trying to ban Cobra Kai from participating in the All-Valley Tournament because of decades-old grudges against Johnny. The season-1 Daniel was self-righteous in the extreme, and in the epilogue I imagined him reopening Miyagi-Do purely to settle scores with Johnny. That’s not quite how it plays out in season 2. By the end of the first episode Daniel has given up on revenge; he opens Miyagi-Do Karate not in order to fight Cobra Kai, but as an enlightened alternative. Throughout the season he mentors his students in the ways of inner balance, and in turn is able to find some balance himself. He turns out to be quite a good sensei. His worst crime is neglecting his wife and their auto business, but on this point, frankly, I found myself very forgiving: I like Daniel’s students more than I like his wife, and I see more value in the art of karate than in selling cars.

And when Daniel does lapse into self-righteousness he at least has cause. For example, in the fifth episode he bursts into Cobra Kai and interrupts the class to give Johnny a vicious tongue-lashing before turning full blast on the Cobra Kai students: “Let me tell you something about your sensei: He might teach you how to fight, but he doesn’t know a thing about what it takes to truly win at life.” Sanctimonious, yes, but Daniel earns it for a change. Those Cobra Kai shits trashed the Miyagi-Do dojo the night before, broken and smashed everything in sight, uprooted bonsai plants, and vandalized Daniel’s ’48 Ford Super De Luxe (given to him by Mr. Miyagi in the first film). To top it off, one of the Cobra Kais stole Mr. Miyagi’s medal of honor. That Johnny knows nothing of this outrageous attack on Miyagi-Do (it was Kreese who engineered it behind Johnny’s back) doesn’t diminish Daniel’s right to be fully enraged.

The weakness to this season is Kreese. For an arch-villain he’s curiously underused. Having been given a second chance at Cobra Kai, he begins to subtly undermine Johnny in his role as deputy sensei, but the only times he does anything effective is in the fifth episode, when he goads Hawk into trashing Miyagi-Do, and then in the sixth episode, when Johnny leaves town to visit a dying friend (Tommy, from the first Karate Kid film), and Johnny leaves Kreese in charge. No sooner does Kreese manage to persuade students like Hawk and Tory that “Sensei Lawrence is confused and needs to be brought back on track”, than Johnny expels him in the very next episode, realizing it was foolish to trust Kreese at all. Kreese never really emerges as the formidable threat I expected him to be — until the end of the finale. Hopefully season 3 will payoff his character as it deserves.

As before, the best two episodes are the final two, and they follow the same pattern. In the season-1 penultimate, Daniel and Johnny came close to burying the hatchet over drinks at a local bar. In this season’s penultimate they find themselves thrown together on a double date in a Mexican restaurant, and despite their initial hostility end up warming to each other. It’s not a lazy repeat; these calm-before-the-shitstorm ninth episodes are used very effectively to show how, underneath it all, Daniel and Johnny really do want to be friends — even if they can’t admit that to themselves without enough booze in their bellies. Possibly my favorite scene of the series is watching Johnny & Carmen, and Daniel & Amanda, on the dance floor after they eat dinner. We know the good will is about to be cruelly shattered (with the finale up next), and so it makes the moment extra precious.

As for the finale, it delivers the best and most visceral fight of the franchise. In some ways it’s a throwback to Karate Kid Part 2. As Tory says while holding a spiked wristband in Sam’s face, “This isn’t a tournament; there are no rules.” But unlike Daniel and Chozen’s fight to the death (in which no one actually died), Cobra Kai Season 2 has the balls to put its money where its mouth is. By the end of the staggering inside-school battle, Sam will be hospitalized, and her ex-boyfriend Miguel in a coma in ICU.

The school brawl is pure insane chaos, starting in a hall of lockers, then sprawling out everywhere in the building. Tory starts it, intent on smashing Sam to pieces for moving in on Miguel. Pretty soon every karate student is throwing fists and kicks, turning the first day of school into an all-out war between Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do. It’s brilliantly choreographed and runs for a full twelve minutes; it must have been incredibly difficult to shoot.

The Cobra Kais were the tournament victors, but in the high-school halls their glory is not repeated. The Miyagi-Dos thrash them at every turn: Nathaniel beats Bert; Chris pounds Mitch; Sam crushes Tory (though barely, and not without bleeding for her efforts); even Demetri, miraculously, gets the better of Hawk. These victories are effectively nullified, however, when Robby betrays the Miyagi creed: lying beaten on the floor, he’s about to take a worse pounding when Miguel elects to show him mercy — to which Robby responds by sucker-punching him, leaping to his feet, and kicking Miguel off the railing of the second-floor landing. Miguel’s fall is horrible to watch; he crashes spine-first onto the first floor railing and almost dies. (Worth noting is Sam’s reaction. Appalled at Robby’s actions, she screams, “Robby, what did you do?”, conveniently forgetting that she had just kicked Tory over a stair railing herself.) So in another dramatic inversion, and as in last season’s tournament, the winner wins by fighting foul. This time someone almost dies for it. I wonder if there is a message here, or if season 3 will break the pattern. Is it possible in the Cobra Kai universe to win without being merciless? Or is it simply that losers who show mercy are the real winners? That’s not how it worked in the Karate Kid trilogy, where Miyagi-driven karate guaranteed victory. Maybe Daniel is just an ineffectual sensei in the end: when Robby fights as instructed (season 1) he loses, and when he ignores Daniel’s benevolent teachings (season 2) he gets satisfaction.

Cobra Kai continues to grow on me and I’m looking forward to season 3. With Miguel physically pulverized, Samantha emotionally traumatized, Carmen hating Johnny, Johnny hating himself, Daniel poleaxed over Robby, everyone needs a fucking time out. Worst of all, in the midst of all this ruin, Kreese finally makes his move and seizes Cobra Kai for himself, and because Johnny is so guilt-wracked, he gives up his dojo without a fight. Fans have speculated that Johnny and Daniel will join forces to take Kreese down, and I can see it happening.

My only concern about the next season is a possible embarrassment of riches. Predictions are firm for the return of both Ali (from Karate Kid) and Chozen (from Karate Kid 2). Some are also predicting Terry Silver (from Karate Kid 3). The danger of too many returning characters is finding room for their appropriate development. I hope everyone’s role will be done justice. But I’m not too worried. The writers of Cobra Kai have proven their mettle twice now, against every odd.

 

See also:

The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 1
The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 3