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

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