“I’m sorry, this is absolutely surreal.”
Daniel’s words to Kumiko surely speak for the way many audiences feel about Cobra Kai‘s third season. By this point the San Fernando Valley has become a crazy alternate reality where karate is the rule of law and even the key to one’s spiritual salvation. If you’re Cobra Kai, then you’re a social Darwinist upholding survival of the strongest: strike first with bloodthirsty aggression, and forget you’ve ever heard of a concept like compassion. If you’re Miyagi-Do, then you’re a Zen Buddhist, competing more with yourself than others: train your body and mind to achieve balance, and fight defensively. And if you’re Eagle Fang, then you’re probably confused about what you are: a breakaway sect from Cobra Kai wanting to have your badass cake and eat it — but also to join forces with the Miyagi-Do infidels, heretofore your sworn enemy.
Friendships, romances, and alliances turn on a dime in this universe, and the dojos lose/gain students by a continual stream of attrition and defection. When karate brawls break out, all beings of authority — parents, teachers, and police — are powerless to protect kids from broken arms and comas. For that matter, the kids themselves seem powerless, as if karate is possessing them and putting them in thrall to absurdist melodramas. Sensais Johnny and Daniel are the worst in this regard, still seething over adolescent quarrels that any mature adult would have long put to bed. In the real world they would be deemed terrible role models; in the world of Cobra Kai they are weirdly compelling, and in this season about equally so.
One critic has described season 3 of Cobra Kai as ¼ teen soap opera, ¼ martial arts epic, ¼ Richard Linklater, and ¼ underdog sports drama — and that’s pretty much right. (Those who have seen Linklater’s Before series will find resonance in the return of Daniel’s old flings Kumiko and Ali, and their conversational therapies.) Strangely, this is what makes season 3 the best so far. If you’re going to do a cheesy dramedy, then go the full nine. Accepted on its own terms, this season is what the series has been building to, with John Kreese finally assuming his role as the nasty arch-villain, leaving Johnny out in the cold, and Daniel trying to pray Mr. Miyagi back to life.
Johnny and Daniel have a brief team up in episode 2 that ends on quite the opposite note. They are hunting the city for Robby before the cops catch him (for putting Miguel in a coma), and the hunt takes them to a den of thieves who stole the van that Robby took from the LaRusso auto shop. Johnny and Daniel unload an ass-pounding on these thugs, and interestingly, this is only the second time (up to this point) in the series that Daniel has been involved in a karate fight. He didn’t fight at all in season 1; he saved Robby from the beach attack in season 2; he will get into three fights this season, and this first one is hilarious. After he and Johnny kick the shit out of the thugs, they immediately begin attacking each other, overreacting as they always do to the other’s perceived faults. This is what I love about Cobra Kai: allies are as dangerous as enemies, for the most melodramatic causes.
The surrealism continues in one of the season’s best sequences — the school conflict of episode 4 that leads to smack downs and windmill kicks on the soccer field. It begins in the cafeteria with Eli demolishing Demetri’s science project (that took the poor kid three weeks to build), but Demetri and Sam are, incredibly, the ones who get chastised by Counselor Blatt, while Eli, all innocence, protests about being triggered in his safe space. He then warns Sam against any further micro and macro aggressions. Cobra Kai has never shown mercy in making fun of political correctness, and I’m glad to see that the series’ move to Netflix hasn’t cramped its style. In any case, when Counselor Blatt swallows Eli’s deferential bullshit, the Miyagi-Do “good guys” decide to take revenge in gym class. Of course, the soccer teams are conveniently divided so that the Miyagi-Dos are playing against the Cobra Kais, but the surrealism goes into overdrive when the punches, headbutts, and windmill kicks start flying, while the referee just stands on the sidelines exasperating and wringing her hands.
But as I foreshadowed at the start, season 3 is at its most surreal during Daniel’s trip to Okinawa, where he encounters his old girlfriend (Kumiko) and homicidal nemesis (Chozen) from The Karate Kid Part II. This is another reason why season 3 is my favorite: back in the day I liked the second Karate Kid film more than the first, which is heresy to most fans of the franchise. I saw Part II first, in the theater, and then worked back to the Part I on VHS, so the latter always felt more like a prequel: a sports film prefacing the epic adventure in Okinawa, where karate was high stakes and involved real fights — to the death, not to score tournament points.
Indeed, the Okinawan scenes in episodes 4 and 5 are the season’s best, some of them genuinely moving, especially when Kumiko reads Daniel the love letters that Mr. Miyagi had sent Yukie. The one he wrote on his deathbed — in which he describes to Yukie his special feelings for Daniel and his daughter, how Daniel welcomed him into his family and made him feel like Sam’s grandfather — actually brought a tear to my eye. And when Chozen makes his entrance the next morning, he exudes a real menace we’re not used to seeing in Cobra Kai because Kreese is so cartoonish. It turns out that Chozen’s surface hostility masks a deep shame that he continues to feel for trying to kill Daniel and Kumiko decades ago. When he paralyzes Daniel in a sparring match, and acts like he’s ready to kill him, my heart almost skipped a beat. Chozen is written very well. He forces Daniel to rethink his reverence for Mr. Miyagi, and ends up teaching Daniel “war secrets” that Mr. Miyagi withheld from him — moves that Daniel will use in the finale against Creese.
Most importantly — though I’m not sure the writers intended this — the Okinawan drama shows how melodramatic the American one is by comparison. For all their ugly history from Karate Kid Part II, Kumiko and Chozen have moved on, and are at peace with each other; Chozen is at peace with Daniel, and Daniel finds forgiveness within easy reach. If Daniel and Chozen can be this way after trying to kill each other, why can’t Daniel and Johnny put petty rivalries behind? There are two levels of surrealism here, the exotic Asian, and the absurdist American, and the former hangs as a commentary on the latter. In the finale, Daniel and Johnny finally bridge their dojos, and while this comes right after Ali telling them to bury the hatchet, I prefer to believe that Kumiko and Chozen had the stronger influence on Daniel’s reconciliation with Johnny.
As for Johnny, he and Miguel continue to be the best characters in Cobra Kai; they anchor the series, and it’s hard to imagine it without them. The things Johnny does to get Miguel out of a wheelchair are classic Johnny Lawrence — dangling porno mags over Miguel’s head, even lighting the poor kid’s foot on fire. Meanwhile, Miguel’s Cobra Kai buddies are proving themselves supreme assholes in avenging Miguel, resulting in a shocker I didn’t see coming: Eli pinning Demetri on the ground, and then — to the cheers of Tory and other Cobra Kais — sadistically breaking his arm. This while Sam chokes in a panic attack, unable to do anything to save Demetri. Which brings me to Mary Mouser’s performance.
Mouser is worth singling out, because she has come 180 degrees in her ability to impress as an actor, just as Sam has evolved into a better character. In my review of the first season I didn’t hold back my distaste for the entire Larusso clan, including Sam. But the family has become more likeable as situations propel them out of their world of goody-two-shoes comfort. I’ve gone from hating Amanda and disliking Daniel and Sam (season 1), to hating Amanda and liking Daniel and Sam (season 2), to feeling okay about Amanda and really liking Daniel and Sam (season 3). Amanda, for her part, is finally on board with karate and gets aggressive herself — bearding Kreese in his dojo and belting him across the face. Daniel of course shines throughout the whole season, especially in Okinawa. But Sam really stands out. She displays a vulnerability in her rage against Cobra Kai, and suffers debilitating panic attacks in the aftermath of Tory slicing her arm at the end of season 2. And the heart-to-heart between her and Daniel on the boat in episode 7 is probably their best daughter-father scene of the series.
Then there is Tory and Robby, who I’m guessing will be an item in season 4. They get in great performances as angry castaways, and I admit that Robby’s turn to the dark side caught me off guard. It must gall Johnny to no end that his son has chosen mentors regardless of their philosophy — from the pacifist LaRusso to the war-mongering Kreese — just so long as it’s not dear old Dad. I’ve heard some critics say that Robby’s pendulum swing is unrealistic, but it’s most certainly not: as a neglected and angry son, it’s natural for him to latch on to any father figure except the real one — especially an authoritarian like Kreese. Not to mention Robby’s history as a delinquent. Of course he’s going to backslide when his benevolent sensai LaRusso “betrays” him by giving him over to the cops. As for Kreese, his Vietnam flashbacks are the weakest part of the season. They do nothing to flesh out his character in any revelatory way, and the injection of themes like war crimes into a dramedy seems strikingly out of place.
I’m sure the final two episodes (9 and 10) will be the fan faves, but as good as they are, they can’t compete with 4 and 5. The Okinawa fight scenes beat even the finale showdown with Kreese, and Kumiko — sorry fans — buries Ali with an “i”. I have dreaded talking about Ali Mills, as fans have been orgasmic for her return, but let me rush in to assure everyone that I enjoyed seeing Elisabeth Shue reprise her role. It was fun to watch Ali, after all these years, referee Johnny and Daniel’s mud slinging, and then regale the dinner table with embarrassing stories of her and Daniel’s break up. Prior to the party she and Johnny have a night out that gives him some peace and closure, and this is all very nice. But I can’t say that Ali was necessary to make season 3 as good as it is, unlike Kumiko and Chozen.
Actually in fact, the Ali drama becomes somewhat intrusive in the finale, which cuts back and forth between the Christmas party at the country club and the karate war in the LaRusso home. In seasons 1 and 2 the finale battles were uninterrupted as they deserve to be. The season 3 finale divides our interest and puts our bloodlust on pause. And there is blood to be sure: Miguel’s face in particular ends up looking like it’s been put through a grinder. Sam’s face-off with Tory is no joke, as Tory comes at Sam with nunchucks. (Those are seriously dangerous weapons; a weakling waving them around could smash someone’s skull with very little effort.) But it’s the LaRusso home that takes the most outrageous beating — thousands of dollars worth of damage as the kids kick and smash each other through the coffee table, sliding doors, the Christmas tree, lamps, and other fineries. This karate war is brilliantly choreographed, though it’s not a masterpiece like the massive season-2 school brawl.
The final confrontation with Kreese is of course what pushes Johnny and Daniel together, and it will be interesting to say the least how their season-4 alliance unfolds. Miyagi-Do is an uncompromising school of thought; Eagle Fang might have to lose its fangs. Though maybe not. In going against Kreese’s new incarnation of Cobra Kai, Miyagi-Do might, just might, have to start playing more dirty, and tap into those war secrets revealed by Chozen.
Honestly, there was no better way to start the new year than with Cobra Kai season 3. I usually go for dark and depressing, but after the year 2020, Miyagi dramedy hit the sweet spot.
The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 1
The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 2