James Maliszewski’s List of Imaginary Settings

Over on Grognardia, James Maliszewski lists his favorite imaginary settings, whether they are RPG worlds or strictly literary ones. You can read his commentary in the first post (numbers 10-6) and the second post (numbers 5-1), which add up to the following ranking:

1. The Third Imperium
2. Tekumel
3. Glorantha
4. Lankhmar
5. Zothique
6. The Dying Earth
7. The Hyborian Age
8. The Known Worlds of Fading Suns
9. Barsoom
10. Middle Earth

James got me thinking about my own favorite settings, and I’ve ranked them below. Seven have been designed specifically for RPGs, and one of them (#4) has inspired an RPG setting, so, like James, my heart is clearly game oriented when I think of alternate worlds.

1. Middle-Earth. Of course it’s my favorite: the world of Tolkien’s source material and also how it was developed in ICE’s gaming modules. Those modules (published from 1982-1999) weren’t made for D&D specifically, but I had no trouble adapting them. There’s a lot about Middle-Earth that sails over the casual reader’s head. It’s grounded in the “long defeat” theme — the ultimate powerlessness of good over evil — meaning that when good does triumph it’s a just holding action; worse is to come. Magic is subdued in this world, and (after the First Age anyway), the gods seldom involve themselves directly. The lands are in a constant state of fading, or “lowering” their fantasy context with the passage of time. It’s the most genius imaginary creation, with cultures, languages, and history so detailed it doesn’t seem like fantasy; and in fact it was intended by Tolkien as a prehistory to our own world and so it resonates with a realism that’s hard to come by in high fantasy. The folks at ICE fleshed out Tolkien’s labors with scholarship of their own, especially in exploring lands to the south, and it was a sad day for me when Tolkien Enterprise took away their license.

2. Tekumel. I’m new to this setting, coming to it just this year under a grim cloud: the exposure of M.A.R. Barker’s neo-Nazi beliefs. It seems too bizarre to be true. Barker studied for a long time in India, converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad, and became of a Professor of South Asian Languages. He created Tekumel, the first gaming world not based on a European white setting. It’s populated by brown people and their cultures are based on Middle-Eastern and Eastern models. How on earth could this guy be a white supremacist? But then looking into it more, I saw that it’s not as surprising as you might imagine, considering the strong link between Islam and Nazi Germany’s war. In any case, I’ve never had a problem separating artists from their socio-political views; I wouldn’t be able to appreciate much art if I did. And Barker was a genius. After only months of pouring over the Tekumel setting, I join Maliszewski unreservedly in calling it the second best imaginary setting of all time. Like Middle-Earth, it’s detailed and complex, especially regarding the cultures and languages. It’s basically a Middle-Earth grounded in Indian, Middle-Eastern, and Meso-American mythologies.

3. Mystara. I always played AD&D, not Basic, but I liked the setting for Basic much better than Greyhawk. The Isle of Dread was the first module I read in full and prepared as a DM (not Keep on the Borderlands, which was the first module I played under the DM’ing of a friend), and so for me, Mystara, or the “Known World”, was there from the start; it was my official D&D sandbox. When the gazetteers started coming out, I was in hog heaven. The nations are medieval European analogs of our own world and so it feels real: the Thyatian Empire = the Byzantine, the Grand Duchy of Karameikos = southeastern Europe, the Principalities of Glantri = western Europe ruled by wizard-princes, the Ethengar Khanate = the Mongols, the Republic of Darokin = the mercantile states of medieval Italy, the Emirates of Ylaruam = the Middle East, the Northern Reaches of Ostland/Vestland/Soderfjord = Scandinavia, plus regions for the dwarves, elves, and halflings. There’s nothing artificial about it like Greyhawk, and I still consider Mystara the most ideal setting for D&D campaigns.

4. Averoigne. If Elric of Melniboné is the best pulp fantasy hero, the world of Averoigne is the best pulp fantasy setting. I’ve known Averoigne primarily through the D&D module Castle Amber. As a teen way back in 1981, I went there as a mage, and had to keep my spells under wraps lest I fell prey to the inquisition. In the module Averoigne is lifted right from the stories of Clark Ashton Smith: a province in a parallel world similar to medieval France, but where magic is real and considered to be an evil pagan practice. Clerics (priests and bishops) don’t cast spells, and spell casters in general are viewed with suspicion and subject to arrest by the church authorities. It’s an analog of the province of Auvergne in particular, with the capital Vyones standing for Clermont (where the First Crusade was preached), Ximes for St. Flour, etc. Of course, Smith wrote his stories long before D&D was a thing, between 1930-1941, but he may as well have been gazing into the late ’70s and early ’80s. Averoigne is practically a blueprint for a D&D campaign setting, and I can’t stress enough how inspiring Smith’s tales are. I’ve read some of them many times — The Holiness of Azédarac, The Beast of Averoigne, and The Maker of Gargoyles being my top favorites.

5. The Land. It’s not the most D&D-friendly setting, but The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant were a milestone for me. By rights, this entry probably deserves to be higher, considering the impact on my imagination in my formative years, second only to Middle-Earth. Especially the Second Chronicles. The First established a vibrant Land with natural magic — Earthpower everywhere, in the trees, rivers, hills, and stone. In the second trilogy, Donaldson nuked the Land we love so dearly, with one of the most creative and nasty evils I’ve read in a work of fiction: the Sunbane, a corruption of Earthpower, affected by blood sacrifice, inflicting the Land with 3-day cycles of (a) a desert sun (evaporating all water and vegetation everywhere for three days), (b) a fertile sun (causing vegetation to grow fast, but the vegetation is in tortured pain), (c) a rain sun (causing relentless cold and windy storms), and (d) a pestilent sun (causing rot and decay, water to go bad, and swarms of poison insects to attack). How Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery manage to heal the Land is among the most epic tales of fantasy literature.

6. Newhon. Though I agree with Maliszewski that Lankhmar City is its crown jewel, the entire world of Newhon inspires me. I love the City of Ghouls, and the Sinking Lands in particular, and have used variants of the latter in more than one setting. But there’s no denying the primacy of Lankhmar, the greatest city ever imagined in any work of fantasy — a vile cesspit, corrupt at every level, a place where you have to worry about being backstabbed (literally and figuratively) at every turn. I was delighted when TSR began publishing the Lankhmar resources in the mid-’80s, especially since this was a turbulent time when Dragonlance was changing the face of D&D for the worse. I dreamed a lot about Nehwon as a teen, and being sent on the same kind of ludicrous missions Fafhrd and Mouser suffered under their wizard patrons, Ningauble and Sheelba. Even though Elric is the supreme pulp hero, and Averoigne the best pulp setting, it’s Newhon that most aligns with the D&D universe as conceived by Gary Gygax; the tales of Fafhrd and Mouser have a D&D feel to them that’s unmatched by other pulp tales (including even Conan).

7. The Third Imperium. I’m not big on sci-fic, but Traveler is like old-school D&D — gritty, not glitzy. Both games assume the characters are roguish adventurers “on the make”; adventures typically involve shady activities in order to acquire money, and the characters are outsiders (“travellers”) without commitments to local planetary societies. (The Raza crew in the TV series Dark Matter remind me of Traveller, and their spaceship is very Traveller-esque.) The space world has lawless frontiers (like the Spinward Marches and Solomani Rim), where authorities are distant and corrupt. And it’s damn perilous. There are no healing potions or rods of resurrection. When you engage combat, you feel that you’re risking your life for good. Hell, you can actually die as you are rolling up a character — before even beginning to play the game — the only RPG I know of that has this mechanism in place. As for Traveller’s setting, The Third Imperium is as vast and unending as you’d imagine the universe, and I’m in awe of its design.

8. Athas. Launched the year I stopped playing D&D for a long time (1991), The Dark Sun products are among the few decencies of the 2e period, superb in fact, set on a planet so saturated with Dune overtones you expect sandworms to appear. Athas is a land of ecological disaster, constant thirst, grinding poverty, and like most dying worlds has a history reaching back to a glorious age now forever out of reach. In this sense it’s reminiscent of Middle-Earth’s long defeat and foreordained passing, but even more depressing for its lack of deities; there are no Valar equivalents to assist, however obliquely, in keeping the tide of evil at bay. Druids draw their power from elemental forces, and wizards use magic at their own risk. It’s a world where halflings are cannibals, heroes are almost unheard of, and sorcerer-kings hold city-states under complete tyranny. The modules are railroady as hell (as everything was in the ’90s). but the setting itself is brilliantly conceived.

9. The Lands of Dus. I dare say there are many grognards who haven’t heard of, let alone read, the Lords of Dus novels. Even in my day they were an obscurity, a sword-and-sorcery series in the vein of the early pulps. It was especially the second novel, The Seven Altars of Dusarra, that was classic D&D come to life. The story’s hero is Garth the Overman, and the world he inhabits is like those of the pulps: decadent and grim, full of shady rogues, evil priests, and self-serving wizards. The city of Dusarra in particular reminds me of Lankhmar, especially the Street of the Temples devoted to a variety of perverse deities. There’s Tema (goddess of the night), Andhur Regvos (god of darkness and blindness), Aghad (god of hate and treachery), Sai (goddess of torture and pain), P’hul (goddess of disease and decay), Bheleu (god of war and destruction), and finally, the one whose “name is not spoken” (god of death). Garth’s mission is to rob these temples, and he causes a shitload of suffering for doing that, not least because he sets off a new era of war. In the post-Game of Thrones era we tend to think George Martin invented “brutal fantasy”, but as I see it, Martin essentially took the dark amoral elements of sword-and-sorcery fantasy and brought them into high fantasy. There’s a lot I miss about those stripped down worlds of the pulps that told straightforward stories, unencumbered by epic ambitions, and the Lands of Dus is by far the most underrated of those imaginative worlds.

10. The post-apocalyptic America of Gamma World. I can’t exclude this one. Gamma World was the only sci-fic RPG I had any use for besides Traveller. Its vision of a post-apocalyptic United States was basically the Dark Ages of Our Future — a vision born in the ’80s, during the Reagan era when everyone worried about nuclear holocaust. But what raises this setting above other post-apocalyptic worlds is that the apocalypse is so far into future (the 24th century, 2322 AD), which allows the pre-apocalyptic world to be just as futuristic and alien. There are high-tech artifacts like blaster pistols and robots, and cars that fly. The world of the ancients is filled with as much mystery and wonder for players as it is for player characters. (PCs start adventuring in 2450, about a century and a half after the nuclear wipe out.) It’s a global sandbox like classic D&D settings, in which PCs move from one pocket of civilization to another, plundering lost wealth and artifacts — the kind of America I thrilled to playing in, with a film like The Road Warrior being so popular in the ’80s.

Tony Scott Tribute

Tony Scott died ten years ago (in August 2012), and so this tribute is way overdue, prompted by some recent rewatches. No director could elevate a popcorn flick like Tony Scott. His camera work, avant-garde techniques, and the mileage he got from talented actors made his films aesthetic as much as thrilling. I think he was superior to his brother Ridley, who had two masterpieces in him (Alien and Blade Runner) but a lot of stinkers too. Of Tony Scott’s sixteen films, I don’t think any of them are bad (though some are mediocre), and I consider the following six to be his best, and they all have high rewatch value. I’ve seen each of them anywhere between three and seven times. I should note that I’m not the biggest Denzel Washington fan, but Scott used Denzel incredibly well — in no less than five of his films, and four of them place on this list.

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1. Deja Vu. 2006. Among the cinematic enjoyments that handle time travel intelligently, Deja Vu is especially impressive for not even being a sci-fic film. It’s a crime thriller incorporating a sci-fic element, which it then turns on a man’s obsession for a dead woman — basically this is Tony Scott meets Vertigo. The woman in question was abducted by a domestic terrorist who took her vehicle, killed her, and then bombed a passenger ferry boat, killing hundreds more. Enter the FBI, who have a special “surveillance” program which looks 4 days and 6 hours into the past, by using several satellites to form a triangulated image of events (or so they say). The FBI uses this program to solve crimes, in this case by looking into the past to try to identify the terrorist. They recruit ATF agent Doug Carlin (played by Denzel), who quickly figures out that this “surveillance program” is actually a time window — a gate into the past, from the present point to 4 days and 6 hours ago — which the government only stumbled on by accident. Doug becomes hell-bent on changing the past, by saving the woman who was abducted and killed, and in the process stopping the bomber before he kills more. The action and thrills are worth the price of admission, but the heart of Deja Vu is Doug’s obsession with Claire. He’s convinced she can be saved though the FBI team of scientists insist that changing the past is impossible. The model of time travel used in Deja Vu is the multiple timelines model, meaning the past can indeed be changed, and the logistics are executed flawlessly.

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2. Crimson Tide. 1995. I’ve seen Crimson Tide so many times that it probably qualifies as my favorite popcorn flick. It does for me what The Fugitive does for others. In place of Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones are Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. Captain Ramsay (Hackman) is the captain of U.S. nuclear missile submarine, and Lieutenant Commander Hunter (Washington) is his freshly-arrived executive officer — more cautious and less trigger happy when a crisis like the Cuban Missile breaks out. Watching Ramsay and Hunter go at each other is a treat, as they each keep gaining the upper hand when Hunter leads (yes) a mutiny against Ramsay aboard the sub. Another big plus to Crimson Tide is the dialogue, some of which was written by Quentin Tarantino, though he is not listed in the credits. Tarantino was called in by Scott to “finesse the dialogue” after doing such a kick-ass job in True Romance (see #3 below), and the results are entertaining; I’m sure that Ramsay and Hunter’s argument over which breeds of horses are what color, and what country they come from, is from Tarantino’s pen. Most importantly, Scott doesn’t allow us to choose between Ramsay and Hunter too easily. Both men get their asses torn by the Admiral in the epilogue: Hunter led a mutiny aboard a naval submarine, right in the middle of a Russian torpedo attack; Ramsay violated nuclear launch protocol. Both men acted appallingly, and yet each can be viewed as acting in the American people’s best interests from where they stood.

Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino's True Romance Getting 4K Restoration
3. True Romance. 1993. Clarence and Alabama are a fabulous romantic duo written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Scott for an excessively violent tale with morbid humor. The lovers end up in over their heads with drug dealers, and manage to stay alive through stupid perseverance and unconditional devotion to each other. The musical theme (“You’re so cool”) is an infectious piece of scoring, played at all the right moments that makes you actually believe in the triumph of pure love. The final scene on the beach is a well earned epilogue; interestingly, Scott managed to improve Tarantino’s script by providing a happy ending that works. Usually I prefer dark endings, but Clarence and Alabama, after being hammered by bruising and bloodshed, have this coming. There is so much good acting on display, from the infamous interrogation of Clarence’s father (played by Dennis Hopper) by the ruthless cutthroat (played by Christopher Walken), to the sadistic beating of Alabama by the thug (played by James Gandolfini), to the epic standoff and shoot out at the very end. There’s also an early Brad Pitt who does nothing more than sit around the house stoned out of his mind. Remember, this was a year before Pulp Fiction, and in some ways I consider True Romance Tarantino’s real breakout after Reservoir Dogs. Scott directed it, but the film feels about 80% Tarantino.

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4. The Hunger. 1983. Exactly one decade before he wowed audiences with True Romance, Scott landed his first film which was an utter box office failure. It was around the same time his brother Ridley made Blade Runner, and The Hunger was similarly concerned with the desire to prolong life. Ridley and Tony had recently lost their older brother to skin cancer; Blade Runner and The Hunger were respective ways of working through that loss. But unlike Blade Runner, The Hunger failed to impress, judged by many to be overly artsy and self-indulgent. It is overly artsy and self-indulgent, but in a good way, and like other ’80s films that were outside the mainstream, it has aged to a cult classic. There’s gothic and post-punk music ahead of its time (Bauhaus, most notably, with the awesome Peter Murphy) that fits the vampire theme. Frankly I consider it one of the best vampire films ever made. The Hunger is about the fear of getting old, the loss of sexual appetite, and a person’s terror in letting go of youth. Watching it today in my 50s affects me totally differently than it did forty years ago; it’s a very sobering film. The scene where John (played wonderfully by David Bowie) has accelerated into an old man (after 200 years of vampire youth) and the eternally young Miriam is holding him in her arms, is heartbreaking.

This Action Movie About A Runaway Train Is A Masterclass In Filmmaking
5. Unstoppable. 2010. Aside from an asshole CEO, there’s no human antagonist in Unstoppable. The villain is the runaway freight train, which is more than enough. The train carries explosive cargo and becomes an effective missile barreling ahead at 70 miles/hour straight to Stanton PA, as two hostlers (one of them played by Denzel of course) engage in a wildly desperate plan to stop it. That this is based loosely on an actual event in Cleveland OH is pretty scary. There is the usual fast-paced camerawork, raw energy, and frenetic cutting, on top of searing dramatic conflict (again, despite the lack of villains) as the company’s CEO pulls every incompetent strategy out of his ass while threatening to fire the two hostlers who have the best chance at stopping the train. There were at least six cameras always rolling during the shooting of this film, to capture the helicopters and chase vehicles at all the right angles. And it wouldn’t be a full-fledged Tony Scott film without Denzel playing a working-class hero; in a sense this is quintessential Denzel. Unstoppable may well be the king of popcorn flicks. It was Scott’s last film before suicide and a remarkable achievement, getting plenty of critical praise.

A very necessary tribute to Denzel Washington and an underrated masterpiece, Man On Fire | JOE is the voice of Irish people at home and abroad
6. Man on Fire. 2004. If you don’t count Quentin Tarantino’s gems, Man on Fire is probably my favorite revenge film. Granted I’m not a fan of the genre, so that’s not saying much. Revenge films tend to be cliche, giving audiences a license to go on a moral holiday — to applaud vigilantes who take down scum in the most violent ways, and feel (hollowly) righteous for it. Scott tried his hand at this in 1990, with a film he called simply Revenge (Kevin Costner starring), but it was a mediocre effort. In 2004 he tried again with Man on Fire — and lit the screen on fire with one of the best films of his career. Using Denzel Washington to play Creasy was a stroke of genius; you don’t expect Denzel to be serious about blowing away a pregnant woman with a shotgun, and fully intent on taking the kidnapper’s whole family apart piece by piece. At least three things set this above the usual revenge fair. (1) I was really convinced that the little girl (Pita) was dead. The revelation that the kidnappers still have her alive almost stopped my heart like it stopped Creasy’s. (2) Scott raises the stakes with patient storytelling, and really making us like Pita and Creasy. It takes a full hour (in a two and a half hour film) before the kidnappers abduct Pita. In that first hour, Man on Fire is a character drama showing a little girl’s impact on a man who has largely given up on life. Revenge films usually initiate the catastrophe too soon, before we get to know much about the victim. (3) Creasy is killed in the end as he must be, to make saving the girl feel earned, but also to atone for his outrageous slaughter. He trades in himself for Pita, and the killers have their way with him. Man on Fire is about a man being robbed of a precious salvation, which must end in the death of anyone remotely connected to the crime, and then his own demise.

Cobra Kai: The 50 Episodes Ranked

Here they are, the 50 episodes of Cobra Kai — or 49, since I count the final two episodes of season 4 as a single double-length finale — all ranked most properly.

1. Miyagi-Do. Season 3, Episode 5. The crown jewel of the series is Daniel’s reckoning with Chozen. Not only do they have a ripper of a sparring session, their moment of reconciliation couldn’t feel more earned. Let’s face it, Karate Kid Part II was always better than its classic predecessor, and Miyagi-Do pays it off with perfect closure. The episode delivers in the American threads too, with some of the best fights of the season. Robby starts a brawl in juvenile detention, which is brilliantly choreographed. Sam arrives at the arcade to start her own brawl against Cobra Kais, but with the arrival of Tory is suddenly crippled by PTSD flashbacks, unable to do anything as Eli, shockingly, breaks Demetri’s arm. The Okinawan drama shows how melodramatic the American one is by comparison. For all their ugly history, Kumiko and Chozen have moved on and are at peace with each other; Chozen is also 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.

2. No Mercy. Season 2, Episode 10. By rights this should be #1. The school brawl is one of the most impressive choreographed martial arts sequences ever filmed. It runs for a full twelve minutes and 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. The Cobra Kais were the tournament victors in season 1, 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 and kicks Miguel off the railing of the second floor landing. One wonders if it’s 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.

3. Head of the Snake. Season 5, Episode 10. One critic has said this finale feels more like Game of Thrones than Cobra Kai, and I have to admit, I was fooled into thinking that Chozen and Kreese were killed off. And though they both live on, there’s no denying that more blood is spilled in this episode than in the previous four seasons combined. We haven’t had a high-stakes finale like this since season 2. Johnny gets the absolute shit kicked out of him by Silver’s men, while Chozen gets into a sword fight with Silver and sliced up good for his efforts. As for the Miyagi-Fang kids, they have just as much balls, breaking into Silver’s dojo to expose him for corruption, and getting attacked by hordes of Cobra Kais. It all builds to a dramatic showdown between Daniel and Silver, and Daniel annihilates the piece of shit by using Silver’s three rules against him — and tops it off with a crane kick we haven’t seen from him since the ’80s. This is a finale that fires your bloodlust and has you shouting and cheering at the screen. It’s a game changer in the Cobra Kai universe and leaves the sixth and final season a tough act to follow.

4. The Fall & The Rise. Season 4, Episodes 9 & 10. The double-bill finale is an adrenaline rush that ends up crowning two unexpected champions. I was banking on Sam taking the girls’ trophy against Tory, and Robby taking it for the guys against Miguel. Turns out Miguel doesn’t even make it to the finals, and Eli (most unexpectedly) smacks down Robby, while Tory defeats Sam. Tory’s victory is a cheat on the part of the referee, bribed by Terry Silver, but I was sort of happy she won anyway. In this season my sympathies were evenly split between Sam and Tory; during their fight I rooted for each simultaneously. In any case, I have to hand it to the show writers for writing a finale on this level of grandiosity, with some of the best choreographed fights scenes in the series, including the kata competitions with lethal weapons. Not to mention the unpredictable twists at the end, with Kreese getting hauled off to jail, Silver’s takeover of Cobra Kai (soon to become a franchise), and Daniel’s recruitment of Chozen. Season 5 is sure to be a snapper, with Daniel honor-bound to shutdown Miyagi-Do while Cobra Kai dojos begin multiplying across the Valley. Season 4 may be the weakest on whole, but it’s ending is absolutely triumphant. Given that the triumph is Terry Silver’s (talk about the worst of bad guys winning), that’s really saying something.

5. Mercy. Season 1, Episode 10. Everything in the first season builds to the tournament finale and a solid payoff. It’s better than the classic Karate Kid competition for a number of reasons, mostly because of the inversions which have made viewers unsure of their allegiances. The Cobra Kais fight dirty, but they are still sympathetic, and frankly they were the ones I was rooting for, even over Robby. When Daniel and Johnny faced off in the ’80s, it was cookie-cutter good vs. evil. With Miguel and Robby in the final round, there’s no such duality this time. Each is an asshole; each is likeable. And big kudos to the writers for having Miguel take the trophy, which I didn’t expect at all. By now, after four seasons, we’re used to reversals and twists, but in the first season I was expecting Daniel’s protege to win. But no: Miguel kicks the shit out of him, and in a very Cobra Kai fashion — by taking full advantage of Robby’s shoulder injury, hitting him in his wounds repeatedly with “no mercy”. A sleazy move, and yet somehow Miguel (unlike the ’80s Johnny) doesn’t come across as despicable for it. That’s damn good storytelling.

6. The Right Path. Season 3, Episode 4. In which Daniel flies to Okinawa, reunites with Kumiko, and Mr. Miyagi speaks from the grave: Daniel was like a son to him, reads Kumiko, in a very moving scene. It’s a surreal episode that sets the stage for Chozen in episode 5, and the stuff that happens on the western front is just as good. Johnny finally gets his shit together and starts instructing Miguel again — who falls on his face trying to move from his hospital bed. Sam shows her teeth at school, initiating an awful chain of events over the next two episodes. It begins in the cafeteria with Eli demolishing Demetri’s science project (that took the poor kid three weeks to build), and then Demetri and Sam, incredibly, the ones who are chastised for it. Eli, all innocence, protests to the school counselor about being triggered in his safe space, and warns Sam against any further micro and macro aggressions. (I adore Cobra Kai for not showing mercy in mocking political correctness.) When the counselor swallows Eli’s deferential bullshit, the Miyagi-Do “good guys” decide to take revenge in gym class, and the surrealism goes into overdrive when the punches, headbutts, and windmill kicks start flying — and the referee just stands on the sidelines exasperating and wringing her hands. A brilliant episode all around.

7. Pulpo. Season 2, Episode 9. Similar to “Different But Same” (see right below), and it’s hard to choose between them, but I give this one the slight edge. The party at Moon’s home isn’t as good as the beach party in season one (I mean, you can’t beat Miguel punching Sam in the face), but it does have its moments — especially Demetri’s public humiliation of Eli for his history of bed-wetting. It’s the double-date bonding between Daniel and Johnny that one-ups the previous season’s scene in the bar. All four actors play their parts to perfection as they dine on Mexican food and fancy drinks (except for Johnny who sticks to his Coors). The transition from petty slights and insults to goodwill is genuinely affecting, and it culminates on the dance floor with Carmen teaching Johnny a few moves. Naturally the spell is broken, the very next day, when Daniel wakes up to find Sam missing (she never came home) and then finds her wasted and hungover at Johnny’s — which undoes all the good will in a stroke, and causes Daniel to lose his shit — but while the precious moments last in this episode, they really count.

8. Different but Same. Season 1, Episode 9. The first-season penultimate alternates between the beach party, where Miguel does his damnedest to piss off Sam, and the test drive, in which Daniel and Johnny begin bonding. The latter is handled so splendidly, as Daniel learns for the first time about Johnny’s upbringing; his parents may have been rich, but his stepdad was an asshole. The bar scene is of the best moments in the series, as they ruminate over Ali Mills and Daniel shows Johnny how Facebook works. The good will doesn’t last long once they return to the LaRusso home and Johnny sees Robby there — Daniel has been training his own fucking son — and Daniel, just as horrified to learn that Robby is Johhny’s son, tells the kid to get out of his life. It’s hard to say which story arc is the better — the kids on the beach or the men in the bar — and while it surely must be the Daniel-Johnny stuff, I do love Miguel’s misfire, when he throws a punch at Robby and socks the be-Jesus out of Sam instead. That and the wedgie Aisha gives to Yasmin. I mean, priceless, on both counts.

9. Counterbalance. Season 1, Episode 5. The episode that turned me and made me a fan of the rebooted franchise. So much happens at this midpoint. Aisha joins Cobra Kai, and becomes one of the season’s best characters. Johnny at first refuses her, on the politically incorrect wisdom that “no girls are allowed at Cobra Kai”, until the girl proves her potential by slamming Miguel on his ass and almost breaking his ribs (mostly on the strength of her fat-ass weight for which she has been relentlessly teased). Daniel gets in his most supremely asshole move of the series, by manipulating a business associate into doubling the rent in the strip mall where Cobra Kai has opened — which shafts not only Johnny but all the other mall renters. (Amanda rightly slams him for it.) The best part is Miguel finally paying back Kyler for all his abuse, by unloading a karate ass-pounding on him in the school cafeteria. This wins Sam’s affection and plants the seeds of their relationship. And then an unexpected scene in the cemetery: Daniel by Mr. Miyagi’s grave, really missing the guy. I wish I could rank Counterbalance higher; it’s a flawless episode.

10. Extreme Measures. Season 5, Episode 5. This episode does two things. First it brings about a reconciliation between Miguel and Robby after a therapeutic fight — Johnny’s last-ditch idea after failing to bridge the two kids by more peaceful means. It’s the best fight between kids in season 5 (which focuses mostly on the adults) and the crippling specter of the season-2 finale hangs in the background. The second thread is more grim: Terry Silver’s declaration of war as he brutally kicks the shit out of Daniel in Stingray’s home. Never has Daniel been so low as in this episode — abandoned by Amanda, full of rage and self-pity, drinking in the morning, pissed that no one (except Chozen) sees the threat that Silver poses. Amanda and Johnny think all is well with Kreese behind bars and that Daniel is crazy. It’s quite amusing when it’s Johnny scolding Daniel for a change — “You show up out of the blue, raving like a lunatic, reeking of booze, and now you want to fight me because I don’t want to get pulled back into this rivalry?” In the end, Johnny and Amanda do finally wake up (after Silver leaves Daniel bruised and battered) and Johnny is officially on board to work with Daniel and Chozen. This is a great episode for how far it pulls Daniel down, while letting Miguel and Robby exhaust their hatred for each other — all around solid karate brawls.

11. Match Point. Season 4, Episode 5. After four redundant and poorly paced episodes, the fourth season finally gets going and delivers the smack down we’ve long waited for: Daniel vs. Johnny. They engage in a tournament-style match to determine who will take over exclusive training of the Miyagi-Do’s and Eagle Fangs. Daniel is convinced that Terry Silver is a dangerous psychopath who can be countered only by Miyagi-style karate, and Johnny has simply had enough of Daniel’s overly defensive philosophy. Sam supports Johnny and tells her father off in a wonderful kitchen scene. This episode is also a dramatic turning point for Eli: the Cobra Kais ambush him and shave his head, completely demolishing his sense of self-worth. (He’s been “The Hawk” for three whole seasons, since episode 6 of season 1.) Johnny of course wants revenge on the Cobra Kais, while Daniel counsels the usual pacifism, and here it becomes clear that Sam is getting fed up with her father’s intolerance for any style of karate that isn’t pure as the driven Miyagi. With this episode, season 4 starts to play for keeps.

12. All In. Season 2, Episode 5. The mall brawl pays off the wheel technique — Sam and Robby’s training on the circle-raft that capsized them into the pond on so many occasions in episode 2. This comes when Eli and other Cobra Kais gang up on Demetri and chase him through the mall (to the delightful tune of “Shelter”), because he wrote a nasty review on social media about the Cobra Kai dojo. Moon commendably ditches Eli for bullying his best friend, while Daniel slowly begins to reach Demetri who seemed so goddamn hopeless as a karate student. On the romantic front Miguel begins his affair with Tory, while Robby and Sam start to feel drawn to each other. But it’s here that Kreese begins acting behind Johnny’s back and undermining him, by telling Eli to vandalize Miyagi-Do in retaliation for the mall brawl. Eli puts a team together and trashes Miyagi-Do outrageously, and the next morning Daniel storms into Cobra Kai to confront Johnny (who literally has no idea what the hell Daniel is talking about) in front of his own students. Some of those students are so disgusted with the mall brawl and the vandals that they leave Cobra Kai and defect to Miyagi-Do on the spot. A solid-A episode.

13. December 19. Season 3, Episode 10. No, it shouldn’t be higher. While season three is the best season on whole, it has the weakest finale. By that I mean it has problems you can’t ignore (unlike Mercy, No Mercy, The Fall & The Rise, and Head of the Snake, where the flaws are trivial). Misfire #1: the flashbacks to Kreese’s youth in Vietnam (where he and his squad are forced to fight each other to death over a pit of slithering snakes). Delving into Kreese’s backstory was a mistake throughout the season; it produced a clash in tone and did nothing to advance our understanding of Kreese in any meaningful way. Misfire #2: the country club party. While I enjoyed the return of Ali Mills, her drama becomes intrusive in the finale, which cuts back and forth between the club party and the karate war in the LaRusso home. In seasons 1, 2, 4, and 5 the finale battles were uninterrupted as they deserve to be. The season 3 finale divides our interest and puts our bloodlust on pause. Misfire #3: Eli’s repentant turnaround. It was a nice idea but poorly executed. I didn’t buy his sudden defect to the Miyagi-Do/Eagle Fang team right in the middle of the house war. It didn’t feel earned. Aside from those problems, December 19 is an admittedly socking finale, with Kreese’s assholeries finally pushing Daniel and Johnny together for common cause.

14. Survivors. Season 5, Episode 9. Seeing Daniel, Johnny, and Chozen drunk out of their minds and bellowing out Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” is alone worth the price of admission. It doesn’t have the quite the same payoff as the season 1 and 2 penultimates, where Daniel and Johnny letting their guards down and enjoying each others’ company trails a season of hostility between the two. In season 5 these three are all on the same team anyway. But there’s a juicy twist: as they roar drunken camaraderie in the back of the limo, they are actually being kidnapped by Mike Barnes, who is out for blood after having his business burned down back in episode 3. Violence is presaged on other fronts, most notably with Tory, who is forced by her sensei to smash a stone statue with her bare hand, leaving the hand a bloody pulp. It’s a shocking scene and difficult to watch, showing how sadistic Silver and Kim are. Finally, for RPG fans like myself, there is a D&D game being dungeon-mastered by Stingray, who is grilled by the Miyagi-Fang kids, but terrified of revealing the truth about how Kreese was framed by Silver. Going into the season-5 finale, you know the show writers are playing for keeps.

15. Obstáculos. Season 3, Episode 7. An underrated episode and turning point on many fronts. Miguel, having tossed his crutches and wheelchair, returns to school and breaks all contact with Cobra Kai when he finds out about the Golf N’ Stuff battle, where Eli broke Demetri’s arm. Johnny, for his part, creates a new dojo called “Eagle Fang”, and unable to afford the shittiest office space for it, decides to teach his students in a public park. Kreese gives Johnny one last chance to come back to the fold and Johnny tells him to go to hell. There’s some amusing attraction between Yasmin and Demetri (which oddly works), but the best part is Sam’s arc. She has sworn off karate, continually plagued by nightmares of Tory, and suffering panic attacks by the hour. So Daniel plays hooky with her and takes her out fishing, and their moments at the lake are their best scenes in the series. Mary Mouser does really well in season three, and in Obstáculos in particular. In the end, she and Daniel are back in the dojo, sparring with bo staffs; her return to karate feels earned.

16. Ouroboros. Season 5, Episode 6. As Daniel vows to put karate behind him (after his thrashing at the hands of Silver in episode 5), Johnny and Chozen march down to Silver’s dojo to take action. Who would have ever dreamed of seeing Daniel’s bullies from the past (from the Karate Kid films 1 and 2 respectively) bonding together and one-upping each other with instances of how they mistreated Daniel? This is one of my favorite scenes of the whole series — especially when Chozen says how much of a “pain in the ass” Daniel-San used to be. And it gets better: at the Cobra Kai dojo Johnny and Chozen learn that Silver has brought in new senseis under leadership of a South Korean, Kim Da-Eun — the granddaughter of a sensei promoting a particularly vicious style of karate. Where Chozen easily smacked down six senseis in episode 2, he and Johnny can barely take on one of these new senseis. The climax comes in Miyagi’s old dojo, which Daniel can hardly bring himself to enter, and it’s genuinely moving as Amanda encourages him to see that Terry Silver is a fight that he can’t walk away from. Only two episodes ago, Daniel was ready to fight tooth and nail, and it was Amanda ripping his face over karate. Now the roles are reversed, but in a very credible way: Daniel and Amanda have flipped in reaction to each other and trying to broaden their tunnel visions.

17. All Valley. Season 1, Episode 7. Loads of nostalgia in this episode. Daniel trains Robby as Mr. Miyagi once trained him, by giving him pointless tasks for muscle memory. He even gives the kid bonsai trees to trim. Miguel takes Sam to Golf N’ Stuff, as Daniel did for Ali back in ’84. Johnny sees the need to toughen up his students with a face-punching session (led by Miguel and Aisha) and then later shows heart when he pleads for Cobra Kai’s reinstatement in the All-Valley Karate Tournament. His speech before the committee — that Cobra Kai has changed and that his students deserve a chance to compete — is genuinely moving, and Daniel’s maneuvers are his usual petty and sanctimonious affairs in this season. Johnny and Miguel’s celebration (“Who’s the man?!”) after the former’s successful appeal and the latter’s first date cements these two characters as the soul of Cobra Kai.

18. Lull. Season 2, Episode 7. A showcase episode for opposite training styles. Against Johnny’s better judgment, he follows Kreese’s advice to take his students into the woods for a severe exercise. The Cobra Kais split into two teams and play a ruthless game of “capture the headband”. Johnny is alarmed at how merciless his students behave toward each other, and at the end of the day expels Kreese from Cobra Kai. Meanwhile, the Miyagi-Dos go through their own severe training, first in the 100-degree sun, and then inside Daniel’s walk-in freezer — and we finally see there may be hope for Demetri as a karate student. It’s in this episode that a rift begins to develop between Miguel and Eli, as the former realizes that the latter led the trashing of Miyagi-Do. Miguel seizes the medal of honor from Eli and returns it at the LaRusso house, where Robby and Sam are now romantically involved. He asks Robby to give it to Daniel and tell Sam that he apologizes, but Robby says nothing about Miguel to either Sam or Daniel, fearing that this would score points in Miguel’s favor. It was by this episode I was loving Daniel as much as I had hated him throughout the first season. Turns out he’s a damn good teacher; his students have brought out the best in him.

19. Party Time. Season 4, Episode 8. Here we get the critical return of Stingray (last seen in season 2), who seems like pure annoyance until the finale pays him off. The two threads that dominate the episode are the ass-kicking Johnny gets at the hands of Terry Silver, and of course the junior prom. I’m very fond of Robby and Tory’s dance and their sexual chemistry (which pisses off Sam to no end), and it was a given that the kicks would start flying back at the home party. There’s the very amusing scene in which Daniel and Amanda are lectured by their cousin Vanessa, a professional child psychologist, who tells them they are largely to blame for the way that Anthony has been bullying Kenny. Even more amusing is that when Daniel loses his shit with Anthony (yelling at him Johnny Lawrence-style, and smashing the kid’s tablet in two), it seems to have the appropriate effect that none of his Miyagi discipline ever did. The scene with Miguel and Johnny is genuinely upsetting; Miguel clearly loves Johnny as a father figure and hates seeing him torn up about Robby. And the final scene is a major shocker, as Silver beats the living shit out of Stingray for apparently no reason at all other than drunken rage, but is actually a shrewd move that will pay off in the finale.

20. The Good, the Bad, and the Badass. Season 3, Episode 8. From right to left in this photo: the “good” being LaRusso’s Miyagi-Do, the “bad” Kreese’s Cobra Kai, and the “badass” Lawrence’s Eagle Fang — his new karate school, a splinter from Cobra Kai, in which he intends to take the best of his parent training while rejecting the assholeries. All three senseis are befuddled by the announcement that the city has decided to cancel the All-Valley Tournament, and they each argue their case but in vain. It’s Sam and Miguel who give an impassioned joint-speech that finally convinces the panel to allow the tournament to proceed. This is also the episode where Robby is released from juvie, and tells both Johnny and Daniel to get lost and stay out of his life. (Johnny gets chewed out by Miguel too, for mollycoddling him and not wanting him to compete in a tournament, which segues into a moving scene between Johnny and Carmen.) Later Robby visits Sam and finds Miguel with her — the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Robby goes to the dark side, and Kreese welcomes him with open arms.

21. Taikai. Season 5, Episode 8. This episode feels like a finale prelude, as once again the Miyagi-Dos and Eagle Fangs get on the mat with the Cobra Kais. This time they’re fighting to make the Sekai Taikai, the hugest tournament in the world — and an event that could make the kids famous. Eli is beaten by Kenny (who has become a vicious little runt this season), and Sam beats Devon, which translates into both dojos qualifying for the Sekai Taikai. I have no idea if this will be the plot of season 6, with Terry Silver out of the game by the end of this season. It may that Kreese will capitalize on this opportunity in reclaiming Cobra Kai, though I can’t really see how, given that he’s a fugitive from justice.

22. Take a Right. Season 2, Episode 6. It begins with Johnny making his students exercise repeatedly until they reveal who trashed Miyagi-Do, until he has to suddenly leave, traveling to San Bernardino to see his dying friend Tommy. He leaves Kreese in charge — obviously a bad move, since it was Kreese who basically ordered the trashing of Miyagi-Do. Daniel, for his part, must diffuse hostilities between his students and the new defectors from Cobra Kai, and uses an amusing Game of Thrones analogy for the renegades: they are Wildlings being let behind the Wall (who did after all help Jon Snow win the Battle of the Bastards). Daniel also confesses to his students that he was once a Cobra Kai member himself — the first acknowledgement in the series of that atrocious Karate Kid III plot, which actually makes lemonade out of lemons. The heart of this episode is the death of Tommy, which is very well handled.

23. King Cobra. Season 3, Episode 6. In which Kreese takes asshole to the next level, inviting school bullies into Cobra Kai, and orders his students to keep hitting their opponents well after they tap the mat. He then kicks Mitch out of the dojo for losing to an inexperienced fighter, and relishes Eli beating the living shit out of Brucks, reducing the kid’s face to a pulp. This level of gratuitous violence is shocking even for Cobra Kai and marks the point of no return for the dojo, now thoroughly under Kreese’s sway. By collecting the strongest students at the school — jocks mostly — he ensures that Cobra Kai will lead by a pure “survival of the fittest” philosophy. His restraining order against Amanda LaRusso is absurd and galling, though just the sort of thing he’d do. On a lighter note, Miguel instructs Johnny in the ways of Facebook, helping him build a page and facilitate conversation with his Ali his ex. It’s nice bonding between these two, in a way we haven’t seen since season 1.

24. Nature vs. Nurture. Season 3, Episode 2. For an early episode in the season, this one is really good and has high rewatch value. Daniel and Johnny barely suspend their hatred for each other to team up and search for Robby, and the dynamic between them in the car is priceless. They drive around playing “Tango and Cash”, visiting Robby’s low-life friends — Johnny’s face looking like utter shit — until they finally end up in a garage full of stolen cars and mean thugs who move in on them. They unleash an ass-pounding on the thugs in a very gratifying sequence… and then immediately start kicking the shit out of each other when Daniel overreacts to Johnny’s excessive use of force. It’s absurdist in the way that only Cobra Kai can pull off, but it works so well — and far more compellingly than, for example, the alliance between Johnny and Daniel in the first four episodes of season 4.

25. Fire and Ice. Season 2, Episode 3. This tends to be an underrated episode. When Johnny sees Daniel promoting Miyagi-Do on the internet and dissing Cobra Kai in the process, he returns fire by launching his own internet commercial. (This episode also contains my favorite woke slam of the series: people on the internet accuse Daniel of “cultural appropriation”, calling him “Daniel LaRacist”, for co-opting Asian culture for his own gain, including cliched background music and bonsai trees.) This is when Miguel and Hawk learn that Robby is Johnny’s son, and they feel somewhat betrayed that Johnny made no mention of that during the season-1 tournament. Johnny ends up having a heart to heart with Miguel, explaining how he was a lousy father, and it’s a moving scene. The ending is a fantastic performance: When Aisha and Miguel learn that Miyagi-Do (which at this early point consists of Daniel, Sam, and Robby) is going to put on a kata performance at Valley Fest, Johnny uses the Cobra Kai students to rudely crash the party, and they outshine Miyagi-Do with ease, with ass-kicking exercises to the tune of Airbourne’s “Back in the Game”. Hell yeah.

26. Molting. Season 1, Episode 8. It begins with one of the best openers: the junkyard training in which Johnny sets vicious dogs on his poor students, to the tune of Twister Sisters’ “Were Not Going to Take It”. This is counterpointed later by Daniel’s training of Robby in gorgeous scenic areas. But the best part of the episode is Johnny’s revisionist history of The Karate Kid, as he explains to Miguel why Daniel was the real villain back in the day. The show writers were obviously inspired by this famous video which remains a classic example of how every villain is a hero in his own eyes. In this case however there’s actually plenty of truth in Johnny’s revisionism. (Daniel certainly did his share of “striking first” when he first met Johnny.) Johnny having dinner with Miguel’s mom and yaya is a particularly favorite scene of mine.

27. Back in Black. Season 2, Episode 2. Another very good early episode that places higher for me than most would probably rank it. It starts with a great montage of Johnny and Miguel waking up and starting their days out, while Johnny’s car gets a Cobra Kai makeover, to the tune of AC/DC’s “Back in Black”. The day becomes a dangerous one as Johnny forces his students into the mixer of a cement truck, which Kreese approves wholeheartedly. Meanwhile Robby moves in with the LaRussos, and the Miyagi-Do dojo kicks off. Daniel trains Robby and Sam (his only students at this point) on the wheel technique, and the contrast between this balancing act on the pond and the Cobra Kai kids’ struggle inside the cement mixer is quite effective.

28. Bad Eggs. Season 5, Episode 7. This episode could be titled “Back in Black” Part 2 (see above), as we flip back and forth between the training at Miyagi-Do (which is back in business after Daniel’s “re-awakening” at the end of episode 6) and at Cobra Kai. There is new leadership in each dojo, with Chozen punishing the Miyagi-Dos with hard exercises, and Silver’s new senseis setting students against each other to make them ruthless. Meanwhile, Daniel and Johnny visit Kreese in prison to ask him what Silver’s master plan is, and Daniel promises him a good attorney in return for telling them. I was worried that Daniel was feeling genuine compassionate towards Kreese, and I’m glad I was wrong: the moment Kreese opens the paper to read the lawyer’s phone number, and instead sees Daniel’s writing in all caps — “NO MERCY, MOTHERFUCKER!” — is priceless.

29. Quiver. Season 1, Episode 6. Johnny finds himself flooded with business, thanks to Miguel wiping the cafeteria floor with Kyler and his bullies. This is the pivotal episode in which Johnny degrades and humiliates Eli for his malformed lip, which destroys the poor kid until he decides to flip the script and come back reborn as “The Hawk”. Meanwhile, Sam is being slut-shamed on social media and she starts to bond with Miguel, and Robby is made to look like a fool by Daniel’s cousin Louie at LaRusso Autos. Daniel, having resumed his own Miyagi-style karate training (feeling bad about his supreme asshole maneuvers against Johnny in episode 5), invites Robby to do some kata exercises with him — another pivotal development that will spell consequences throughout the series, as Robby latches onto Daniel as a father-figure in seasons 1 and 2, and then Kreese in seasons 3 and 4, anyone but Johnny who was never there for him.

30. Playing With Fire. Season 5, Episode 3. This one is way underrated. Here we get a fine reintroduction of Mike Barnes, who turns out to be not the supreme asshole from Karate Kid Part 3. He’s moved on and matured and done well for himself (unlike Johnny on all fronts). But Daniel severely misjudges him and Chozen does even worse, resulting in a round of ass-kicking that has everyone feeling bashful afterwards. Barnes tries helping Daniel against Silver, which turns out a big mistake: Silver gets wind of it and burns down Barnes’ business, ruining him in a stroke. My favorite parts of this episode are actually Sam’s. There’s a very heartbreaking moment when she breaks up with Miguel, and Miguel walks away in tears, dropping the octopus necklace he just bought for her. Coming right off the heartbreak from his asshole father in Mexico (in episode 2), Miguel is a broken kid this season. The best scene of all is Sam’s nightmare in the “self-actualization pod” — AKA a sensory deprivation tank — which is a fun nod to Stranger Things. Her confrontation in the “Void” with the dark version of herself is freaky as hell.

31. Aftermath. Season 3, Episode 1. The best of the season premieres is as its title implies — a bleak aftermath showing the consequences of the school brawl. Miguel is in a coma, Sam is having panic attacks, Robby is on the run from the law, and everyone else involved has been suspended for two weeks. The All Valley Community Board overreacts by putting in place draconian rules that forbid students from even touching each other. The scenes of Miguel coma-dreaming of himself fighting desperately in a tournament are very effective, and set the tone for what will be a very dark season 3, and the best of the series so far. They foreshadow a tightening of the sensei-student bond between Johnny and Miguel that made season 1 so special.

32. Ace Degenerate. Season 1, Episode 1. A close second to Aftermath, the series premiere is Johnny Lawrence all the way, and the guaranteed hook that ensured viewers would continue watching Cobra Kai. By making Johnny the inverted underdog, and a surprisingly likeable one, the series brought the Karate Kid franchise into a post Game of Thrones era. And by making Daniel LaRusso the bigger asshole — a Miyagi wannabe undermined by hypocrisy and self-righteousness — they took the original hero in a most unexpected direction. Part of it is the social class reversal. Daniel grew up dirt poor but has done well for himself as a wealthy car dealer who can treat his family to country club outings. Johnny, for his part, has fallen out with his rich stepfather and lives hand to mouth in the shitty neighborhood of Reseda where Daniel used to live. This reversal alone pays dividends, and even if the episode itself isn’t one of the best, it establishes enough to keep viewers interested.

33. Feel the Night. Season 3, Episode 9. Ali’s return is handled well enough, but I’m not quite on board with all the fan enthusiasm. After Kumiko in episodes 4 and 5 of this season, Ali only does so much for me. But don’t get me wrong: her reunion with Johnny is touching and a very fun throwback to memories of the first film. My favorite part of the episode is actually the rekindling between Sam and Miguel, and even better the bonding between Daniel and Miguel, who starts to see that Bad-Dad Larusso is pretty cool after all. Then there is Robby, who ingratiates himself with Cobra Kai after he abducts a snake to give to their sensei.

34. Kicks Get Chicks. Season 4, Episode 6. When the All Valley committee announces its revolutionary changes — a kata skills competition, and a girls’ division separate from the boys’ trophy — it starts to look bad for both Johnny and Daniel (who have gone their separate ways again after throwing down in the previous episode), as the former has no promising female student and the latter no promising male student. Johnny does some desperate girl-recruiting which turns hilarious when he tries speaking in woke terms, and Daniel makes his own desperate move in trying to bring Robby back to Miyagi-Do. Sam gets in some good scenes as she visits Aisha (a pleasant surprise after her season-three absence) who reinforces a positive image of Johnny, and then also as she unloads rage on her parents when her mother invites Tory inside the house and sympathetically agrees to sign off on allowing the girl back into school. Meanwhile, Eli leaves Eagle Fang — forsaking karate after getting beaten and shaved in episode 5 — but then joins Miyagi-Do at Demetri’s urging.

35. Esqueleto. Season 1, Episode 3. Even if Daniel will be proven right about Kyler, he’s an absolute jerk about it and has no real evidence that Kyler is a sleaze. He’s a father ruled by his insecurities, going so far as to sneak into his daughter’s room and read her instant messages — seeing that Kyler has “something BIG” to show her at the Halloween school dance. He then volunteers to chaperone the dance in order to keep an eye on Sam, and acts in a way that utterly humiliates her. It’s good LaRusso drama. On the Miguel side of the story, he attends the dance dressed in a skeleton (“esqueleto”) costume identical to those worn by Johnny and his Cobra Kai friends in 1984. (Chaperone Daniel isn’t amused.) In the bathroom he runs afoul Kyler who unloads an ass-pounding on him, and makes us crave for Miguel to get better at the karate Johnny is teaching him.

36. Moment of Truth. Season 2, Episode 4. This is Tory’s debut as she joins Cobra Kai and wastes not time taking down Johnny’s prize student Miguel. This is also Demetri’s exit (from Cobra Kai) as he gets thrashed by Kreese in an even more ruthless fashion. It’s a moment for Aisha, when she decides that she is fed up with Sam, when Sam wrongly accuses Tory of theft. The greatest moment however is Daniel’s thrashing of Robby’s old friends on the beach. It’s the first time in the Cobra Kai series that Daniel fights (he didn’t fight at all in season 1), and we won’t get to see him fight again until seasons 3 (three times) and 4 (twice). It’s also a rather odd moment for Kreese, when he and Johnny have a heart to heart and we see how broken Kreese is. But it’s hard to know how much sympathy he really deserves.

37. Minefields. Season 4, Episode 7. It was nice to see Anthony LaRusso developed more in the fourth season, and Minefields sees him bullshitting his father until Daniel realizes that it’s Anthony who has been bullying a (lightweight) Cobra Kai student, not the other way around. Kenny has good scenes in this episode, including one in which he manages to win against Robby when Kreese and Silver have them fight in the dojo. This is also the episode where Johnny and Carmen tell Miguel they’re shagging each other, which in itself doesn’t bother Miguel, though he is put off by the way Johnny starts to act differently around him, and handle him with kid gloves in front of the other Eagle Fang students.

38. Long, Long Way From Home. Season 5, Episode 1. Season five announces a focus on the adults of the series — Daniel, Johnny, Chozen, and Terry — as Daniel shuts down Miyagi-Do in order to keep the kids out of harm’s way. Amanda believes that with Kreese in jail, things are brightening up, but Daniel (rightfully) fears far worse with Terry Silver in control, so much that he has recruited from Okinawa the guy who once tried to kill him. Chozen is at once ready to kill Terry Silver, brandishing sai blades in the LaRusso home (to Daniel’s horror) — this is after skinny dipping in the LaRusso’s pool (to Amanda’s horror) — and he is easily my favorite character of season five. In this episode we also get the field trip to Mexico, which allows Johnny and Robby some bonding time, and Miguel to search for his real father, as he feels conflicted over his relationship with Johnny.

39. Mole. Season 5, Episode 2. The mole being Chozen, of course, who infiltrates Cobra Kai on the pretense of wanting to become Terry Silver’s right hand man. He gives himself away by toasting “karii” (Okinawan) instead of “kanpai” (Japanese, which Chozen is pretending to be), and the episode ends greatly on Chozen taking on six of Silver’s prospective senseis and clobbering the shit out of them. There are other strong scenes here, notably Tory’s confronting Silver about him paying off the referee to let her win the tournament. Silver is the master manipulator, using an analogy about a starving guy stealing food (“did he cheat?”), which Tory understands having lived in poverty. This episode is also the sequel to Long, Long Way From Home (right above), as Miguel finds his father, and what an asshole he is. A very heartbreaking scene.

40. Mercy, Part 2. Season 2, Episode 1. As the title implies, we get answers to questions set up by the season-1 finale Mercy. Will Miguel and Sam reunite? Will Kreese (“back from the dead”) join forces with Johnny? Will Miguel become a Kreese-like bully? How will Johnny reconcile his “No Mercy” rule with his turning point in the tournament? The answer to that last is that Johnny revises the Cobra Kai teaching into something like, “We still have to be badass, but sometimes we show mercy after all, and fighting dirty is a pussy move”. And while Daniel initially opens Miyagi-Do to get even with Cobra Kai, by the end of the episode he has given up on revenge, explaining to Robby that he’s providing Miyagi-Do karate not in order to fight Cobra Kai, but as an enlightened alternative.

41. Downward Spiral. Season 5, Episode 4. There are three threads here showing everyone’s downward spiral. First is the charity auction, at which Daniel gets pushed over the edge by Silver’s manipulations of Amanda, ending in Amanda leaving for Ohio (and taking Sam and Anthony with her). Daniel is (rightfully) undaunted, and this is one of the many episodes that lets me hate on Amanda with a clean conscience. Second is the Johnny-reforms-himself-for-fatherhood thread, in which he cleans up his apartment, makes vows he’ll doubtfully keep, and gets a food delivery/taxi job, pissing off his customers, and drinking while driving on the job. Finally there is the swimming pool incident, where the Tory and Eli have a slide match, and the kids have a general pissing match all around.

42. Cobra Kai Never Dies. Season 1, Episode 4. Though it does almost die in its crib. Johnny returns a horribly beaten Miguel to his distressed mother, who demands that Johnny stay away from her son. Johnny takes refuge in booze and self pity and wandering streets at night, and when he sees a LaRusso billboard, he gets spray-paint ideas. The next morning as Daniel drives to work, he is furious to see that his face on the billboard has a giant dick in its mouth. He discusses the matter with his wife who tries to calm him down, but they ultimately agree to paint over it. It doesn’t help that business rival Tom Cole rubs salt in his wounds by sending LaRusso Auto 100 sausages as a joke. Daniel of course believes that Cole is behind the obscene vandalism, and so confronts him at his dealership by spin-kicking a boba tea out of Cole’s hand. It’s all very juvenile on the part of everyone involved (Johnny, Daniel, Tom Cole), but quite often in Cobra Kai the characters are at their most entertaining when they act like they’re on the playground.

43. Strike First. Season 1, Episode 2. The best moments here are between Miguel and Johnny, as the potential for a strong sensei-student relationship starts to show. The lamer parts involve melodrama at the LaRusso home, with Daniel throwing Sam’s friends out of the swimming pool. The confrontation between Daniel and Johnny at the end (an iconic scene foreshadowed in trailers) is an intense one — not least because it’s been decades since we’ve seen them facing each other on the mat — with Daniel (wrongly) accusing Johnny of beating up kids for no good reason, to which Johnny (correctly) retorts that Daniel doesn’t know much about his own kids (as Sam was involved in the hit and run on Johnny’s car). A decent enough episode promising greater conflict ahead.

44. Now You’re Gonna Pay. Season 3, Episode 3. As Miguel’s hospital bills climb, Johnny seeks every avenue for help — his rich stepfather (who refuses him), and his pastor friend Bobby (who being a pastor has hardly enough pennies of his own). Meanwhile Daniel learns that Tom Cole is planning a hostile takeover of LaRusso Autos and stands a damn good chance of succeeding; Cole has persuaded his company’s Japanese ally to break off their relationship because of the school karate fight. Robby however is paying worst of all: he lands in juvie and spends most of his time getting beaten up by other kids, despite his karate training. It’s not a bad episode by any means, but it’s the weakest in the overall excellent season 3.

45. Let’s Begin. Season 4, Episode 1. Now we come to the weak episodes: the first four of season 4. They revolve around Daniel and Johnny’s clashing of styles, which at this point in the series is getting quite old. The most interesting part of the premiere is the reintroduction of Terry Silver, whom we haven’t seen since his cartoonish performance in The Karate Kid 3. The show writers are wise in embracing this head-on: Silver himself doesn’t like who he was. As he says to Kreese: “I was so hopped up on cocaine, revenge. I spent months terrorizing a teenager over a high school karate tournament. It sounds insane just talking about it.” Silver is still filthy rich, and Kreese manages to lure him out of his new age lifestyle, to get the cash assistance he needs to make Cobra Kai thrive, and to take Silver on as his co-sensei — adding a whole other layer of nastiness to the teachings that will come out of Cobra Kai. Silver’s performance is quite good in Cobra Kai, not over the top like in the ’80s.

46. First Learn Stand. Season 4, Episode 2. Here we get Daniel and Johnny suffering through each other’s training methods. Johnny waxes on and off while Daniel pushes and pulls himself up and walks barefoot over hot coals. Later they both chill out at a hockey game, where Daniel is triggered into letting out his aggression at a bunch of the players when they badmouth his wife. (Naturally this is precipitated by Johnny who antagonizes the players first.) It’s refreshing to watch Daniel give in to his baser ass-kicking nature, though the scene feels a bit forced. The episode also introduces Kenny, the young kid who is tormented by Anthony LaRusso and will end up joining Cobra to defend himself against bullies.

47. Then Learn Fly. Season 4, Episode 3. The premise driving this episode is fair enough. Daniel takes Johnny’s students while Johnny takes his, making each team well-rounded and having more techniques to draw on. Daniel instructs the Eagle Fang kids to catch fish from his pond with their bare hands, while Johnny takes the Miyagi kids up to a rooftop where he teaches them how to “fly” by jumping between rooftops. I would have loved the idea, except that it’s preposterous by even Cobra Kai standards: the gap between the buildings is far too wide, and the few mattresses placed on the ground aren’t enough to break the kids’ fall. But it’s nice to see Sam rebel against her father whose self-righteousness has gone into a bit of overdrive, to a degree that we haven’t seen since season 1.

48. Bicephaly. Season 4, Episode 4. By now the first four episodes of season 4 have become redundant and too drawn out. The alliance between Daniel and Johnny should have ended two episodes ago. In Bicephaly I really dislike the contrivance of Sam and Amanda just happening on Tory at her new place of work (as an entertainer for kids), and Sam (really out of line) antagonizing Tory while she’s trying to work. The whole sequence rings false somehow. Nor am I wild about the stand-off at the dive-through cinema. Instead of fighting the Cobra Kais, the Miyagi-Dos and Eagle Fangs tell the bullies to meet them at a baseball diamond, where they use sprinklers to douse the Cobra Kais with water.

49. Glory of Love. Season 2, Episode 8. This is the only Cobra Kai episode that I actively dislike. Even by the series’ standards, the comedy moments are so absurdist to be offensive (in particular Johnny shopping for dates on social media which are played ludicrously). But the worst part, ironically, is Daniel apologizing to Amanda for ignoring her and his job. In the real world it would be the right thing for him to do; he has indeed behaved irresponsibly. But in the alternate world of Cobra Kai — where karate is the most important fucking thing in life, like the Force in Star Wars — I wholeheartedly endorse all the time Daniel has invested in reopening Miyagi-Do and working so well with his students. And I just didn’t like Amanda in this season anyway. As for the love triangle on the skating rink between Robby/Sam and Miguel/Tory, it didn’t play right. Oddly enough, when the same sort of thing was repeated two seasons later (in Party Time) at the prom, the Robby/Tory and Miguel/Sam conflicts were used to great effect.

Cobra Kai: The Five Seasons Ranked

I’m starting to sound like a broken record after every season of Cobra Kai. How can a karate soap opera be this good and infectious? There hasn’t been a single bad season — though they’re not equally good, and I’m about to rank them — and what’s really embarrassing is how Rings of Power has been rendered trivial by Cobra Kai season 5. By rights I should obsessing Middle-Earth right now, not the San Fernando Valley. But Rings of Power is as bad as Cobra Kai is good, and the latter didn’t cost a billion dollars of wasted effort. Here, for me, is how the seasons rank.

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#1. Season Three. By the third season the San Fernando Valley is a crazy alternate reality where karate is everything — the meaning of life, the rule of law, and the key to everyone’s salvation. I consider it the best season for many reasons: (1) It’s the darkest — darker than even season 5. (2) It’s the most surreal. The Okinawan scenes in episodes 4 and 5 are sublime throwbacks to Karate Kid Part 2, my favorite entry in the original series. Kumiko reads Daniel the love letters that Mr. Miyagi had sent Yukie, and Chozen exudes a lethal menace we’re not used to seeing in Cobra Kai — since America is the land of tournaments, not honor killings. (3) Mary Mouser. Samantha has evolved into a very impressive character and, like Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones, the character with the best story arc over the series. 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. (4) Johnny and Miguel. They reprise their unbeatable chemistry from season 1, but even better this time. For all these reasons and more (yes, Ali too) season 3 is the best.

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#2. Season Five. Another dark season, and the one that finally gives Daniel LaRusso his much deserved story arc. The kids (Miguel, Sam, Robby, Tory, etc.) are overshadowed by the adults this season, as the psychopathic threat represented by Terry Silver demands a seriously aggressive response, prompting Daniel to team up with his old bullies Johnny and Chozen. Daniel has come a long way in Cobra Kai. He didn’t do any fighting at all in season 1 and had only a brief altercation on the beach in season 2, and he was an annoying sanctimonious puritan in those early seasons. Since season 3 he’s been on fire, and in this season it’s an absolute treat to see him work with his former nemesis Chozen (who is constantly itching to use his sai blades) and Johnny (who for once has to pull Daniel up from rock bottom after Silver gives Daniel an ass-pounding). This isn’t to say the kids don’t get good story arcs; Robby and Miguel finally make amends, as do Tory and Sam. But the focus has rightly shifted, and more blood is spilled in this season than the previous four combined. I never thought I’d see the day when the baddies of Karate Kid (Johnny), Karate Kid 2 (Chozen) and Karate Kid 3 (Mike Barnes) all come together for the first time and fight alongside Daniel for a good cause.

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#3. Season One. The season of Johnny and Miguel, who are the heart of the series. By making Johnny the inverted underdog, and a surprisingly likeable asshole, the writers of Cobra Kai brought the franchise into a post Game of Thrones era. And by making Daniel LaRusso a bigger asshole — a Miyagi wannabe undermined by hypocrisy and self-righteousness — they took the original hero in a very unexpected direction. The fact that the LaRusso clan is so annoying isn’t a criticism; it sets the stage for story arcs that both Daniel and Sam will have, as they become more likeable in season 2 and then positively lovable in season 3. That’s a story. But for this season, it’s the Cobra Kai losers who rule. Yes, they learn the merciless version of karate that teaches beating the shit out of people — even fighting dirty when necessary — but that is tempered by their empathy as victims who have taken their own heaps of nasty abuse. Aisha is particularly well scripted, driven to take karate after being cruelly bullied by classmates over her weight. But Miguel and Johnny are obviously the best. Johnny has a vulnerable side, so he’s not just an asshole, and the fact that he’s politically incorrect and a stone-age Luddite is part of his charm.

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#4. Season Two. 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 a cement truck mixer and makes them spin it by hand, while Daniel puts his students on a circular raft that capsizes; and so forth. 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. The finale delivers the best and most visceral fight of the entire series (until you get to season 5). By the end of it, Sam is hospitalized and Miguel is in a coma. That finale is one of the best episodes in TV history, even if on whole the season ranks at #4.

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#5. Season Four. This season is the weakest, but not because of Terry Silver. Silver is actually the one who makes it so good. I was nervous about his comeback, since Karate Kid Part 3 is the kiss of death — one of the worst films ever made. Most show writers would have taken the safe path and stuck with just the first two Karate Kid films as the backdrop to Cobra Kai. These writers had the balls to make lemonade out of lemons, and the result is a Terry Silver who steals the show. Season four’s weakness comes in the redundant friction between Daniel and Johnny. Their arc of rivalry played out in the first three seasons, and then ended in a team-up against Kreese. But no sooner do they team up than degenerate into their old patterns, and it seems that they should be over most of this stuff by now. The first four episodes in particular are the weakest of the series. Things kick into high gear by mid-season, and the tournament double-finale is superb. But certain characters get relatively weak stories — Miguel and Sam most notably, though these would be remedied in season 5.

RIP, Peter Straub

A sad day for me: we’ve lost Peter Straub. He wasn’t as popular as Stephen King, and many readers found him too literary and cerebral, but I always thought him the superior writer. He was a joy to correspond with. RIP, Peter.

I’m reposting my ranking of Straub’s novels. If you’ve never given Straub a try, it’s never too late.

throat1. The Throat, 1993. 5+ stars. I’ve read this thing six times. It’s the final piece to the Blue Rose Trilogy, Straub’s masterpiece of meta-fiction that deals with murder and secrets and how crimes of the past hold the present in a vise. Koko did this in the context of Vietnam war horrors, and Mystery was about a Sherlock Holmes figure mentoring a gifted boy. Those stories actually have nothing to do with each other aside from the indirect influence of a serial killer called Blue Rose. In The Throat, the Blue Rose killings become the focus: “I really had to solve the Blue Rose Murders,” said Straub, “and that meant I was in for as long, long book. It not only had to do that, but also had to swallow Koko and Mystery, to digest them and exist around them like an onion.” Put simply, The Throat is Straub doing best at what he does best. I resent having to put it down whenever I read it. Tim Underhill is a thoroughly intimate character, his world (both inner and outer) suffused with an organic realism few novels achieve. Heartless people. Bleak childhoods. Religious rites of cannibalism. The specter of Vietnam. It’s a novel about the ugly violence people are capable of, for reasons barely comprehensible, deep scars, and the question of healing. Only Lord of the Rings and Shogun have affected me more deeply.

lost boy lost girl2. Lost Boy, Lost Girl, 2003. 5+ stars. There’s a scene from this book burned in my psyche: It’s evening. Jimbo creeps onto the front porch. From the lawn Mark shines a flashlight into the window. Jimbo is so terrified by what he sees that he leaps backwards and passes out before Mark revives him and they run away. Pages later we find out what he saw: “A guy was hiding way back in the room. He was looking right at me. It was like he stepped forward, like he deliberately moved into the light, and I saw his eyes. Looking at me.” That may fall flat in the retelling, but in context it’s a ripper. It appears that Jimbo has seen the ghost of a serial killer who used to live in the house and customized it to facilitate his murders. (The killer had used secret passageways to spy on his terrified captives, torment them on beds of pain, and do all sorts of hideous stuff.) But it turns out the ghost isn’t the only entity inside the house; there’s something or someone even worse, and this mixture of terrors is handled so brilliantly we’re never sure what’s going on. Soon after, one of the boys disappears, and the question is whether he was abducted by a pedophile or snatched into a spiritual world by the ghost of the serial killer’s daughter. How you answer determines your reaction when you turn the final page. Lost Boy, Lost Girl is that rare novel completely beyond criticism.

shadowland23. Shadowland, 1980. 5 stars. The best of the early period isn’t Ghost Story. It’s Shadowland, and it holds up gorgeously. But I forgot how Straub plagiarized the magic-user spells of Dungeons & Dragons to a tee. Tom and Del are taught to fly and water-breathe. Tom takes a sleigh-ride over an arctic hallucinatory terrain. A school bully is magic jarred and transformed into the hideous Collector. Del’s girlfriend Rose was created stone to flesh from a statue. How could I have forgotten this? On the other hand, I do remember Tom getting a hand-job from Rose, as they fall in love and betray Del. I certainly remember Tom getting crucified. When he frees himself of the nails by pushing his hands forward (his hands incarnations of pain), I hurt in every atom of my being. Shadowland is about a punishing education on a fairy-ground. The magician takes in the kids on pretext of grooming one of them (whoever can prove the better) to be his successor, but he really wants to kill them both, and needs to make them rebel against him so he can rob their talents with impunity. At heart it’s the tragedy of a broken friendship and doomed romance. Del is killed, shapechanged into a glass sparrow, and Rose leaves Tom for a water-world, to escape her feeling of walking on knives. Tom grows up to become a penniless stage trickster. The final pages are as heartbreaking as the Grey Havens — and I don’t make that comparison lightly.

mystery4. Mystery, 1990. 5 stars. This novel is so well crafted to qualify as lasting literature, the kind you imagine Cliff Notes for. As the middle book of the Blue Rose trilogy, it examines how harms of the past eat into the present. What Koko set the stage for, and The Throat exposed every membrane of, Mystery runs parallel with a coming of age story. It’s set in the ’60s, and introduces the character of Tom Pasmore, a young boy who is almost killed when hit by a car (this happened to Straub in his youth, and the autobiographical fingerprints are evident). In recovery he becomes obsessed with solving mysteries, and is mentored by an elderly Sherlock Holmes figure who is implied to have inspired “The Shadow” of the ’30s radio show. Tom becomes a natural mystery-solver but gets in over his head when he insists on finding a killer close to home. The settings are inspired: a Caribbean island, where destitute natives are ruled over by white aristocrats who play by their own rules; and a lakeside residence in Wisconsin, where said aristocrats spend their summers — and where vile deeds play out. Mystery is about a teen learning life’s hard truths. Besides mystery, there’s romance; and loss. And people brimming with ugliness under the facades Straub portrays so well.

hellfire5. The Hellfire Club, 1996. 5 stars. Most of Straub’s serial killers work off-stage, but Dick Dart leads in the spotlight, and he’s by far the most theatrical character Straub ever wrote. He regales his captive with obscene wisdom, rapes her repeatedly, but also enables her to break away from her ineffectual husband. This quasi-Stockholm drama is framed around a string of murders from the past that steamroll into the present, and Nora is caught between Hell and Hades — her in-laws and Dart, each who want to suppress the secrets of a stolen manuscript for different reasons. Shorelands is one of the most inspired settings I’ve read in a work of fiction, a writer’s colony seething with fascist history and secrets unveiled as lies and half-truths. It becomes Dick Dart’s playground for the final act which is so depraved I always go back and read it twice. The Hellfire Club basically inverts the conceit of Mystery: Alden Chancel is a carbon-copy of Glendenning Upshaw, but instead of the positive role model of Lamont von Heilitz, there is now the diabolical “mentor” Dick Dart, who like Heilitz empowers the novel’s protagonist to go against a corrupt white-collar top dog. Nora is resolved to do justice to victims long dead, and she’s  a heroine nailed just right by a male author; a woman friend of mine testifies strongly to this.

the-talisman6. The Talisman, 1984. 4 ½ stars. There’s a special place in my heart for The Talisman, and not just because I’m a sucker for parallel worlds. I first read it in my high school years while visiting Grinnell College, and so Jack Sawyer’s westward trek starting in New Hampshire (my home state) resonated in spades. I expected any moment to flip into a Territories-version of Iowa, and the Grinnell campus to sideslip out of reality like Thayer School or transform into a hellish pit mine run by Sunlight Gardener. I even spotted my Twinner in a classroom. What King and Straub produced is amazing in both story and style. In the ’80s it was hard to find dark fantasy (George Martin being a decade away) and for me this was the next best thing after The Wounded Land. Donaldson gave us the Sunbane, and King & Straub came up with horrors just as vile (see here for the Covenant parallels). There are admittedly some quaint fantasy tropes that stand out today, like the melodramatic obscurity. It’s never clear why Speedy, Farren and others can’t tell Jack things that would help him — this isn’t a world like the Land, where the danger of unearned knowledge is woven into the fabric of reality. But the occasional laziness is forgivable in an otherwise outstanding tale of a 12-year old boy on a dark quest to save his mother and, in the process, the cosmos.

koko7. Koko, 1988. 4 ½ stars. Straub calls this his best novel, and I can understand why. “It was a very difficult book to write, but somewhere in the middle I saw that I had raised my game and felt as though I had reached a new level. I’ve never wanted to feel as though I was working at a lower level than I was in Koko.” It was his breakaway from the horror genre and completely on his own terms. It took me a few years to give it a try, because I’d assumed he was drying up like Stephen King. (After Misery in 1987, King went completely downhill.) But he was getting better — and Koko blew me away. I read it in ’91, a month before joining the Peace Corps, which turned out to be a bit creepy, since in my host country “koko” is what you say when you knock on a door. Koko was fresh in my mind when I learned this, and my head filled with crazy images of Basotho serial killers who announced their intentions by knocking. Straub’s killer did no such courtesy. The story is about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold It’s a brilliant novel, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. I completely respect Straub’s reasons for calling it his best, but I think those are mostly writer’s reasons. The fact is that he’s done even better — the top five on this list.

ghost story8. Ghost Story, 1979. 4 ½ stars. Many will object to it placing this low. Stephen King pronounced it the best horror novel of the ’70s that trailed the classics Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Other. He was humble, because that accolade goes to his ‘Salem’s Lot. And it’s not often I compare King and Straub with the former coming out ahead. Straub is usually the better writer. But ‘Salem’s Lot is a mighty work, and Ghost Story stands in its shadow. To be fair, Straub acknowledges this: “I wanted to work on a large canvas. Salem’s Lot showed me how to do this without getting lost among a lot of minor characters.” Both novels deal with small towns under siege from the supernatural. In each town, the arrival of a writer triggers the calamity. The writer in each case becomes closely involved with a young teen and takes on a parental role as the kid’s life ends up ruined. Don’t mistake me, I love Ghost Story and am not dismissing it as derivative. King reinvented vampires, while Straub wrote ghosts who adopt the motives and souls of people who witness them. It’s certainly the most polished novel in the Straub canon (aside from perhaps Mystery), and a classic for good reason. It falls at the bottom of my 4 ½ category for the simple reason that it ultimately feels like Peter Straub beating someone else’s drum.

BlackHouseHC9. Black House, 2001. 4 stars. The sequel to The Talisman is the most difficult to rank. The writing on display is brilliant; the plot an ultimate let-down. The town dynamics of French Landing are as irresistible as ‘Salem’s Lot; the other-worldly dynamics, however, involve not only the Territories, but King’s Dark Tower series which is problematic. Then there is Jack Sawyer, now an adult and ex-homicide detective who is caught up in a string of pedophile killings. But he’s one of many point-of-view characters — unlike in The Talisman, which showed almost everything through his eyes — and this results in a narrative which is all over the map. Ironically, this turns out a strength as much a weakness, because Jack’s point of view is the least compelling; the Dark Tower baggage comes in his chapters. In the shoes of other characters, we’re treated to some of the most engaging sequences you’ll find in any novel. The mystery of “the Fisherman” — who cannibalizes children and leaves their half eaten corpses displayed in hen-houses and abandoned shops — and the discovery of the repulsive Black House concealed in a haunted wood, drive incredibly powerful scenes. Black House is so well written (even better than The Talisman), with a poetic and morbid humor that’s mesmerizing, that even the most trivial characters come vivaciously alive. I love reading this book; I’m deflated by what’s really going on behind the Black House.

in the night room10. In the Night Room, 2004.  4 stars. This one pushes bold ideas. Some might say questionable ideas, and admittedly there are points where Straub’s reach exceeds his grasp. But it works for the most part. We learn that Lost Boy, Lost Girl is a novel Tim Underhill wrote to cope with his nephew’s murder: in the story Mark explores a haunted house and bonds with the ghost of a girl who had been abused, raped and killed by her father. The novel left open the question of Mark’s fate. On one reading, he and the girl-ghost escape to a peaceful otherworld where they heal each others wounds; on another, he was abducted and killed by a real-life psychopath. In the Night Room makes clear that the latter is true. But it’s not realistic revisionism. Things get even more wild. It turns out that the ghost of Joseph Kalendar is enraged at Underhill: he didn’t in fact kill his daughter as his novel suggests. (Though he did abuse her horribly.) Tim must acknowledge the mercy Kalendar showed his daughter by sending her away to a foster home, but also the price she paid for this mercy trying to grow up sane. Meanwhile, Underhill falls in love with a woman fated to die in order to appease demonic powers. In the Night Room reminds me of William Peter Blatty’s Legion, his thoughtful sequel to The Exorcist. Each trails a brilliant horror piece and explores how forces on “the other side” retaliate when pissed off.

julia11. Julia, 1975. 3 ½ stars. This one holds up surprisingly well for a first effort. The narrative is simple and straight-forward, but more engaging than the complexities of Floating Dragon and A Dark Matter — proof that convoluted plots aren’t necessary for a good story. Julia is a clear product of the ’70s, with the kind of subtle scares we don’t see much anymore. It’s about the spirit of a long dead child, who is suddenly able to manifest in the house where she was killed, when another woman moves in. This woman (Julia) killed her own daughter recently, and is married to the same man who sired the other girl. These connections empower the spirit of the dead girl, who strongly resembles the other girl, so it’s unclear which girl is out for revenge until certain things come to light. There’s a dreamy Gothic feel, with the cruel husband and his manipulative sister, but never feeling cliche. The scene where Julia meets the other woman in the mental hospital still unnerves me after all these years. (“Get out of here, Mrs. Shit.”) Julia shouts the potential of a fledgling author and foreshadows the mightier Ghost Story. To think I was in first grade when it was published.

mr x12. Mr. X, 1999. 3 ½ stars. It shows off style at the expense of story, but the ideas are so fun that Straub can at least partly get away with it. The best part is the Lovecraft theme, found in the chapters narrated by Mr. X, who devotes his serial-murders to the Elder Gods and Far-flung Entities. He believes that his son will be the agent of his own destruction, but it turns out he has two sons, which brings in a doppelganger theme. This has been a bone of contention among readers, because while it’s a neat idea it’s handled confusingly throughout the story, as for that matter is the entire nature of Ned’s family. Moreover, when Ned is accused of crimes he didn’t commit, the drama should be more intense than it is, and it probably would have been if the author wasn’t so busy enjoying the sound of his voice. Mr. X is the equivalent of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, forcing reams of creativity into a crazy-8 narrative… but damned if I wasn’t turning pages and admiring the mess. It’s refreshing to see Cthulhu mythology supplanting the tired formula of anti-Christs. It’s safe to say that Mr. X will please hard-core Straub fans like myself for whom the cerebral style and weird ideas compensate significantly for the misassembled story crying for a ruthless editor.

if you could see me now13. If You Could See Me Now, 1977. 3 stars. Into the good-but-nothing-memorable category falls If You Could See Me Now. I enjoyed reading it today as I did long ago, but it’s nothing I’d go out of my way to recommend. Miles Teagarden is a detached character and hard to warm to, but his story proceeds apace. In the prologue his thirteen-year old self is in a Wisconsin town, where he makes a promise to his fourteen-year old cousin with whom he is infatuated: in twenty years time, no matter where they are in life, they will return to this town and meet. After so swearing, they go skinny-dipping in an abandoned quarry. Something happens in that quarry. The novel begins years later, with Miles holding up his end of the vow and expecting Alison to do the same, even though she’s long dead. On the one hand, her death is presented later as a grand reveal; on the other, it’s fairly obvious from the get. These features seem subtly intended, and indeed complement rather than oppose each other, since the narrative is more arresting if the reader “knows” Alison is dead if not entirely sure. Miles must face memories about what happened in the quarry on top of now being a suspect in a new set of murders. If Julia foreshadows Ghost Story, this novel anticipates the Blue Rose Trilogy, with themes of obscured memories and past violence, even if it involves the supernatural.

floating dragon14. Floating Dragon, 1983. 2 stars. Floating Dragon is to It as Ghost Story is to ‘Salem’s Lot. The difference being that King’s novel followed Straub’s in this case, the commonality being that he did it better than Straub as before. The novel’s chief liability is its stale characters. But the It-like formula is a problem too. (It is a pretty good novel but hasn’t aged well.) The pattern seems tired. Sleepy towns torn apart by supernatural forces; cyclical evil which only a small group of locals can defeat; cumbersome back-stories; confused plotting. The “floating dragon” is a gas leaked from the Defense Department, and the supernatural element is never clear. The gas causes people to go insane, hallucinate, and their bodies to liquefy (there are some admittedly memorable dissolving scenes I’ll never forget). Because people are losing their minds, it could be that the supernatural is in fact psychological, but there’s no real interplay between the real and surreal forces, and so the story feels underdeveloped. The final act is trite for an author of Straub’s talents, and the worst conclusion of any of his stories. Floating Dragon does score for the nasty gas effects, but not much else.

dark_matter15. A Dark Matter, 2010. 2 stars. In which nothing matters. It’s a go-nowhere novel that offers scarce intrigue, repetitions of the same event with trivial variations, and characters less impressive than Floating Dragon‘s. Spencer Mallon himself being the worst offender. When your villain is less intimidating than Lassie, that’s a fail. The crying shame is that this could have been a good story. I like the premise of an apocalyptic guru: “Like every other phony sage and prophet wandering through campuses in the mid- to late sixties, Spencer Mallon promised an end to time and a new apocalypse; unlike most of the others, he admitted that the end of time might last only a moment, or take place only in the throwing open of a mental window. I hate the man, but I have to respect this evidence of what feels to me like wisdom. If not wisdom, a conscience.” This fraud gathers a group of students in a field one night for a mysterious rite; one of the students is savaged and killed, and another disappears forever. The other students carry scars into adulthood, and the novel consists solely of these (rather uninteresting) adult student survivors taking turns at recalling the night’s horror. But nothing scary emerges, quite frankly, and in the end there’s just not enough story to warrant 400 pages.

Republicans in the House, Democrats in the Senate

I sort of like the idea of Republicans controlling the House, Democrats controlling the Senate, and a libertarian-leaning president sitting the Oval Office. That last is a pipe dream at this point, but it looks like the first two will soon be realized. According to the 538, as of today (Sept 4, 2022):

Look on the bright side. The House is the only place where tax bills can start, and with Republicans in charge we needn’t worry much about that. A Democrat dominated Senate is good because it will block any legislation generated by the more toxic Republicans (like a national abortion ban). So from where I sit, things are looking up.