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.

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