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Cobra Kai, season 3 (2021): Review and Analysis

What follows is my review and analysis on season three of Cobra Kai. This is more of a general response, covering the good, the bad, and the ugly of a checked, but ultimately successful third season.

Read my review and analysis for season one, here

Season one worked because it was a novelty. It felt like the next logical step in the continuation of an old story, but didn't overuse prior conventions to achieve its raison-d'etre. Its characters have their own unique paths, ones that inexorably lead to back to an old stomping ground: the Valley tournament. The tournament happens, but it's hardly the point.

More than ever, Season 3 feels like a return to the past, and in ways that largely focus on the adults instead of the next generation. I have no qualms with prequels, provided it's done well. But here, I have to wonder. The tone of the show has shifted—away from progressive reinvention and back into classic romantics. The Karate Kid was a largely story about young love; its drama mostly revolves around Daniel and Ali. Cobra Kai is a story about failed teachers. Yet, it delays its own, already-prolonged conclusions to tie up loose ends about young love.

Even here, it wastes valuable time getting to the point. Robby doesn't return for two episodes; Miguel's asleep for one of them; and Sam has almost nothing to do for longer than that. And various other hang-ups within the cast prolong the gang's reunion. They spend a little too much time being mad at each other—divided instead of gravitating towards events that might actually heighten the tension in the same room. Miguel's life-altering surgery would seem like a good thing to be worried about. The procedure itself is completely avoided, exchanged for paltry squabbles. I can enjoy a show that adheres to general consequence, but the lost momentum isn't lost on me either. 

Robby feels like a missed opportunity. His fight in juvie feels strangely "real" for a show dedicated to underdog victories. Yet, the boy himself is largely absent moving forward. Like Miguel's surgery, the realities of parenthood are continually upstaged by small-time events (no one cares about the car dealership, but there's an ownership battle to sideline the plot). By the time Robby and Johnny meet (and argue), there's little that's actually transpired. Little happens between them after that, too; Johnny has Miguel to consider. Far be it from me to criticize the realities of modern parenting when they actually manifest in television. Here, though, it really waters the soup. 

So does forced nostalgia. Granted, nostalgia was always a part of Cobra Kai. Previously it felt contained. Now it's out of the box, and really, really dominates the story. The flashbacks feel a bit out of place, accented by the fuzzy audio and pixelated images. It's what the writers think we want, but the creation feels a bit like the mall Tomi Green Village becomes after the '80s: It's nothing like we remember. 

This isn't inherently bad, but it does place certain demands on the writers. Nostalgia is fine, provided it moves past the recycled images. Here, they literally crowd the screen. The expectation for recognition affects the cast in improbable ways. Daniel probably wouldn't recognize his old Japanese flame thirty-plus years later. But he does, and to the tune of canned images and music. It's intrusive, preachy and roundabout.

This clash of styles bothered me, and I found myself wishing for a continuation of season one's greatest triumph: "You did the impossible: You brought Cobra Kai back to life," says Kreese. And Johnny really did. It's his show more than anyone's. He never had much depth prior to this, and honestly he's still the best part. The rest of the cast isn't bad, but Johnny, from a creative standpoint, always felt fresh because he had no backstory. 

Daniel, by comparison, has three films worth of central protagonist flashbacks. These invade the current timeline, but so do his attitudes. In short, he feels more rote than ever. Seeing him ensconced in Okinawan culture but unable to speak a word of Japanese makes him feel like the perpetual tourist. Sure, he loves Karate, and loved his sensei, but he always feels like an outsider. 

Whenever Daniel's onscreen, the style of the story utterly changes. Its hard for the writers to make him and Johnny mix. Both men's values seem a little dated and na├»ve ("Cars are awesome." / "Get babes."). However, the show takes Daniel's middle-class privilege for granted. The reality checks are never as real or brutal for him as Johnny. He wasn't the bully in the original movie. But here, it's hard to sympathize with him—not for being totally, dyed-in-the-wool corrupt, but being out of touch with people different from himself.

The show doubles down on the melodrama, and its best moments are when the characters meaningfully interact to produce substantial bonds. The "then and now" approach really hampers this aim. Daniel's flight to Okinawa is a total departure from the present goings-on. It's also an excuse to revive the cast from The Karate Kid, part II. Season 1 kept this tendency in check. Season three goes hog wild. There's little chance to build interpersonal connections.

Nonetheless, I felt a growing sense of increasing hyperbole, similar to the original, larger-than-life movies. This ushers in a different set of expectations. When Chozen hints that Miyagi had a secret, I don't know or care, but perhaps an older, more dedicated fan of the franchise might. It's hard to imagine a total stranger getting this reveal, given who it's aimed at. Daniel spearheads this invasion, an outsider whose presence yields less of a different momentary perspective and more of a giant tone shift. 

This shift can be heard, because each period has a signature sound. One moment it's pan flutes; another, Bill Conti-esque horns; another, Brad Fidel-themed synthesizers. I like all of these things individually (not a huge Dee Schneider fan, but you can't please everyone). Here, they feel hopelessly checkered. There's no cohesion. Perhaps it's unfair to discount the show entirely on this, but a little consistency would be welcome all the same. 

The trauma oscillates as well. A fight in the arcade leaves Dimitri with a broken arm. Sam is genuinely upset, but never mind about that. Suddenly we're back with Daniel in Okinawa. There, we're given another cutscene (I've lost count at this point): He saved a girl thirty years ago; she returns the favor by just happening to be friends with his Okinawan ex and the vice president of sales to the company that's leveraging his car dealership. What are the odds? Realism aside, it's a convenient writing device that makes all his problems go away. 

Not all the flashbacks are annoying. Still, the best nods are reused lines of dialogue. Like 2019's Age of Resistance, these quotes feel incongruous, natural; they flow. They also give Mrs. LaRusso something to do for a change (even if she feels like the show's Second Wave feminist: entitled, middle-class). I also love the bits with young Kreese. Commentaries on the Vietnam War aside, it's an opportunity to build on a character with little depth while mirroring his actions in the present, propelling the violent cycle forward.

Kreese is a curious villain. He doesn't do anything himself; his students do the work for him. There's little evidence to make a case for shutting down his school (despite Mrs. LaRusso's plans to go to the cops). He's hard to kill, like a ghost, and Martin Kove plays him expertly. He's a vice character with gusto, and it's refreshing to see him finally set loose. He trains the kids bad; they act out and hurt each other. 

I enjoy how the show metes its bloodshed across different timelines. Kreese's students beat each other up; Kreese fights his former teacher in Vietnam (nice "dead meat" reference from Anthony Michael Hall, too [correction: Terry Serpico]). I like the parallel between then and now—how the peace-loving domestics ("college sissies") of yesterday effectively mirror the LaRussos, while Kreese has become the very enemy to his people that the US government fosters (us versus them). 

The fights between the Cobras are, like a den of snakes, brutal (not actual snakes, but the symbol of danger they often unfairly represent): "You chipped my tooth, bitch!" says one, after a kick to the face. Here, the show literally pulls no punches. Hawk's transformation into Kreese's dark prodigy is exhilarating. He pounds his former bully into a pulp, and then spits on him. This latest detail feels strangely worse that the pugilism, given the pandemic: We live in a world where normal, everyday proximity is a fantasy. 

From here on out, season three begins to focus, and finds its footing on familiar ground. The scene with Miguel and Johnny is fun, but flows into a wonderfully tense moment betweens Miguel and Tori, and later with Miguel and Johnny—tension begot from actual events in a self-contained narrative, not pulled from random moments thirty years old. Yes, the Vietnam War is even older, but its connections make sense, and bolster the pathos in relevant, deliberate ways. Kreese got fucked by the war. Fucked, he fucks over the Valley with his shitty tutelage. 

Episode seven opens with a bit of a misstep: goofy "danger music" during an out-of-the-blue catfight between Sam and Tori, followed by a horribly edited, crossfaded flashback that turns the screen to mush. Turns out, it's a nightmare. Tell that to my bleeding eyes. Sam's character is largely a disappointment, her being too scared to fight because she's—get this—traumatized by the cut on her arm from Tori. Poppycock. 

Sam complains about being seen as crazy because she's a girl who fights back. Not for me, but I'm a fan of strong female characters—a tradition that ironically goes back to the 1980s. Still, these are the exception. Even so, Sam feels crazier (to me) for not fighting back. Her bout of anxiety is a sudden and wild change in character, and doesn't even fit with how she handled herself during the original showdown. Instead, Sam is largely coddled, while the snooty LaRussos turn their noses up at Tori (an older daughter caring for her sickly mother while working two jobs). Sure, Sam's allowed to have feelings, but these feel transplanted, forced. 

Miguel wonders wonders, though. He and Johnny have great chemistry, and his recovery is a funny parody of the '80s training montage (with all too real party attitudes from that time). Once he returns to school, the plot begins to move, but more importantly the characters affected from season two's climax are mercifully reunited. They can relate to each other instead of being isolated while the adults run around doing random shit.

"Everything's changed," Miguel laments. "Cobra Kai, they all drank the Kool-Aid." And that's the core conflict: One man's pride has turned his students into a death cult. It's up to Daniel-san and Johnny to stem the flow by purging the ghost of war from their domestic sphere. Danny does so as a browbeaten snob, and Johnny delivers the goods on down-on-his-luck laughs ("Uh, eagles don't have fangs."). It's funny how assimilated they are, which only makes their continued teamwork all the more strange.

The closing episodes move those pieces into an endgame. Here, we have not a simple binary of good versus evil, but a trinity. Johnny's the spire for this weird triangle, its endearing grey area. Curiously Johnny says "no" to starting fights, while Chozen teaches Daniel the art of preventing war through pre-emptive defense. The cross-cutting heightens these discrepancies, each general rallying his troops to do battle. It may be a touch standard, but it's competent and, more importantly, brisk.

The teen romance is a little contrived. This being said, the local sexpot's "I love your big dick" comment on Dimitri's arm cast was a welcome foray into the lewd. Conversely Sam's bland, girl-next door gimmicks felt dated. So did the "Karate is bad" argument—especially in a culture where gun violence is far more deadly and prevalent. Suddenly you have people debating about whether or not to even have the tournament. It feels a bit stuffy and unnecessary. 

It's not all sanitized. The scene at the probation office was pretty bleak. Blueish concrete, hard-plastic phones, and a pre-2000s Windows screensaver. The whole set is littered with anachronisms and platitude-level slogans provided by people who don't give a shit. So, if the idea is privileged and dorky from the LaRussos, they at least seem to care. Granted, it's mostly about the kids in their cushy neighborhood (with Robby being the obvious foster kid exception, a throwback to Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights). It's not totally in a vacuum, but the puncture is a tad clunky.

Throughout the show, there's a reoccurring sense of hijacked decorum. While the three generals parlay with city council about the tournament, Kreese scores points with top brass by correcting Daniel on his dated term of address. It seems frivolous, but it's fascinating to watch the notoriously bellicose villains score their best points with words, not blows. Kreese isn't just a master of bad faith; he's agile of mind, nimbly leveraging Mrs. LaRusso's continual outbursts against her. 

The council already has their minds made up, but Miguel, appealing to their emotions, implores an alternate viewpoint. As does Sam: Conflict is inevitable, but controlled debate is better than uncontrolled chaos. I'm not gonna lie. It was handled pretty well here: The fencing generals; the out-of-touch councilpersons, and the kids on the street duking it out. The drama's pretty textured.

Miguel's next-level speech makes his mother starry-eyed for Johnny. The two bonk, setting up the plight for a potential scrape with Ali, who makes her return in episodes nine and ten. Similar flights of fancy (and their respective foils) aspire between various younger couples. It gets a bit messy but it's never incoherent. Here, Sam's entropy as a character increases, and for dubious reasons: She can't make up her mind about who she wants to be with. Not that anyone needs to, as long as they're open about being poly. The show isn't that progressive, and locks Sam in a struggle centered on traditional values about relationships and sex. She can't be with multiple guys, because they'll all want to fight over her.

Equally conventional is the wrong-side-of-the-tracks veneer for Robby and Tory. They can't catch a break, and chew more scenery about it than anyone. They're bitter, and very much in the same boat. But for all I could complain about tropes, at least they're entertaining. The same goes for Johnny and Ali. The two have real chemistry. And like those aforementioned runaways, they get into trouble. They feel more rugged and experienced, though. Nothing makes a bad decision more fun to watch that knowing full well it's up to no good.

This applies to the Cobra Kai. Robby's "too smart for his own good," says his dad. Meanwhile, Robby thinks the interactions between him at the Cobras are a stupid game. He still plays it because why not? Same idea with Johnny and Ali. But those two are older. They know, surprisingly, when enough is enough.

Kreese doesn't, but plays the game too. He's simply more vindictive, toying with his students because he can. Emotions can make even the most agile sluggish, and that's when Kreese strikes. It's not hard to make jilted people do stupid things. The fun lies in seeing the wise get fooled. What happens to Johnny (many times) is also happening with Kreese—a hypervigilant predator stuck in kill mode. Sooner or later, he'll play the Roman fool. Until then, he hams it up nicely.

Kreese makes war, and the Cobras dish it out. There's no good and evil people. Only good or bad teachers, or—depending on who you ask—strong and weak ones. Younger loyalties are tempered less by actual personhood, and more by how these kids are treated by the adults around them. These variables aren't discrete, especially considering how regularly the kids fall in love. It does present a more holistic situation than suggested by the underlying conventions. Tori and Sam are practically doubles, but so are Robby and Miguel, Daniel and Johnny. And Kreese can't stop being Kreese.

It's times like these that I question "honor-above-all-else" compliancy. Miyagi taught Daniel everything he knows, leaving him at a loss for how to handle Kreese. Yet, Kreese and Johnny experience a equal level of dissonance in return. For me, this is where the fun comes in, watching all the chaos unfold because of so many conflicting styles and ideas. Much of this Babel is rooted in old practices bleeding into modern times, including the paradox of solving civilized disputes with violence. It might sound Utopian to suggest a world without karate, but it'd also take away Cobra Kai's most prized export.

The "failure to evolve" message is didactic, in this case. The LaRusso Christmas house brawl basically amounts to Kreese destroying Christmas (somewhat ironic given how I'd classify him politically. He's basically a Republican Grinch). During the battle, Tory wears black with bones, stalking Sam through the house like a vengeful ghost. The cross-season build-up of Sam's phobia was frankly dull, but here it's a lot of fun to watch. If they're aiming for a traditional treatment of her character, at least make it a Gothic one.

Equally enjoyable is her return to form, and Hawk's fusion into the latest alliance. I found Miguel's performance a tad unrealistic, given his injury, but adrenaline's a funny thing. Tory channels Fairuza Balk with her American History X meltdown—suitable though, given Kreese's hold on her. Honestly the final episode felt like a game of guess-the-evil-apprentice. I wasn't always sure who it'd be, so points for that. 

I also liked Kreese's imposter father syndrome. That viral need, for someone to pass on his lessons—if not Johnny then his son—feels a bit Star Wars, but deliberately so. The ending sets up the tournament in season four, but Daniel and Johnny are in it together this time. In the process, maybe karate can be redeemed: By beating Kreese, maybe they can save Robby's tortured soul. 

About that. This show is clearly about Kreese and his manipulation of those who know better through their emotional weaknesses. He's a recruiter for his own little hate group, but the show never once explores the reality of racism or politics regarding such tactics. Instead, everyone in the Valley has mommy or daddy issues that conveniently excise these factors. It's a throwback to simpler times, one that ultimately lessens the show's critical potential. Instead of exploring what hate groups are really about, Cobra Kai remains rooted in smaller, familial circles not wholly representative of a post-internet, globalized world.

All-in-all, there are some strange omissions, full-on gaffs (the Mortal Kombat-style pit fight in Vietnam is too neat of an explanation for Kreese's evil motives) and plodding moments. Still, the conclusion is skillfully planned and energetically performed (and far better than the movies were doing by this point). There's a million loose ends to tie up, and enough reasons to come back to another tournament. I just hope Robby doesn't feel as a wooden as Anakin before his face from grace/redemption.

Bring on season four!


About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

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