This longread examines Cobra Kai, season 4, through a Marxist lens, with some queer-feminist elements included as well.
Note: I'm a Marxist critic who examines heroism in American media—on US soil, but also abroad (as US global hegemony continues to be a reality). For those who are curious, many of the arguments contained within stem from my broader research, including the anti-fascist book that I'm currently writing.
I've watched the entire series so far. Season 1 was originally made for YouTube Red and felt like a standalone show. Season 2 and 3 were also made under its tenure. Season 4 is the first season made under the Netflix banner and feels rather different.
Personally I consider season 4 a much better outing than 3, if purely for a refusal to rely strictly on nostalgia and callbacks by giving everyone something to do. This helps me forget about its problematic elements. The Karate Kid was a lily-white story about boy-meets-girl, the lady and the tramp. Cobra Kai transforms these diehard tropes into a parenting narrative—a tale of two houses, if you will.
Take the LaRussos. Suburban and proper, they're well-meaning but out-of-touch liberals with some really annoying flaws. For one, Amanda is a Karen who threatens poor people with prison, claiming later that she had no idea that Tori was poor. However, Daniel is just as bad. A unapologetic, privileged man who delivers platitudes about greatness, balance and hope, he's historically apt to financial failure and coasting by on privilege and the generosity of others. Genuine effort is minimal and generally amounts to coping or self-congratulation.
Daniel and Amanda are the Good Parents in a story that often treats good and evil as a simple binary. This sucks for several reasons. For one, the LaRussos are rich and their problems are the problems of the well-to-do. Their home is well furnished, their cars are brand-new and they're unabashed foodies. Simply put, they have nice jobs and own lots of shit. This privilege enables them to be surprisingly vindictive, shafting poor people by overreacting to petty slights. They decide what's right. Funny how they're often wrong.
The writers try to equalize things by focusing on emotional content—the so-called "universal problems" (which are really just prescriptive traditions). But they can't disguise the material conditions the LaRusso's conspicuously enjoy. Nor do the writers try to. The LaRusso's wealth effectively makes them "good." It also makes them turn their noses up at the less fortunate, all while looking after their own with a sense of mercenary ruthlessness (re: Mrs. LaRusso threatening Tory with "prison for the rest of her life").
To this, the story feels mainstream, set in a place where trouble finds paradise a lot cushier than most of us get to experience. No different than a soap opera or a '90s YA paperback, the consumer is invited to not only to partake in petty squabbles (re: karate dojos feuds), but also surround themselves with the sublime material luxuries of the upper-middle class. The show implicitly promises success: Behave like Daniel and you'll go places, see things, and eventually make it big. Except Cobra Kai never makes any concrete connection as to how Daniel actually succeeds.
Cobra Kai centralizes conflict around two feuding groups. On par with Romeo and Juliet, The Outsiders or The Westside Story, it perpetuate violent conflict as essential—not just to the narrative, but to real life. The writers frame violence as inevitable, making it the method for which boys and girls grow up to become men and women. This individuation transforms them into Good Guys and Bad Guys, a fact generally incumbent on which group they started with—their social ties.
I argue that resources are just as vital to an upbringing. Are their parents stable, available and willing to help? If so, why? Class, obviously, but only Johnny's stepdad is allowed to be a prick according to the show. By comparison, Daniel is let off the hook. As such, there's absolutely zero commentary on bipartisan systemic issues that people in his position reinforce all the time: redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline, unequal prison sentences for similar crimes, and prison slave labor. Daniel becomes a default, middle-class nice guy who occasionally throws hands (and eviction notices) at poor folk. No big deal!
Cobra Kai nevertheless tries to comment on how Things Actually Are. For it, the ideas of society are shaped and informed by the text as something that canonizes basic societal norms, which people are introduced to and fiercely defend even when proven to be harmful (re: nostalgia). That's practically Kreese in a nutshell, but to some extent also Daniel and Johnny. These men are, in essence, outmoded caricatures of what it means to be men.
Thankfully the show is less inclined to buy into its own illusions by shining a light on the flaws of the protagonists while also giving room for new characters who are admittedly very fun to watch. Terry Silver steals the show by taking Kreese's thunder, while also being incredibly nuanced—not a shifty tramp like his sneering war buddy, but someone internally conflicted and outwardly ambiguous. Likewise, Johnny's son, Robby, returns and is finally able to step into the role of the evil apprentice: a confident dupe. It makes for good drama. Reductive and problematic, but entertaining in the sense of a guilty pleasure.
I also enjoyed how everyone has a chance to bully. The Miyagi-Do students are equally dickish to the Cobras. Their mutual conflict is begot from having a close-minded, fortress-gang mentality that seeks for validation by effectively becoming a foot soldier on either side. This fickle, prideful war leads to senseless fighting and should be discouraged; the show makes this impossible by framing everyone around the centrist notion of equal responsibility.
By doing so, it nevertheless comments on some fairly systemic and fundamental issues rooted in American culture. Troublesome issues of manhood are repeatedly foisted onto characters who have no business fighting to begin with. For example, Kenny (the show's token black character) is told by his absentee father that he's "the man of the house." Meanwhile, his brother is in jail and his mother is a workaholic. So Kenny is stuck alone in a fancy house, feeling deprived of human connection and learning how to fight from anyone he can. It's like a really bleak, unhappy version of The Fresh Prince of Bel-air. I like it.
I also like how Cobra Kai dares to suggest that not everyone needs karate (the bare minimum, I confess). Partway through, Hawk says he's done with karate. Quitting that would be giving up and losers don't quit! That's the lesson these boys are taught. By extension, so are American consumers who diet on such scripted lives. And since Dimitri and Hawk are both consumers, the latter issue applies to them as well.
Dimitri first tries to remind Hawk that karate got him everything he wanted—strength, confidence, girls (a problem all on its own; girls are people, not objectives). Then, he teases Hawk for secretly being in an 80s-themed electronic rock band with his best friend. This comments on '80s cultural norms—how boys like Dimitri and Hawk are paratextually conditioned to think nerds are somehow emasculated by a desire to consume non-masculine media. Confronted with their shared past, Hawk reliably calls himself a loser. But Dimitri celebrates Hawk, calling him his best friend. He's not teasing Hawk; he's being intimate with him!
I liked this appeal to their softer side much more than the muscle-headed stuff about karate being so damn essential to getting whatever you want (including girls, apparently). There's a hint of madness to the whole affair—a place where people care about karate with the same kamikaze levels of spirit that soccer moms do about European football. It's absurd, but as Camus might put it, that's life, isn't it?
Even so, the sincerity of the characters remain tasty because it gives them room to doubt themselves (and their ridiculous causes). Something of a sunken cost fallacy, the dojos they attend are also where they socialize and love, where all of the meaningful moments of their lives occur. Absurd or not, the human element is there. Even when the karate really isn't the point, caring about each other as friends is what ultimately matters.
This is the message, but karate and regular fights per episode are nevertheless present. Similar to A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back being limited to a single sword fight apiece, I wish Cobra Kai limited the fights to one or two per show, instead of inserting at least one per episode. Why so many? Not only does it delude the impact; it bombards the viewer with the notion that fights have to occur for anything meaningful to transpire. Bogus.
To be fair, there's plenty of spoken drama. Until episode 8, season 4 feels consistently engaging. It's direct and to the point, characters confronting each other with hard truths. For instance, it hurts to hear Robby give Johnny a piece of his mind, their distance increasing but also their pain. Likewise Robby telling Sam she isn't going to get what she wants feels bittersweet. Sam is technically right; she's also a spoiled brat.
Dramatic payoffs aside, season 4 has initiative. Instead of teasing the fight between Johnny and Daniel for the whole season, it happens halfway in and plays for laughs. The entire show is also littered with references that are nicely timed and incredibly funny ("He's like a Highlander!" "The Highlander: 'There can only be one!'") but not too frequent to distract.
Another fun surprise is the tournament gender segregation plot point, which forces obtuse characters to have awkward conversations about gender values. While these discussions are obviously important all by themselves, equally vital is using them to point out everyone's epistemological blind spots. Not everyone is so clueless as Johnny is about race and gender discrimination; the heroes' goofy positions still comment on general American attitudes about cultural values.
Until now, the show has conspicuously lacked a queer element, focusing on a binary of monogamous, cis-het men and women. Much to my surprise, Piper, Moon's ex, says to Johnny (having expertly memorized Moon's inclusive jargon), "Sounds inclusive! But what about gender fluid and non-binary people!" I felt a special sense of joy in that. Less joyous was Piper's throwaway role. As a token, queer person of color, she* arbitrarily decides to become the evil sidekick. This isn't something she does so much as it's framed as evil by the writers. No matter how inclusive her rhetoric is, it's coming from the mouth of a two-dimensional villain with minimal speaking time.
*note: I am calling Piper "she" because everyone in the show does as well. If she has other pronouns and prefers those, no mention of it is ever made.
Teaming against a bunch of dumb sexist guys in a karate tournament shouldn't make Piper's words any less correct. However, the writers treat the tournament like a war. The moment Piper takes a side, they deliberately isolate her from us. Rather than learning anything about her and who she is, she becomes merely another enemy for the heroes to defeat. Thus, the show's only queer character and woman of color becomes a pawn in a stupid game. Blame the status quo for that one.
Robbed of personality, Piper is reduced to an evil, bisexual person-of-color that good, white girl, Sam LaRusso can check. The problem is, Sam isn't good because she's nice. In fact, she's a bitch this season. Rather, Sam is good because the screenwriters want a babyface in their script. It's simple and contrived, but also prescriptive.
Compared to Piper, Johnny has no idea what feminism or gender studies even are. While American 1st wave feminism dates back to the early 1900s, trans and non-binary people are as old as civilization. Regardless, Johnny tells Miguel that he "learned feminism." It's water off a duck's ass, but there's merit to the joke, too: Many people his age, my parents included, have no idea what that is. For them, Piper's treatment is an industry norm they just accept, regardless how it misinformed their harmful attitudes about queer people.
Ignorance is no defense, people. "Get informed or wind up like Johnny," the show seems to be arguing. If only he represented the worst of what transphobia has to offer.
Even so, acknowledging Johnny's close-mindedness remains important; he's an avatar for middle-aged men bred on '80s nostalgia that frankly couldn't care less about Piper. She's enemy because she chose to be, they're told. This seemingly innocent idea deliberately ignores the reality of being queer by intentionally equalizing Piper as someone that could even choose to begin. The writers don't try nearly hard enough to validate her stances. They merely present them as equal to Johnny's—something to hash out through force. Might makes right.
There's some truth about her physical aggression being a mitigating factor, if only because athletes of color generally are guided into combat sports as the sole means of social elevation. Nevertheless, this hardly translates to real life, people of color being treated far worse by police for behaving violently in public. These victims can't just use karate to solve their problems on the street because cops will target them as the aggressor by default. Other marginalized groups will target people of color, especially if they're queer. Whereas white feminists have historically been unkind to people of color, TERFS (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) will pointedly mistreat queer people on top of that.
A queer person of color will feel this rejection two-fold from white feminists (who often lie about their hand in things). However, people of color also target queer people of color by emulating their white repressors (re: Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks). Piper has it even worse because she's female. That makes her a target for sexism, racism and gay panic/transphobia from multiple angles—the Man, TERFs, her own community. Someone like her seeks equal treatment not just on paper, but also societally among multiple hostile groups.
Thus, it's incredibly dishonest for the show to frame Piper as "equal" to Sam—a form of whitewashing that hides the complex social inequalities mentioned above. In terms of material conditions, Piper and Sam both dress nice and attend the same good school. Never mind that systemic racism and gay panic would make actual equal treatment impossible for Piper at said school. Class helps, but that's a problem all on its own. So many queer people of color don't enjoy Piper's material advantages, and Piper herself will always be "the rich black girl" in the eyes of her prejudiced white schoolmates (a bias the show contributes towards by keeping mum).
Make your characters poor and the show becomes "about the poor." Piper is not poor; she's rich, deliberately so the writers can ignore the complex and multigenerational problems that a queer person of color (a hyper-marginalized sub-group) historically faces everyday. This representation is problematic because it comments on nothing save the similar, spurious binary the show arbitrarily prescribes: the act of social climbing through the appearance of strength, specifically through the acquisition and utilization of karate.
Cobra Kai ignores the realities of social strife by selling karate to the audience it assumes to be middle class or wants to be middle class. It does this by treating Piper and Sam likes black-and-white princesses. However, only Piper is reduced to a simple, two-dimensional role. Sam, however, flawed she may be, is given plenty of screen time. She's the star.
So while I enjoyed how Johnny is framed as Don Quixote trapped in his weird little headspace, I felt bothered by Piper's two-dimensional treatment by the writers. Their reliance on simple binaries reflects in a meta sense through the Valley bigwigs that segregate the end-season tournament into two separate divisions for boys and girls. This causes a surprising amount of fallout, the heroes scrambling to try and reconcile with their own close-minded beliefs in order to recruit some champion-level female talent.
Generally speaking these protagonists are all white, straight and male. Nevertheless, Sam—a dead weight in season 3—has plenty of room to fuck up. When she visits an old friend—a person of color—to get some advice, that friend shows her the power of solving problems by "striking first." However, said friend was being figurative, diplomatic; Sam, by comparison, is being dishonest and vengeful.
Cobra Kai frames Sam as spoiled, but nevertheless Good. She sulks, driving around in her ostentatious sports car, but she Means Well. The show doesn't try very hard to connect the dots or comment on its own binaries. Allow me: Sam is alienated from Tory because Tory is poor and Sam's parents, specifically her mother, thinks that Tory is no good. But instead of commenting on these connections and how wealth and status alienate Sam, the show defaults to framing Sam as naïve a priori. This implies that her environment (re: material conditions) didn't affect her. Such an argument is harmful because it justifies Sam's behavior as being part of her essential nature, not her class.
Marxist criticisms aside, I enjoyed Sam's fall from grace. Whereas season 3 framed Tory as the ruthless fury bent on destruction and Sam her hapless double, season 4 ironically frames Sam as the bully and Tory the sympathetic street rat looking to make amends. It's a fairly standard reversal but I dug it if only to avoid a repeat of season 3's demonization of the show's sole lower class woman.
I also dig another surprise from the LaRusso household: Sam's young brother, Anthony. The guy's an awkward bully, spoiled brat and all-around dick. The foil for Kenny, Anthony and he form two parts of yet another love triangle, the third being their prospective (and inoffensive) sweetheart, Lia. The machinery is rote, but like Sam, it's satisfying to see Anthony dishonor the LaRusso name. Why? Because the name is the emblem of a higher class that reliably looks down those less fortunate than themselves.
More than this, Anthony represents the importance of communicating these ideas at a societal level. Kids, from an early age, soak up information like sponges. Sometimes, the wrong information. Anthony gets his from movies, books, and the internet, but also his equally misinformed male friends. All of them feel entitled to sex and despise weakness in men, two concepts ripped from 1980s media (and '80s pastiche). By framing Anthony as the unlikeable wretch with screwy ideas and deplorable habits, we're shown that proper lineage matters far less than how (and where) people learn to treat others.
My favorite part about Anthony is watching him lie to his father. By lying about Kenny being the bully, do-gooder Daniel is duped into teaching his son how to be a better bully! The show doesn't stay on this track for long, but its limited tenure into familial unrest remains deliciously ironic. Less delicious is Daniel blaming videogames for his son's flaws. Maybe take some responsibility for being a shitty parent, you moderately conservative hack?
I liked the imperfect LaRusso family, but I also liked the larger theme of children misguided by their parents' juvenile vendettas and obsession with strength and violence. Robby, for example, has a pride- and anger-clouded mind. Too blind to deal with the adults in his life, he seeks clarity by helping Kenny. This bias only adds to the fun, showcasing the importance of good communication and de-escalating skills. Karate, it turns out, sucks at both.
It's hardly a mystery that Cobra Kai shies away from pacifism, but transparency and good social skills go a lot further than gangland violence (re: preventative justice vs punitive). Then again, the emergence of karate as a domestic climbing tool in early-1900s Japan is no different than karate in the Cobra Kai universe or Judo in 1960s America. It's less about being the right tool for the job and more, as the show puts it, a way of life.
In Cobra Kai, shows of force come from positions of perceived strength and weakness. Existing on a stage occupied by various competing factions, karate is ubiquitous—something cool and vital that's constantly sold to kids (re: they need karate). The prescription of martial arts is hardly unique to Cobra Kai; it's rooted in American culture, specifically the traditional values of Reagan's 1980s. It's not about confidence so much as it's about appearing righteous and strong.
This spectre of fascism (re: strength for its own sake and the cult of tradition) survives in all of the show's male role models. However, no one embodies it more than Silver. Gradually he replaces Kreese, supplanting him as head of the studio. He does so by effectively working as a better manipulator of children. He's not just charming and slick; he's rich and knows how to advertise himself through capital. Advertise ideas to kids and they'll absorb them regardless if they're correct or not.
The tragic part is, Silver and the other adults all recruit youngsters to prove themselves right—"right" in this case meaning winning through doctored shows of force; i.e., propaganda victories. Johnny, Daniel and Terry are all fighting for the right to own businesses and advertise their wacky ideologies, which only differ by a matter of degree. To the winner goes the spoils.
The kids, of course, are the real victims here. Even so, they still have room to be themselves. My favorite example is Devon Lee. A debate pro who hates the death penalty in California, she's also a huge martial arts fan. This is hardly a paradox. Whatever love that people harbor for violent stories doesn't strictly endorse violence purely for its own sake; movies are meant, on some level to be consumed, and this is hardly a bad thing so long as their ideas are engaged with critically.
Devon's obviously comfortable doing this, recognizing the inhumane quality of capital punishment while still loving the shit out of Cynthia Rothrock (who frankly is a total boss). And kicking guys in the balls. Sure, the emasculating firecracker trope is a bit on the nose; the show at least sets it to music (to AD/DC, though surprisingly "Dirty Deeds" and not "Big Balls") and treats it like dumb fun.
Far more serious is Silver, whose lecture to his and Kreese's tutelage about wartime perception is both razor-sharp and chilling. "What your opponent is thinking is key!" he argues, while an American flag looms in the background alongside the slogan: "Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy." It's the hideous fusion of American business and foreign policy as something to pitch to kids—a fun Saturday morning activity that later becomes a way of life. A violent, misguided way of life: "In war. In business. In a fight."
Silver's rhetoric is worryingly fascist. Advising the children to let their enemies think they're weak, he then tells them to show their strength once the fight starts. This advertises the creation of an enemy as vital, while oscillating between positions of strength and weakness in a perpetual conflict over resources. Nazi Germany feigned weakness when arguing that Poland attacked them, only to steamroll them directly after. America's causus belli with Pearl Harbor and Japan was no different. And in either case, Hitler and FDR materially benefitted, while the children of their nations were ground into meat.
Cobra Kai functions very much the same way. Silver's influence over others owes itself to his wealth and media-savviness. While Kreese is effectively a bum, Silver is a cunning neoliberal profiting off empty hope by spreading conflict and offering the cure. Infinite growth in the pursuit of war as the ultimate money-making machine—the military industrial complex conjoined with manufactured consent.
The entropy Silver invites allows for some satisfying reversals. When Anthony is outed by Kenny for being the real bully, Daniel and Amanda are pissed. It's nice, then, to see these concerned white parents feeling shame for wanting to over-punish the bullied black kid they wrongfully think has been tormenting their son. All the same, Silver's despicable training has taught Kenny to see it as a treacherous game. Rather than learn from it in any meaningful way, the young student leers at the disgraced Anthony and, in a moment of sheer, private mania, savagely twists the knife: "I got you."
Sure, Kenny technically won, but it feels malicious when it doesn't need to be. And this, we'll see later, is only the starting point. As Kenny becomes Silver's fiercest soldier, we're shown a warrior who sees whatever threat Silver wants him to see, all for the sake of efficient profit. It's a far more sobering menace than Kreese's small town antics.
Curious how Kenny and Anthony both come from rich families, equalizing their behavior and ignoring what normally would be racialized forms of class warfare. They're materially-speaking "equal," but life seldom plays out like this and even when it does, racial inequalities make this impossible. It only works in Cobra Kai because everything operates on simple, good-vs-evil binaries.
While the drama in season 4 was more complex than I anticipated, the show can't resist falling back on various other clichés. This largely starts in episode 8. I initially hated this episode and still feel annoyed by it, but need to explain why in a way that doesn't overlook what I think the writers were trying to do. Remember what I said before about cushy vicariousness? With the drama in full swing, the show pauses everything to remind us it's a high school drama: prom.
Prom sucks. It's a tacky, plastic event—the promise of a traditional, arranged marriage between high school sweethearts. The writers sell the event to us as something special, showing Sam descending the stairs in a painfully pink ball gown. As Miguel watches, the cheesy love music plays on. Seven prior episodes barely focused a relationship and suddenly it's being shoved down my throat. Yuck.
This whole ordeal amounts to an assimilation fantasy, the tramp courting the wealthy debutante. Miguel likes Sam but also wants to go to Stanford, not the poorer community college nearby. He feels shame, but much of this is felt rather than stated. Equally implied are the presence of conservative values (re: family and marriage). These make the prom segment feel even more prescribed. Meanwhile, the show effectively treats its actors as product placement. Delivered by a fleet of limos to a neon-lit palace set to vintage music, they're transported to a former time that was better. A fairytale castle.
Maybe it's hypocritical for me to harp on Cobra Kai when Elite, another Netflix exclusive, effectively spends the entirety of its duration inside gamer-lit nightclubs. But that show, as great as it is, broadcasts the sheer, uncontrolled hedonism and bathroom sex had by straight and queer folk alike, all under the veneer of ultra wealth as less of a veil and more a royal cloak that absolves the wearers of any responsibility for their stupid deeds.
That Balzac-level clubbing is a far cry from the mega-fake portrait framed by Cobra Kai's own tacky elitism. The show's obligatory centerpiece is merely a place for the entitled sexual fantasies of young men to come true, with women offered as colorful prizes wrapped in silk. I wouldn't mind it if Cobra Kai had more time to develop these ideas and focus on them, but there's already so much going on and it only has one episode to cram everything in before before moving to the final showdown. It feels shipped, the obligatory scene where the characters are mandated to fall in love by writers catering to manufactured expectations.
This being said, it's admittedly a guilty pleasure of mine to watch the dapper and roguish Robby and Tory (in full sexpot mode) utterly upstage the prim and proper Sam and Miguel. They really can dance (and Tory in heels, no less). And, if I'm honest, I really liked Tory's "I'm not just another bum from the neighborhood" talk to Robby. Not only is it a nod to Rocky (1976); it also felt in-character for Tory. For a moment, she and Robby forget about their bosses and simply enjoy the moment, however fleeting it is. So much better is their night than Miguel and Sam's, the latter two watching their wicked peers enviously.
In either case, the night is paid for not just by role models, but by parents. The show presents the LaRussos as flawed but honestly good people, while Silver is wholeheartedly perfidious (and considerably richer). He's the false father, the evil millionaire for whom lying comes naturally and greed and wealth are perfectly fine as long as victory is the result. He fakes good manners and does bad things on purpose, whereas the middle class LaRussos try to be good and occasionally fuck up by accident.
Is the show apologizing for a class divide by letting the LaRussos off the hook? I'd say so. I still enjoyed watching them sweat.
Predicaments like Daniel's rebelling children are meant to weigh on him and us, but honestly I thought his passion to be a bit scripted. It just feels odd to recooperate Silver (a man whose name is literally money) as the show's big baddie when the same ideas are being espoused by Daniel, albeit to a lesser degree (re: smarmy jerk who runs a chain of car lots). The latter is less ruthless and more good-natured, but I still don't respect him because his problems (and retaliations) are so 1st world. The only people he can conceivably apologize to are his wife and kids and even then he sucks at it.
It's fair to say that Daniel's flaws are designed to rehabilitate him as a man morally burdened despite his lavish lifestyle. But I've met people like him, people who refuse to apologize and are convinced their way must be correct because they think they own everything. Even when they act nice or sincerely believe they are right, they're the boss. I'm sorry but that's fucked.
It would be more biting to shine a light on Daniel's inexplicable financial success. Alas, these triumphs are carefully shrouded in mystery. Whether the benefactor of someone's charity or a self-made man who fucked someone over, Daniel is simply well off because reasons. Don't think about that, the show decrees; think about how obsessed he is with being right and being a bad parent. For me, these feel a lot more shallow, if only because they're exactly what someone like Daniel would want us to see him as: not a cocky business owner who throws his weight around, but an imperfect family man that means well (especially when he trots out Miyagi to rehabilitate himself).
The show also rehabilitates Kreese in our eyes by making him care for Johnny, Return of the Jedi-style, when Silver is beating Johnny up. I'm not sure I buy that, given how manipulative Kreese is. Does he actually give a shit, or is he merely annoyed that Silver is once again taking control away from him?
Thematic inconsistencies aside, Kreese's face leaves little room to doubt how he clearly feels onscreen. I just don't think it really works, given the writers are juggling Kreese's sudden change of heart with his message about no mercy as being forged in Vietnam. If it's actually just sometime to tell the kiddies so he can wage an irrelevant turf war decades later, then his goal to be the boss of a single, quaint dojo in the Valley feels bizarrely petty.
For that matter, so does the scene at Stingray's house. Yes, that Stingray. The series' Falstaff makes a return, having invited a bunch of kids to his sister's house for some underage drinking. Here, Stingray beats up the annoying neighbor for wanting to call the cops. The kids cheer him on; he furnishes them with pizza and booze.
While I've been the 30-year old at a party of 20-somethings in a college town, Stingray is arguably even older and surrounded by teenagers. Never mind that someone like him fits the mold for potential a sex offender. But the truth is that he's really just an aging loner who wants friends. While it may not be totally realistic (as no one is that singular in real life), it does work as an enigma for us to solve. Where does Stingray fit in?
I didn't understand why the writers brought Stingray back at first. For that—and I mean, until the very end of the show—we have to wait to learn that Stingray is Silver's pathetic accomplice to frame Kreese with. In the meantime, Silver merely looks plastered, beating Stingray senseless in a seeming fit of rage. It works fine in hindsight. Until then, I just felt confused for the majority of three episodes. I also felt stuck watching a character whom frankly, I cannot stand. He's not funny, he's pathetic.
Another tone shift involves the love square(?) between Sam, Miguel, Robby and Tory. This completely implodes when the four of them start fighting at Stingray's house. It's very operatic, Robby chewing the scenery with Miguel mid-fight, complete with dance-fighting and Phrygian-tinged guitar soloes. Personally I wasn't a fan (and I like rock operas): If this was to distract us from the episode's big reveal—the drunken confession by Johnny that he loves Robby to a jilted Miguel—the eighth episode is still infuriatingly oil-to-water to the previous seven. If you're going to do The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), go all-in, baby.
Worse, other smaller payoffs, like Robby and Tory's hooking up and Anthony's chastisement from Daniel, play out like a sizzle reel because there's just no time to appreciate any of them before Stingray's reckoning. It should come as no surprise, then, that episode 9's opening feels pretty rushed. The growing roster of characters are instantly amassed on a giant stage at the tournament. There's no build-up the morning of. They're just in uniform being announced by the loud guy with the mic (as annoying as the one from Capcom vs SNK 2 was).
From here, it's a series of crosscuts, the actors showing off their weapon skills. The problem is, we've seen none of them preparing beforehand, and there's far too many of them to keep track of. It makes the scene drag out, if only only to let the actors show off their spontaneous abilities. This does nothing for the story. It's just an empty showcase for points.
So is Carrie Underwood's blatant cameo. To see the corporate suits chewing the scenery when she's trotted out feels very meta, but in such a way that exposes the money-grubbing gears of the whole machine. And I probably wouldn't care but, for purely an exercise in wasting time, the drama in Cobra Kai is siphoned out for a country singer hitherto mentioned zero times throughout the season. She has nice legs, at least.
The point is, of course, to give the following montage some music. But not before spouting another moment-of-truth platitude about the value of spending time in the spotlight. Never mind that it's totally fake, combined with a point system that's part of a clever ruse that makes kids feel like powerful heroes. I despise that kind of empty hope, if only because it depletes the season everything else. By its end, the drama isn't about everything outside of the tournament; it's the tournament as a spectacle around which everything else revolves and is ultimately smashed apart by.
In other words, it's all about winning a stupid game, and that's what the show has reduced itself to. Consider Tory: Why worry about paying your bills as a criminal, patching up the wreckage of your gang feud, or dealing with your mother's crazy sister stealing her life insurance when you can focus on what really matters: winning a stupid karate tournament.
To that, we're given another platitude from Daniel: "Never put passion in front of principle, because even if you win, you lose." Like, what does that even mean at this point? If Robby and his team win the tournament by playing dirty, they're not surrendering their souls; they're playing a game in a controlled environment. Their lives will be waiting for them after they leave the arena and they'll arguably be free to live them however they want. As Miyagi himself put it, "Win, lose, no matter." ...Right?
Alas, Cobra Kai focuses on victory as perceived and the means to victory as worshipped. The tournament isn't just fun; it's sacred. Shame that most of the show takes place elsewhere. Shouldn't the dialog reflect this? Talking is all the characters can do in between fights, but I simply felt disconnected from most of what had transpired before. I'm instead shown one fighter after another, each reduced to a handful of seconds in front of the camera.
A smaller cast would have made more sense, allowing moments like Sam looking to both senseis to communicate events that happened previously. Moments like that generate tension because they have baggage. Sam's disobedience towards her father stresses the violation of team boundaries in a familial manner—of Sam finding a sense of belonging somewhere other than home (with her dad's sworn enemy, no less). It's still scripted, but it builds. It pays off.
I enjoyed Sam's rebellion, telling Daniel off for his "my way is the only correct way" attitude. Daniel's hardest lesson is really being that out-of-touch. It's a bit kid gloves, but at least he stops being quite so proud and is able to actually say sorry for a change. Even by doing what feels like the bare minimum, it does something I never thought I'd see: It makes Daniel apologize.
Then there's Robby and Kenny, members of the same dojo who banter amicably before fighting each other. They aren't evil and this tournament is seemingly just a game played for fun. Here, their competitive drama plays out like Geena Davis and Madonna in A League of Their Own. Their friendly ties are stress-tested by their desire to win.
While the generals goad all the little soldiers to be great, Robby gets to experience the ignominy of failed command when Kenny's desire for vengeance is fulfilled. First, Robby is told by Silver to treat Kenny as the enemy and subsequently steps on his face. Then Robby stupidly wonders why the kid snapped. This felt a little out-of-character for a smart, cool headed kid like Robby—to see him lose control seemingly at the push of a button.
The same cannot be said for Kenny. After his defeat from Robby, Kenny is stewing in the locker room when Anthony goes to apologize (badly). This earns the former bully a savage beating. The ensuing violence aims to horrify because the punishment doesn't fit the crime. It's pointlessly brutal, taking the worshipping of strength for its own sake to its toxic, logical conclusion: The enemy deserves no mercy.
However, by continuing of its theater of middle class people acting good and bad, Cobra Kai continues to ignore the racial freight of making one character black and one white. Simply put, the outcome is anisotropic: It measures different depending on the direction studied. This owes itself to America's systemic racism. Make a story about two feuding white people and it's "just a story." Make it one of them black and suddenly you're talking about race.
On the surface, Cobra Kai is saying something about race through its depiction of an "ordinary" social feud. The writers want it to be seen as neutral, but the racial implications remain; pre-existing media informs audience views on race by demonstrating who is good and who is bad all the time. This includes insider groups being made to feel threatened by a particular kind of enemy. That enemy in this case isn't Anthony. It's Kenny.
In conservative rhetoric, this enemy status is specifically assigned to people of color; in liberal rhetoric, it includes criminals who just happen to be black. This means that, regardless of how dislocated a story seems from real life, anxieties from real life as informed by media more generally are themselves being informed by Cobra Kai's continuation of violence, the actors inevitably perceived either defending or attacking the status quo.
To this, there are those in the audience who will inevitably see Kenny as dangerous because he is black. He's either someone to throw slurs at or someone to protect your children from by teaching them to fight back. As inevitable as this racist spectrum is, commenting on it through the text instead of hiding it would suggest an awareness to these issues that Cobra Kai simply doesn't have. It sweeps all of that under the rug in favor of a simply binary. There's not politics at all, no critical power. Just middle class kids beating each other up.
Equally foregone is the treatment of victory as an all-encompassing pageant. Kreese, for example, places far too much emphasis on Johnny losing the 1984 Valley Tournament. As if the boy's upbringing didn't play a role, or Kreese's failure as a role model, or every shitty decision that Johnny made afterwards. It's not like Johnny was fated, because life isn't just a single, one-and-done moment of glory. To subject someone to that kind of pressure is incredibly manipulative, be it from Kreese, Johnny or Daniel (or the show's writers). It feels especially tragic for Miguel, who sadly confronts the reality that his surrogate father is equally obsessed with being perceived as the best as Daniel and Kreese are. They all want to prove their manliness.
That's exactly what Hawk and Robby are doing next. Dancing bare-chested around each other during sudden death, they're proving their manhood by following a formula that's patented and sold through the tournament as franchised (which is what Silver wants). Robby is the heel, dressed in black, and Hawk is the babyface, dressed in white. Not only this, but their roles have changed several times over the course of the show.
After Hawk wins, Sam and Tory have a go. Each combatant has interested parties with skin in the game, and finally at the end everyone opens up about each other. It's nicely timed and satisfying to watch given how pigheaded everyone has been. Equally fun is watching Tory learn that Silver paid off the ref for her match: The whole thing was planned ahead of time to sell lessons, McDojo-style, to a throng of people who want to see the best play out before their eyes.
This was what I meant earlier by the show not buying totally into its own illusions. Otherwise, it wouldn't take the time to dismantle them. This disassembly is only partial, however, as Daniel—ever the do-gooder—rises to the challenge because having an evil man to fight makes sense to him (and makes him look better in the exchange). It's orderly, centralized.
Does this stop me from enjoying the show? No. But I can still criticize its reliance on binaries to work. There's an awful lot of speeches being given about good and evil, mostly platitudes, equalizing conflict through indiscriminate displays of force that overlook the material conditions of everyone involved. Silver's dastardly flaws are precisely what the heroes try to ignore in themselves. Daniel sees himself as the opposite of Silver when I would argue they only differ by a matter of degree: They're both members of the owner class, the bourgeois, starting bloody wars over petty ideas so they can sell what they think is right.
To this, less karate would be a good thing to aspire towards. Alas, the show makes its own argument through the crowd watching the carnage: They want to see their kids win, but there can only be one. That's pretty fucked up, isn't it?
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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