With its second season, Cobra Kai does two things most viewers might not expect from a straight-to-YouTube Karate Kid sequel: it delivers stakes as high as Game of Thrones’, and it establishes Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) as one of the most fascinating and complicated characters since the likes of Walter White.
First: this is a spoiler review, so we’re going to get into some season-long reveals here. If you want a spoiler-free review, I wrote up the first two episodes out of SXSW here.
Oh, Johnny. A character who started out as a villain in The Karate Kid moved into what could be a punchline on Cobra Kai – the Coors Banquet-swigging, muscle car-loving, technological novice – but instead Zabka (and EPs/writers Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg) have given Johnny an extraordinary amount of pathos and nuance. He’s got the most compelling journey of anyone on Cobra Kai, and he’s got one of the most compelling journeys of any character on any series I’ve seen over the past few years. Here’s this man who’s been kicked in the face by life dozens of times, who’s been given every motivation to become a bully, and yet he still struggles with all he has to be honorable. That rules.
With the ominous return of Johnny’s old sensei John Kreese (a magnificently villainous Martin Kove), tensions between Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do have never been higher. It’s an infuriating push-pull because we, the viewers, want Johnny and Daniel (Ralph Macchio) to put aside their old resentments and work together, but thanks to Kreese (and the often misguided students of both schools), misunderstandings pile up and the season ends with the two dojos in fiercer enmity than ever before.
It’s heartbreaking to watch Johnny be manipulated by the man who ruled his childhood all over again, but then Cobra Kai gives us one brief episode where Johnny stands up to Kreese, makes peace with Daniel and even finds the potential for love and a real family in Carmen (Vanessa Rubio), the mother of his star pupil Miguel (Xolo Maridueña). And then everything comes crashing down at once. The students at both Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai have been simmering for two entire seasons, and when they blow up, resulting in drunkenness, violence and severe injury, everyone, from Daniel to Carmen, blames Johnny. But dammit, for once it’s not Johnny’s fault!
That’s the trick that Cobra Kai pulls off so beautifully and mercilessly: the pilot establishes Johnny as a drunk, a racist and a bully. By the end of Season 2, we see how honorable and compassionate he can be, how much he deserves happiness and how few chances he’s gotten at it before now – and then everything is snatched away from him.
Cobra Kai manages to maintain a startling equilibrium between two totally different tonal approaches: an ‘80s action/sports movie and an early 2000s YA TV drama. The action scenes on this show are insanely good – especially that climax, and we’ll get to that in a bit – and the soundtrack, mostly rousing ‘80s pop anthems that you can frame a training montage around, is note-perfect. When Daniel and Johnny fight or teach how to fight, it’s every bit as exciting as any sports movie should be, but when those scenes slow down to make us care about, for instance, the love lives of a bunch of teenagers, Cobra Kai is still somehow just as engaging. The love triangle among Miguel, Robby (Tanner Buchanan) and Sam (Mary Mouser) is a sort of wholesome contrast to the dark edges surrounding the rest of the series, so of course it knocks us off-guard when, thanks to the arrival of the mostly terrifying Tory (Peyton List), that love triangle/rhombus ends up being the match that burns this whole thing to the ground.
But even before shit gets apocalyptic, the Miyagi-Do/Cobra Kai rivalry has some seriously high stakes. Season 2 thankfully lightens up quite a bit on some of the least interesting scenes of Season 1: namely, Daniel’s car dealership. Instead, we get to see Macchio in the Miyagi role, guiding these kids down the path of wisdom, courage and selflessness that his own sensei showed him decades ago – and growing much more likable in the process. And while Johnny’s softened quite a bit since the first season, the addition of Kreese as Cobra Kai’s true snake in the grass keeps Miyagi-Do’s rivals on just this side of villainous (although always with reason and understanding, like the brief scene we got of Hawk’s origin story). And all of that leaves poor Miguel in the middle – like his sensei Johnny, he wants to be honorable, but like Johnny, fortune is rarely in his favor.
Holy crap, Cobra Kai Season 2 is brutal. The season finale devotes nearly half of its running time – a full twelve minutes – to a massive, epically choreographed, out-and-out brawl between Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do. It’s honestly devastating, and it’s thrilling, too, because Cobra Kai’s been teasing it for two seasons, and because it’s just so impeccably directed and executed. On a straight-up action level, this scene delivers (and then some). But on a character level, it delivers, too. We’ve seen the misunderstandings, the resentments, the way these kids have been kicked around their entire lives. Cobra Kai’s brilliant in the way that it breaks down every part of being a bully: how it’s so often born from misery and injustice, how even the best people with the best intentions can become bullies (like Daniel), how seemingly the worst people can break away from the patterns that made them into bullies (like Johnny), and how, given the right circumstances, any of us can choose to be or not be a bully at any point (like any of these kids, depending on their shifting dynamics throughout the series). Is Sam a bully? Is Tory? Is Robby? Is Miguel? Is Hawk? Is Demetri? The truth is that they all are at times in Season 2, and they’re all also bullied at times in Season 2.
In the end, as Miguel and Robby fight it out in the center of this school-wide melee, Miguel is given the chance to be a bully once again, but he remembers his sensei’s words, choices that Johnny’s made over the past year that he respects, and he doesn’t take it. And then Robby – Johnny’s son, mind you, but also Daniel’s student, and therefore the most complicated representation of their decades-long rivalry – almost kills him. It is, as I said, brutal.
So where does that leave us at the end of Season 2? Miguel is in a hospital bed, maybe dying, maybe paralyzed. Johnny’s lost his dojo and all of his students to Kreese. Carmen hates him for what happened to her son. Daniel blames him for his daughter’s newfound delinquency. And Daniel’s wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) wants him to give up karate forever, because, well, look where it got us.
Season 2 of Cobra Kai is a lot darker than its first season, and it certainly doesn’t show its characters any mercy by the finale. But it does show compassion, which is a tricky distinction. Everyone here is pretty much screwed by the last episode (except Kreese), but Cobra Kai has presented them all, all of their mistakes and baggage and bullying, with love and understanding (again, except Kreese). So bring on Season 3, because I’m ready for Kreese to get his.
Aaaaand I’m ready for Ali Mills to show up already. Elisabeth Shue, we need you! And after this season, Johnny really deserves a win.
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