Double Trouble: Cobra Kai's game-changing season 4 pulls no punches
This story contains spoilers for the entirety of Cobra Kai season 4.
As any fan of karate in the Valley knows, Cobra Kai never dies. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that the stars of Cobra Kai — Ralph Macchio and William Zabka — almost never rest. Though they're deep into filming season 5 of the Emmy-nominated Netflix comedy, the actors graciously spent a recent Sunday afternoon (their only day off that week!) at Atlanta Daylight Studio for EW's digital cover shoot. For several hours, Macchio and Zabka shake off the exhaustion of their punishing production schedule — throwing punches, practicing their "wax-on, wax-off" moves, and generally bringing their best Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence energy for the camera.
When it's finally time for the interview, it only seems fair to start with an easy question: What parts of your body hurt right now, and why?
"I'll go with my left shoulder, my left knee — just a little bit of mileage on the road, and a little bit of overworking," says Macchio. "But I am standing strong. Nothing some good ibuprofen won't take care of. William?" Zabka — who, like his costar, looks like he has a portrait of Dorian Gray in a karate gi gathering dust in his attic — doesn't miss a beat. "Tip-top shape. No complaints here!"
"There you go," says Macchio with a laugh. "Serve and volley, folks. Serve and volley."
From big-screen bully and victim to TV's best buddy-comedy duo — it's been a long, strange trip for Johnny and Daniel, and it's about to take yet another unexpected turn. Nearly four years after reigniting their karate rivalry in California's San Fernando Valley — a place where dojo supremacy is treated with the seriousness of the "Mideast Peace crisis," jokes Macchio — the one-time adversaries teamed up at the very end of season 3. Their goal? Put sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove) and his Cobra Kai dojo out of business by defeating them at the All Valley Karate Championship. But as fans discover in season 4 (streaming now on Netflix), their road to unity is bumpier than Daniel's dirt bike ride down the hill in The Karate Kid. "They're on an expedition and they know where they're going, but they have no idea how to get there," says Zabka. "It may take a minute for that to work out well." Adds Macchio, "They are aligned, but very different in their approaches, and they have to navigate that. It's not always as easy as you may think."
Especially now that Kreese has a wealthy new soldier in his Cobra Kai army: Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), the berserk former toxic waste magnate who maniacally menaced young Daniel in The Karate Kid Part III. That said, Kreese — who saved Silver from a pit of deadly snakes during their time as POWs in Vietnam — soon discovers that his evil plan will not go according to plan. "He's not aware that Terry has changed, and that he honestly resented being indebted to John Kreese for saving his life," says Kove. "Normal people are indebted and are always willing to help those who really help them. But in this case, Silver's not well."
That's an understatement. Before we go any further, though, one final warning: When it comes to season 4 spoilers, this story will show no mercy. If you haven't finished watching all 10 episodes — up until the very last shot in the finale — head to your screens now and start streaming. Report back here when you're done. We'll wait.
Is everybody ready? LET'S BEGIN!
This season of Cobra Kai would not be possible if it weren't for an obscure '80s sci-fi drama called Hard Time on Planet Earth. You see, when Robert Mark Kamen — the screenwriter behind the original Karate Kid films — drafted the script for Part III, he wrote it as a villain vehicle for sinister sensei John Kreese. But then Kove landed the starring role in Hard Time, playing an alien soldier sent to Earth as punishment for leading a rebellion against his planet's government. "They would not let me shoot Karate Kid III," recalls Kove. "So, we had to audition all these people for the role that they rewrote called Terry Silver."
And thus, the ponytailed menace was born. Sure, Karate Kid Part III — with its rehashed plot, overblown performances, and excessive violence — is easily the least beloved of the original films. But 33 years later, the subpar sequel allowed the Cobra Kai team to do what they do best: Turn a two-dimensional movie villain like Terry Silver into a fully fleshed-out, flawed human being, just as they did with Johnny Lawrence and John Kreese before him.
"I've never run around putting Karate Kid Part III on the top of my résumé as my proudest work," jokes Macchio. "But from that [film] comes this amazing, cherry-picked story [of Terry Silver]. We bring back characters and redefine them, add layers and allow actors a chance to expand them."
Josh Heald, who created Cobra Kai along with Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, says "anything that exists in the original franchise" is canon, even a coked-up, cigar-chomping millionaire who takes a disturbing amount of glee in harassing a teenage karate student. "Cobra Kai owns that — for better, for worse, for neutral. Terry Silver introduced a new and interesting challenge in terms of getting a lasso around such a larger-than-life character."
As for Thomas Ian Griffith, the man behind the ponytail, he was deep into his second career — writing scripts with his wife, Mary Page Keller — and had no plans to return to acting. "My wife and I watched the first season on YouTube, and it was charming and smart and nostalgic and irreverent," he says. "I was so happy for Ralph and William. I thought they did an amazing job and truthfully never thought Terry Silver fit into this world." Even when the Cobra Kai brain trust came calling in 2020, Griffith was skeptical. "If it was a one-off, I probably wouldn't do it," he says. Then Heald, Hurwitz, and Schlossberg "spelled out what they wanted to do, and I was like, 'Oh, wait a sec. This is something special.'"
Indeed, the creators had more than a one-season arc planned for Silver, which made the opportunity difficult for Griffith to resist. "It was a part of the appeal to say there's a good trajectory to this character, something that I can really sink my teeth into," he says. "To go back to acting, it really would have to be right, and they made it right. "
We interrupt this story to share an important theory about the Karate Kid universe: "Zabka and I talk about this all the time," says Macchio. "This franchise is kissed in some way. There's some warm, shining light on every move." That certainly was the case when it came to bringing Griffith back to reprise his role as Silver: Not only was the lifelong student of martial arts still in fighting shape, but his hair also just happened to be ponytail ready. "It's funny, during the pandemic, we were sitting in our office, we didn't go anywhere, and I didn't get a haircut," says Griffith. "When I first Zoomed with the guys, one of them said, 'Oh, by the way, don't cut your hair.' Hayden was obsessed: 'Make sure that ponytail is as long [as it was in the film],' so I think they had to add a little [hair extension] piece to make sure the ponytail was as long."
Though Griffith was able to slip back into Silver's sharp suits and ever-present hair tie with relative ease, Kove needed a minute to adjust to the idea of adding another villain to Cobra Kai's roster. From the moment John Kreese stepped out of the shadows at the end of season 1, the spiky-haired sensei has served as Cobra Kai's Big Bad — a (tor)mentor hell-bent on instilling discipline and strength in his students. "You're bringing another heavy into the show, and I had mixed feelings about that, to be perfectly honest," admits Kove. "I don't like another guy coming in stealing some of the thunder from [my] darkness. But it seems that it would shed a lot more light on my character if someone else was causing all the problems. I couldn't be barking, 'Let's get Eagle Fang! Let's defeat Miyagi-Do!' in front of my dojo anymore. I was doing that season 1, season 2, season 3. We needed some fresh elements in the show."
This dose of fresh hell for Daniel and Johnny comes just as the dueling protagonists decide to try working together — which leads to some of the most entertaining and satisfying moments of the series to date. "We've been looking forward to Johnny and Daniel's team-up for a really long time," says Schlossberg. "We know they are opposites, and we take full advantage of that. We play it for goosebumps at times, we play it for laughs at times, and we play it for the tension. We really wanted to explore it."
At first, Johnny and Daniel attempt to meld their diametrically opposed teaching methods: Meditation versus pelting students with water bottles; catching koi fish by hand versus jumping between buildings; wax on, wax off versus cleaning the trash out of Johnny's car. The more frustrated the sensei get, the funnier it is — for viewers, at least. "There are so many open wounds there, I think it was important that we didn't undercut it and just tie it up into a bow, like, 'Everything's swell now!'" says Macchio. Zabka agrees: "For them to work together in harmony from go would've been dishonest. They're both coming with their baggage, so of course, there's gonna be landmines."
The most explosive issue between the duo is which type of karate to teach their assembled students. Daniel insists that the balanced defense of Miyagi-Do is the only way to win, while Johnny is all about the offensive aggression of Eagle Fang. In a rare moment of cooperation, they each agree to learn the other's style of fighting. It may have taken 37 years, but we finally get to see reformed bully Johnny Lawrence practicing "paint the fence" and "sand the floor," as Daniel regales him with lessons from his own sensei. "It was fun to see Johnny Lawrence up on the balance board and sanding the deck," recalls Macchio, "and me picking my teeth with the toothpick as an homage to the great Miyagi." Halfway through filming that sequence, notes Zabka, "it dawned on me just how cool this was as an evolution of the character. Johnny's reminded that Miyagi saved him in Karate Kid II. It was really important that Johnny opened his heart up and sees that there is something to learn here."
Things get decidedly less warm and fuzzy when it comes time for Daniel to study the "manly" ways of Eagle Fang karate. "Our three brilliant creators — Jon, Josh, and Hayden — really enjoy putting me through the wringer," says Macchio with a laugh. Over the course of the episode 2 training montage (set to Airbourne's 2016 head-banger "Breakin' Outta Hell"), Daniel is subjected to a brutal regime of shoveling coal, going one-on-one with a tennis ball machine, cranking out bare-knuckle push-ups on a wooden platform, and climbing an industrial-sized chain hanging from the ceiling.
In a moment of pain you didn't see, directors Hurwitz and Schlossberg filmed a scene where Johnny blindfolds Daniel and makes him chug a gross-looking pre-training smoothie. "It was supposed to be like vodka and eggs," says Heald. "Ralph had to drink it, and it took like an interminable amount of time for him to choke down whatever the heck the prop master made. It was like baby food in real life." Try as he might, Macchio says he simply could not drink the concoction in one shot. "I kept thinking of Stallone in the original Rocky film, taking the five eggs down," he remembers. "But I went for it — it just didn't make it into the episode."
That gnarly smoothie isn't the only thing that Daniel finds hard to swallow. Imagine Mr. LaRusso's distress when he — perhaps the world's most famous victim of bullying — learns that his wisecracking son, Anthony (Griffin Santopietro), is a bully himself. The victim is new kid Kenny (Dallas Dupree Young), who Anthony picks on mercilessly — at the urging of his obnoxious friends. "I wanted him to be more of a bystander/follower as opposed to the leader," says Macchio, who admits that the Anthony character had trouble "fitting into the show" in early seasons. "There's a great book called The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander — there's an element of being a bystander that is as harmful, if not more, than [being] the bully."
Hurwitz, meanwhile, acknowledges that Anthony's long absences have become a bit of a running joke among fans ("Didn't Daniel and Amanda have another kid?") — which is why developing the character's season 4 arc was so rewarding. "Anthony was a great vessel for this kind of bullying story, where he is making fun of a kid, and it's in the service of getting laughs from his cronies," he explains. "You see the power structure even within that group where he gets bullied by his friends, so he, in turn, is passing the bullying along, and that's not an uncommon thing amongst children."
Parental instincts — as well as stubborn pride — are what ultimately derail Johnny and Daniel's efforts to move forward as co-sensei. Papa LaRusso is less than thrilled to watch his daughter, Sam (Mary Mouser), begin to embrace her inner Eagle Fang while training with Johnny for the All Valley. Says Macchio, "For Daniel, who has been a caring parent if not a perfect parent, seeing Johnny Lawrence step into the role of the parental figure — with his influence and his rough around the edges, strike first, jump from building to building to get over your fears [methods] — that stirs up a lot of feelings."
Feelings like jealousy, anxiety, insecurity — all of which Johnny experiences, too, as his beloved student, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), learns the ways of Miyagi-Do. It's hard enough to know that his estranged son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), is fully under the terroristic tutelage of Kreese and Silver, but now he has to listen to Miguel talk about eating fancy sushi with the LaRusso family and rave about yacht rock icon Christopher Cross? It's too much for one macho man to bear. "He never had a father, so he's doing the best he can, the way he's been informed by '80s movies and '80s rock," says Zabka of Johnny's bond with Miguel and relationship with Miguel's mom, Carmen (Vanessa Rubio). "Beef jerky has been his dad! He cherishes Miguel and he's afraid of losing that bond. Daniel seems to have it all, and all Johnny has is Miguel and Carmen, so he is very protective of that, and he overcorrects."
The simmering tensions finally erupt into a rolling boil in episode 5, leading to the rematch fans have been dreaming about for nearly four decades. With the tournament looming, Daniel and Johnny decide to settle their debate on the mat: Miyagi-Do versus Eagle Fang in a winner-trains-all battle. Shooting the showdown ran from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. on the outdoor Miyagi-Do set in 40-degree Atlanta weather. "In between the fighting, they would put us in a van to keep us warm," says Zabka. "They literally would put hot towels on the rubber mat because if you stepped on it, it was like ice." Cobra Kai's stunt coordinator Ken Barefield and fight coordinator Don Lee choreographed an intense, two-and-a-half-minute match blending Daniel's Miyagi-Do Okinawan style and Johnny's Tang Soo Do Cobra Kai style, culminating in an epic win for… nobody?
"It was funny to read it [in the script] — we're turning the pages, going, 'Okay, who wins? Who wins?' But then it's a draw at the end," says Zabka, laughing. "We got a kick out of it."
"That was a pun," says Macchio. "I actually got a kick out of it."
"Yeah," Zabka replies. "He got a kick out of it, I got a backfist to the face."
Before you start demanding a re-rematch, Cobra Kai fans, let Heald explain what the writers were thinking. "It was always a draw for us," he says. "These characters are so passionate, in terms of whose karate is 'better,' in quotation marks. The show is giving you that Yin and Yang, exploring [how] it's not better, it's just different. It goes to that theme over and over again. Giving one of them a win at this stage of their lives, after they've come so far with their exploration of each other's karate, and with their own interpretation of their masters' karate — it would have felt inauthentic."
A wise man once said, "Fighting always last answer to problem." It may take all season, but Johnny and Daniel finally learn this lesson by the finale. Of course, both their egos and their students must take a serious beating first. The 51st Annual All Valley Karate Championship is bigger than ever, thanks to new skills competitions in kata, board-breaking, and weapons display — as well as the addition of separate male and female championship matches. The tournament unfolds as a two-episode extravaganza, replete with action-packed montages, a surprise performance by Grammy-winning superstar Carrie Underwood, and a glimpse at some of the Valley's other (heretofore unseen) karate dojos. (Shout-out to Krunch Karate and Xtreme Martial Arts!)
After going on the offensive helps Miyagi-Do's comeback kid, Hawk (Jacob Bertrand), defeat Cobra Kai's star student, Robby, in the boys' final, Daniel has an epiphany: The more styles his students learn, the better fighters they'll be. With the fate of karate in the Valley at stake, Daniel approaches Johnny and does the unthinkable: He apologizes. For thinking that Johnny had nothing of value to teach his students. For worrying that Johnny was a bad influence on Sam. And most of all, for not trusting the kids to develop their own karate using skills they learned at Miyagi-Do and Eagle Fang. "What do you say we team up again?" asks Daniel, hoping Johnny will help Sam win the tournament's deciding match against Cobra Kai's Tory Nichols (Peyton List). Daniel even goes so far as to dub their joint operation "Miyagi-Fang" — temporarily. It's a breakthrough moment for the Karate Kid, but Macchio says he needed some convincing before he was comfortable with the scene.
"When he says 'Miyagi-Fang, just for today'… I actually went back and forth with Josh about that," he says. "I wanted it cut, but he made a plea of why it's important for Daniel to put that olive branch out and not be derogatory about Eagle Fang. I said, 'Okay, let's see if I can find a way [to make it work].' And we did. It's almost like I have trouble saying ['Miyagi-Fang'] out loud, and then I tag it with 'just for today.'"
Daniel's olive branch comes just when Johnny needs it most. Realizing that he pushed Miguel too hard and put his own personal grudges against what was best for his students, the Eagle Fang sensei is ready to break the cycle of resentment — and Johnny admits that Miguel would have been a "stronger fighter" if he had let him train with Daniel. "I think he's come to accept that he's a work in progress. Some of what Daniel had to teach that came through Miyagi-Do is now a part of him," says Zabka. "To acknowledge that you're wrong is probably one of the hardest things to do as a person, especially when you're so set in your ways. I love that arc. I love that moment of surrender and growth in Johnny."
Unfortunately, the All Valley judges do not hand out trophies for personal growth — and Miyagi-Fang loses the tournament. That's not even the biggest shock of the season: Cobra Kai takes the win, but sensei John Kreese ends up losing big time. Not only did Terry Silver bribe the referee to rule for his dojo at the All Valley, he also framed Kreese for the savage beating of Stingray (Paul Walter Hauser), a wannabe Cobra Kai student. As the triumphant Terry watches the police take his old Army buddy away in handcuffs, it's clear to Kreese — and viewers — that the sadistic Silver will be back to terrorize the Valley in season 5.
"We wanted to give Silver a win because we wanted to see what that would be like," says Schlossberg. "He came so close to winning in Karate Kid III, and it seems like that would really ramp up the stakes. We knew that bringing Terry into the world [of Cobra Kai], there'd be a potential clash with him and Kreese. He's been struggling to be a more normal person, and Kreese uses his manipulation to bring that snake out of him just as he did in the second season with Johnny — but this time it bites him back."
Like Kreese, Kove did not see Terry's betrayal coming. "I couldn't believe that someone whose life I'd saved was that maniacal… John Kreese just wants people to stand up for themselves, be disciplined, and win. But Terry's taking it too far," he says. "There's a lot of suffering in season 5, and my character really goes through a lot of emotional changes."
Season 5, you say? Well, since the esteemed Mr. Kove brought it up, let's take a moment to speculate about what's ahead for Cobra Kai's central duo. Johnny is riddled with guilt for letting Miguel down at the tournament — and then horrified to discover that the boy he loves like a son has run away to Mexico to find his biological father. Does that mean Johnny Lawrence will be heading south of the border next season? "Johnny takes on the personal responsibility that he needs to right his own wrongs and make sure he's there for Miguel the way a good father would be," teases Hurwitz. "There's certainly a focus on Johnny trying to put the pieces together from a family standpoint while reconciling this loss at the All Valley and his livelihood."
Initially, it seems that Daniel will head into season 5 without a partner. The finale ends with him kneeling at Mr. Miyagi's grave, vowing that Miyagi-Do will stay open because he refuses to "honor an agreement with men who have none." But in a glorious last-second surprise, the camera pulls back to reveal Daniel is not alone: Okinawan badass Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) is at the gravesite, too! Macchio says the writers have been strategizing about how to bring Okumoto back since the very first day he arrived on set in 2019, when he reprised his role in season 3. "I looked over during the rehearsal at Jon, Josh, and Hayden, and they were just jumping outta their seats," he recalls. "It was then when we started talking, like, 'Oh, he's coming back.' We had [read] three lines of dialogue together and you could clearly see that there are stories here."
"Some of his episodes in season 3 were some of our favorite episodes of the series," adds Hurwitz. "Now things have been amped up and you have Terry Silver on the mountaintop, and Johnny's off on his own situation with Miguel. [We wanted] to give Daniel that partner in crime who is just as dangerous and just as lethal. He's reformed in life and is certainly not the villain that he was from the movie. But he still has a skill set that is a next-level thing. We thought it was a really fun way to end the season, with him standing there with Daniel, ready to join the fight here in America."
And it's definitely going to be a fight. As Griffith points out, Silver has the money and resources to live a refined life of leisure — but he'd rather focus his energy on settling a psychic score with John Kreese. "The purity of Terry Silver is that he could be this incredible human being. He has the intelligence to do that," says Griffith. But reuniting with Kreese "was the breaking point [for him] to go, 'Enough's enough. I'm going to turn this around.' I thought that was a great idea [for the show], and risky. 'Wow, is the bad guy gonna take over the world?' And it's like, 'Yup, I am!'"
We know what you're thinking: There's no way Terry Silver will be taking over the world on his own. Clearly, when he told Kreese, "I'm sure I can dig up an old friend or two to help out with Cobra Kai while you deal with your legal problems," he was talking about Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan), Dennis (William Christopher Ford), and Snake (Jonathan Avildsen), his former students from The Karate Kid Part III… right??? "You'll have to tune in," says Schlossberg coyly. "Fans can look at the past movies, but we also fill in extra backstory that wasn't in the movies. People can speculate as to who he's referring to. What I will say is, Terry is on top in season 5 in a way that we haven't seen before. That's not a good thing if you're a kid in the Valley."
Maybe not — but it sounds like a very good thing for fans of Cobra Kai.
Directed and Produced by Kristen Harding. Photo Editor: Ava Selbach; DP: Josh Hart; Steadicam Operator: James Persinger; 1st AC: George Rowson; Gaffer: Kevin Johnson; Photographer: Ren Adkins; Photo Assistant: Noah Clement; Set Design: Risha Carnes/The Spin Style Agency; Set Assistant: Ashely Camper; Styling: Cari Nelson/The Spin Style Agency; Styling Assistant: Azia Ball; Hair: Grace Leider; Macchio Makeup: Jamie Cline, Zabka Makeup: Jessica Craig; Editor: Ethan Bellows; VFX: Ira Morris; Color Correction: Carlos Flores; Cover Design: Chuck Kerr.