Cobra Kai's meandering third season builds to an awesomely emotional finale: Review
Netflix's silly-smart Karate Kid reboot gets a lot better when everyone agrees to do karate again.
Most sequels are prisons, locking characters and actors into old familiar rhythms. The unlikely power of Cobra Kai lies in its topsy-turvy approach to the source material. 1984's The Karate Kid imagined a pale loser living in Reseda tormented by Encino's country-clubbiest bully, a class-conscious score settled with righteous good-guy/bad-guy martial artistry. Decades later, formerly hardscrabble Daniel (Ralph Macchio) sells foreign cars across the 818 and lives in a vast hillside Tuscan. His onetime playboy nemesis Johnny (William Zabka) dissolves between regular bar fights and dead-end jobs into an apartment that looks like year 35 of a midlife crisis.
Back in the ‘80s, Cobra Kai was the preferred brand for well-funded Aryan beach jocks. When Johnny reboots his old dojo in season 1, it’s a strip-mall safe space for budget punks raised in a recession. His students have to be aggressive: The world struck them first. Daniel builds his own dojo in serene homage to his late master, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). Miyagi-do preaches defense and breathing exercises from a lush garden HQ. There’s a hidden price tag for this obviously nicer philosophy: It's easy to richsplain chill vibes from your private meditation pond! Cobra Kai is about a very obvious, very ludicrous rivalry — what Daniel’s wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) calls “the whole Mortal Enemy/Karate Dojo/Battling for the Soul of the Valley thing.” At its best, though, that thing keeps getting complicated, shifting your allegiances and challenging the characters’ self-image.
Season 3 is not the show’s best. But the new episodes (streaming Jan. 1 on Netflix) ultimately form a satisfying expansion. Last season ended with a blood-and-bone brawl at West Valley High. Johnny’s ace student Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) wound up comatose with a spinal injury, after getting knocked down a stairway by Danny’s troubled pupil Robby (Tanner Buchanan) — who is also Johnny’s son! That shocking cliffhanger risked breaking the show, bringing genuine medical-legal stakes to a saga about righteous kick-punching.
No surprise, I think, that the new season has a rough start. Both senseis swear off teaching, while various high schoolers work through post-traumatic action-scene disorder. “I’m not doing karate anymore, okay?” says Danny’s daughter Sam (Mary Mouser). That makes sense as a human decision. It is not what you want to hear from the Karate Kid’s karate kid.
Cobra Kai is, like, ¼ teen soap opera, ¼ martial arts epic, ¼ totally profound Richard Linklater-ification of a cheesebox ‘80s franchise, and ¼ underdog sports drama. It is also, frequently, a self-aware comedy about its own impossible existence. That’s a tricky balance, which creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg nailed right out the gate. The mix is off here. Maridueña is very charming, and does his best with material that seems to demand a medical miracle. Buchanan is rather blank, a problem now that he has to act angry at everyone all the time. There is swirling melodrama around feuding car dealerships. Runtimes average three minutes longer than season 1. I assume viewers will consume these episodes in a weekend (if not one night), so the early issues won’t linger long. And there are nifty fights in a chop shop and a laser tag arena.
Daniel takes a detour to Okinawa, where he excavates memories of Karate Kid Part II. Tamlyn Tomita and Yuji Okumoto return as, respectively, his old love interest and enemy. Credit the writers for reintegrating a fully insane sequel (“Live or die, man?!?!”) into its revival mythos about time passing. And time is Cobra Kai’s best special effect. In the Reagan era, little Danny was the sweetest shrimp in a steroid-pumped movie culture. Macchio is still babyfaced, but his big eyes simmer. When he’s mad, he looks mad. (Check out his gleefully corrupt cop on The Deuce; check out The Deuce!) Age has hardened Macchio — and softened Zabka. Johnny remains a committed jerk. But even when he’s supposed to be mad, Zabka always looks a little sad. It’s a great performance, quieter and more resonant as Johnny’s life spirals further down.
Season 3 doubles down on John Kreese (Martin Kove), Karate Kid’s original Darth Sensei. Kove is having a ball, but his looming diminishes the central rivalry. “What did you think would happen when you summoned that devil back to Earth?” Danny asks Johnny, and Kreese is pretty much a demon. Flashbacks complicate his backstory; if he’s the Valley’s Sauron, then we finally meet his Morgoth. That origin features some janky production design, though: Vietnam as an eighth grade video project.
But that plot thread pays off in a big way. And Kreese foregrounds the show’s culture-wars gap. He’s a boomer monster, and the wounds he inflicted on his Gen X students are now reinflicted on their Gen Z children. Meanwhile, frequent clips of Mr. Miyagi evoke a lost elder generation who held the world’s Kreeses at bay. Those clips are too much, but I tear up whenever Morita appears — and I wasn’t even a Karate Kid fan!
Conversely, a lot of Cobra Kai’s teens seem pretty forgettable to this millennial. I miss Aisha (Nichole Brown), another formerly bullied Cobra Kai. Brown's absence is already a source of controversy. On screen, her disappearance contributes to an uneasy representational tilt. Dudes of all ages carry the weight of years on their shoulders. Meanwhile, Sam is mostly locked in a not-all-there blood feud with Tory (Peyton List). I welcome insight from any actual teenagers who groove onto the cute nerdlinger antics of Demetri (Gianni Decenzo) and can't handle all the parental drama.
Season 3 was filmed when the show was still a standout on YouTube Premium. That subscription service is a bit of an also-ran, and Cobra Kai sure didn't seem like a sure bet when it launched. (Full credit to my brilliant colleague Kristen Baldwin for calling out season 1’s cheeky magic back in 2018.) Since production wrapped, Cobra Kai moved to Netflix and earned an early season 4 renewal. The ensuing popularity boost could suggest a long run ahead — but the finale points toward an endgame. And that finale is wonderful, wonderful, ridiculous, and wonderful: A high energy showdown for youth in revolt, alongside a never-more-sensitive portrayal of middle-aged reminiscence. It reaffirms Cobra Kai as one of the cleverest reboots in our nostalgia-drunk era. The series crafts a moral fable beyond any obvious definitions of irony and sincerity. “Being a badass doesn’t mean being an a--hole,” Johnny explains. It’s a goofy line, and a real evolution. Like all the best teachers, he’s still learning. Grade: B