Sunday, June 9, 2019

Cobra Kai (Season 2)

Creators: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald
Starring: William Zabka, Ralph Macchio, Courtney Henggeler, Xolo Maridueña, Tanner Buchanan, Mary Mouser, Jacob Bertrand, Gianni Decenzo, Martin Kove
Release Date: 2019

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Reveals Some Key Plot Details From The First Two Seasons of 'Cobra Kai' **

When YouTube Premium's Karate Kid sequel series, Cobra Kai, premiered last year, the big shock wasn't it being far better than anyone expected, but in how it made you re-examine the original film with fresh eyes, now working with the knowledge of what would become of All Valley Karate rivals Daniel Larusso and Johnny Lawrence thirty years later. Jumping off a very good idea that the latter viewed himself as the bullied victim in his high school war with Daniel, creators Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald's introduced us to a present-day Johnny frozen in '84, unable to fully move past his biggest defeat. And despite the fact Daniel's married with two kids and running a successful car dealership, something's missing, as he still struggles to find his way without the guidance of Mr. Miyagi.

As good a starting point as this was, there were many ways it could have gone terribly wrong. If their characters seemed to be a betrayal of who they originally were or the creators failed to recognize how much more the actors were capable of, it all could have been a disaster, joining the pitiful ranks of other reboot and sequel hatchet jobs. This represents the polar opposite, as the team behind this series use every minute of  second chance to deepen our appreciation of the franchise, while successfully pushing it forward. 

Cobra Kai's Hawk, Johnny and Miguel
Reluctantly taking a young pupil under his wing and resurrecting the Cobra Kai dojo as an unlikely sensei training a group of misfits, we got the Johnny we never knew we needed. And watching him again go face-to-face with Daniel under different, but not entirely dissimilar circumstances, we're reminded just how they bring out both the best and worst in each other. their feud trickling down to the new generation of characters we've grown to care about just as much.

Coming off a suspenseful first season finale, Cobra Kai has proven thus far to be the template for resurrecting an already existing property, delivering a second season that's just as strong, if not stronger. It's accomplished this by expanding the show's universe, further developing the characters and capitalizing off last season's tournament showdown that not only ended with a shocking twist, but the return of an infamous figure from Johnny's past who could again prove to be his, and Daniel's, biggest threat. But the series' more lasting accomplishment is what it's done with the newer characters, whose arcs take yet another turn in this year's finale, topping any previous episode in terms of adrenaline and suspense. Forget about measuring up to the original's legacy. You could easily make a case that this show is already well on its way to surpassing it. 

When last season concluded Johnny (William Zabka) had accomplished his liftetime goal of bringing the first place All-Valley Under-18 Karate Championship Trophy "home" to Cobra Kai after training bullied teen Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) to victory over his own estranged son, Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan) in the final. But at what cost? With an injured Robby's new sensei, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) looking on, Miguel wins by employing the same mean streak and cheap tactics the Cobras were known for over thirty years ago, in the process driving away his girlfriend (and Daniel's daughter), Samantha (Mary Mouser).

Johnny gets a visit from an old friend
Now with a tainted trophy and a relationship with his son seemingly broken beyond repair, the first glimpses of true regret come over Johnny's face as he realizes the Cobra Kai mantra of "No Mercy" may have corrupted Miguel just as it had him years ago. But before that feeling can fully settle in, a shadowy figure appears at the door: Presumed dead sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove), the founding father of Cobra Kai who led Johnny to his greatest heights as a teen, before turning on him. Declaring himself a changed man, the Vietnam vet memorably humiliated by Mr. Myagi in the parking lot all those years ago, is just looking for a second chance, and hoping his former pupil will give it to him.

Much to wife Amanda's (Courtney Henggeler) chagrin, Daniel leaves most of the responsibilities at LaRusso Motors to her as he doubles down on his efforts to open Miyagi-do Karate, making his inaugural students Samantha and Robby, who's now moved in with the LaRussos as the teens grow closer. Miguel meanwhile forms a bond with new bad girl Cobra Kai recruit, Tory (Peyton List), who's also taken Sam's best friend Aisha (Nichole Brown) under her wing. The violent, agressive direction of the group has also caused a further rift between bullied nerd turned badass, Eli "Hawk" Moskowitz (Jacob Bertrand) and his neurotic pal Demetri (Gianni Decenzo). With all these conflicts building toward an explosion as summer comes to a close, Cobra Kai and Miyagi need to somehow co-exist, before Daniel and Johnny's continuous feud threatens to hurt those closest to them.

One of the biggest highlights of last season was seeing a middle-aged Johnny trying to function in the 21st century and discovering it's exactly as we thought. The drinking, music, sexism and xenophobia confirmed Daniel's former bully wouldn't have a softer edge, at least at first. But he was trying, and if his scenes teaching a new class saw him initially coming off as politically incorrect as possible, the thought of a returning and bitter Kreese being dropped into this environment is sort of terrifying, not to mention ripe with creative possibilities, many of which are still not even entirely exhausted by the season's end.

The manipulative Kreese (Martin Kove) returns
Zabka and Kove play off each other so well that we do actually want to believe Kreese is a changed man and the backstory given to explain his absence sheds further light on the unrepentant figure who made Daniel and Johnny's lives a living hell in different ways. But the writers trust its audience enough to know that he hasn't returned to play nice and peacefully co-exist with Johnny.

Something's up, and this season will at least partially be about this disgraced mentor slithering back into his life when he least needs him. And we get this, because for all the misery the original Cobra Kai brought Johnny as a kid, it still holds for him a soft spot in that it provided an escape from his miserable home life. Kreese knows that all too well, pushing the right nostalgia buttons in him to get his foot back in the door. Johnny may resent him, but still can't help but seek his ex-mentor's approval.

Just as compelling is Johnny's students' reactions to Kreese, whose return becomes the driving force behind much of this season's drama, allowing well-traveled character actor Kove to give a different, more nuanced take of his classic, but previously somewhat one-dimensional role. It isn't long before his and Johnnny's dueling philosophies about where Cobra Kai's been and where it should go start to clash, with their students caught in the middle. And no one seems more conflicted than Miguel, whose emerging mean streak at the end of last season caught everyone, especially Robby and Daniel, off guard. But it also took Johnny by surprise, reminding him what Cobra Kai, at its most brutal, really means, and whether that's a road he ever wants to travel down again.

Some of Zabka's very best scenes again revolve around Johnny simultaneously trying to both relive and escape his past, coming to terms with his mistakes and attempting to be "the bigger man" by not getting sucked back into his feud with Daniel. Whether that's reuniting with his original Cobra teammates Bobby, Tommy and Jimmy (actors Ron Thomas, Rob Garrison and Tony O'Dell reprising their roles) for an emotional joyride, figuring out how to use a laptop or a dating app, or having a really awkward dinner with Daniel and Amanda, Johnny's impossible to dislike because we hold out hope he'll eventually get his act together. For the show's sake, it's probably the last thing we should want, but can't help ourselves because Zabka's so good at making us root for his redemption.      

Miyagi-do's Robby, Sam and Daniel
While not on as tumultuous a journey as Johnny, Daniel's determination to get Miyagi-do off the ground is as much planted in his fear of failing his late mentor as it is sticking it to his longtime rival. It's ironic that in trying so hard to live up to the Miyagi legacy, Daniel's training scenes with daughter Sam and temporary houseguest Robby end up being the most repetitive of the season until an influx of new recruits come in and join them,and Cobra Kai takes the feud to a whole new level of personal.

That there's more at stake with Sam and Robby's personal relationship than in Daniel's quest to carry on Miyagi's teachings is kind of the point since it's through his connection to the Larussos that Robby's able to momentarily shed his badboy reputation as Johnny's son. His Cobra Kai nemesis, Miguel, appears to also be on the edge of redemption until Tory enters the picture, tempting him in the worst of ways with a mean streak of her own.That we care as much about this high school rivalry as much as the one still raging between the two adult characters speaks to the writing and performances from Maridueña, Buchanan, Mouser and series newcomer, Peyton List. Really, the feuds become one in the same.

Tory and Sam's climactic face off in Ep. 2.10, ("No Mercy"')
Although Johnny resists Kreese's desire to bring merciless vengeance back to the dojo he founded, his reappearance gives Daniel another reason for justifying his contempt for all things Johnny Lawrence. And after undergoing one of the more drastic transformations last season, Jacob Bertrand's Hawk plays an even bigger role this time around, soon embodying Kreese's ruthless philosophies by becoming the very thing that forced him to adopt this persona, going so far as to turn on his closest friend (despite Demetri's crippling neurosis being the season's only grating element).

Daniel vs. Johnny. Miguel vs. Robby. Sam vs. Tory. Hawk vs. Demetri. Johnny vs. Kreese. Cobra Kai vs. Miyagi-do. All these feuds simmer throughout the season, before finally exploding in a school-set brawl that can best be described as the show's finest 20 minutes, both in terms of storytelling and martial arts choreography, ending with a shocking event that brings these characters the closest they've come to full-on tragedy. Shaking the show's foundation, it's a culminating moment that can be traced to the previous nineteen episodes, while also working as a logical fallout to last season's closer, setting the table perfectly for Season 3.

Johnny at a crossroads
The defining event finds Johnny back at perhaps an even darker, sadder place than when he was initially reintroduced, opening up a whole new set of possibilities for where his feud with Daniel could go, or even whether it should continue. While hints have been dropped since the beginning, the writers also lean even further into teasing a potential return many probably didn't think was possible when this story began, or rather began again, for these characters. It's basically the final piece of the puzzle fans have been clamoring for. And now that the timing feels completely right for this exciting development, there's good reason to believe it will be handled as expertly as everything else. It's a deserved show of faith for a series that's proven how little interest it has in merely delivering a glorified reunion.      

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