Monday, January 11, 2021

Cobra Kai (Season 3)

Creators: Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg
Starring: Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Courtney Henggeler, Xolo Maridueña, Tanner Buchanan, Mary Mouser, Jacob Bertrand, Peyton List, Gianni DeCenzo, Martin Kove, Vanessa Rubio, Diora Baird, Ed Asner, Dan Ahdoot, Bret Ernst, Ken Davitian, Yugi Okumoto, Tamlyn Tomita, Traci Toguchi,
Barrett Carnahan, Terry Serpico, Jesse Kove
Original Airdate: 2021  

**The Following Review Contains Major Spoilers For The Third Season Of Cobra Kai **

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Of the many elements The Karate Kid sequel series, Cobra Kai, has executed with creative perfection over its two seasons, the most glaring is that it's taken two iconic characters from a wildly successful movie made over thirty years ago and enhanced them. By deepening an iconic rivalry into something even more relatable, the show's freed from having to entirely rely on nostalgia as a storytelling crutch like so many failed reboots before it. Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) are two fundamentally flawed characters whose lives have been framed and steered by what happened in high school, triggering both anytime they even share the same air space. 

While they've had fleeting moments of peaceful co-existence since Johnny's resurrection of the Cobra Kai dojo prompted Daniel to open his competing Miyagi-Do, their feud's fully spilled over into the All Valley community, with disastrous consequences. And in starting essentially from scratch with a new generation of teen characters, the show's other gigantic achievement is in getting us to care as much, if not more, about them as we do this legendary pair of dueling middle-aged senseis. 

If Johnny's purpose has been to correct the mistakes he's made as a person and father since high school, Daniel's focus has revolved around honoring the teachings of his late mentor Mr. Miyagi into his personal and professional life. Of course, the more he gets sucked into this rivalry the harder that becomes, reminding us that if there's one thing every fan thought was impossible, it was doing this series without the late Pat Morita's presence as Mr. Miyagi. And they don't, since hardly a minute goes by where he doesn't still feel like an integral part of the proceedings. These ten episodes do the best job thus far incorporating him in, not only with some really meaningful call-backs and flashbacks, but actual plot points that adapt his philosophies into action.

Any concerns the series would be lose steam with its jump from YouTube to Netflix or the creative well would start to run dry are unfounded as we're treated to the return of a major character that couldn't be handled any better, exceeding all expectations of how she would slide back into this story, no matter how briefly. And if the two previous season finale karate battles helped define its characters, we get a final episode here that simultaneously juggles three such sequences, including one that literally feels thirty years in the making.

As the fallout from the high school fight continues to reverberate through the Valley, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña,) lies in the ICU facing the prospect he may never walk again, much less compete. Johnny's estranged son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) is on the run, facing the prospect he could face charges for the attack, as both Johnny and Daniel reluctantly team up to find him, strongly disagreeing on the methods they'll use to do it. 

With a returning John Kreese (Martin Kove) having betrayed Johnny and taken ownership of the Cobra Kai dojo and Miguel's mother Carmen (Vanessa Rubio) blaming him for the accident, Johnny's spiraling again. Only a possible reconciliation with his and Daniel's ex-girlfriend Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) provides him with some semblance of a second chance as he helps Miguel recuperate.

Daniel's also struggling since Miyagi-Do's role in the fight has shattered his upstanding reputation, sinking sales at the car dealership. As he and wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) formulate a plan to save the business, daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) struggles with panic attacks in the wake of Miguel's fall and attack at the hands of badass Cobra Kai queen Tory (Peyton List), whose school expulsion and family problems have temporarily sidelined her. 

Assembling a more ruthless group than ever before, led by an angry Hawk (Jacob Bertrand), Sensei Kreese wants to extract revenge on Miyagi-Do, even as we learn about the traumatic life event that turned the hardened karate instructor into this monster. Now, Johnny and Daniel may have to put their differences aside long enough to deal with him while Miguel inches closer to recovery, only to return to a Cobra Kai that's channeling its bloodthirsty roots of decades past. The battle for the very soul of the Valley is on, and everyone's going to have to pick a side. 

There's a reshuffling of the deck, with Miguel's injury essentially ostracizing Johnny from everything and everyone, leaving him to contemplate the role he may have unintentionally played in encouraging the fight that saw his own son nearly killing the student he coached to the championship trophy. But his biggest mistake was letting let Sensei Kreese back into the Cobra Kai fold, somehow thinking things would be different, resulting in him again getting cruelly manipulated by the only father he's really ever known.

The relationship between Johnny and Miguel that's always been at the series' core is now strained, but undergoing repairs, with the rebellious sensei employing a grab bag of unconventional techniques to literally get him back on his feet. It calls back to some of their best training scenes from the first season, while providing some hilarious moments that effectively play off Johnny being stuck in the past. 

When the show was first announced, initial worries the material would be treated as merely a comedic spoof of the films proved completely unfounded as it ended up finding just the right dramedic mix. But by far the the most effective ongoing gag is Johnny being frozen in the '80s because it's not only good comedy, but completely true to the character. 

If the writers are ever in danger of veering into Encino Man territory with this, Zabka's smooth timing conquers all, whether Johnny's dishing out some "tough love" by setting Miguel's shoelace ablaze to get him walking again or making painfully dated Vanna White references. And while his inability to understand the concept of public parks or any social norms might raise eyebrows, nothing tops his attempts this season to use social media.

Despite Johnny steadily growing in this reluctant mentoring role, the writers and Zabka have excelled at making sure he's still very much the Johnny we knew, resisting the urge to have him go "soft," with those aforentioned scenes and occasionally boreish behavior reinforcing that. Mistakenly putting his trust in Kreese again may have put him on the outs with Robby, Miguel, the Larusso's and basically the entire community, but as the season progresses it becomes clear he's not ready to throw in the towel just yet. 

The past also catches up with Daniel when an unexpected business trip to Japan to save the dealership reunites him with former girlfriend Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) and arch nemesis Chozen (Yugi Okumoto) in a far different and more commercialized Okinawa than he remembers having visited with Miyagi as a teen (Ep. 3.4, "The Right Path"). While creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg haven't shied away from diving into the film mythology, this is their biggest swing yet, if only because The Karate Kid Part II was always viewed as paling in comparison to its more respected predecessor. But hindsight has revealed it to be an undervalued chapter that actually did a lot right, delivering some memorable franchise moments. And since this isn't nostalgia for the mere sake of it, Daniel's scenes with Kumiko dovetail into his current situation, while continuing to emphasize Miyagi's lifelong impact on him. 

For those who do hold the sequel in high regard, his interaction with Chozen is even more satisfying, with Okumoto returning to the role a far better actor, and with a more complicated, intriguing character to play. Conveying a mix of menace and calm, he gives us more than what we came for, before the script is flipped and we also end up getting something else entirely. It's one of the season's many reunions that challenges Daniel, as many of his actions and decisions upon returning home can be traced to what occurs in the episode. 

If ever a character seemed immune to change or growth, it's the sadistic John Kreese, whose origin story is explored in considerable detail. There's always a level of creative risk when incorporating flashbacks that could potentially alter our perceptions of already established figures or overexplain actions better left to viewers' imaginations. The writers successfully walked this line in the first season in showing glimpses of Johnny's troubled childhood in pre-Karate Kid scenes and again last season with flashes of Kreese's life before he returned. 

Now with a full 1960's Vietnam subplot, they're able to go all in, showing how he came to be and what exactly led to his founding of Cobra Kai. But anyone understandably ready to reject any attempt at "humanizing" him or creating empathy that could suck the venom out of his villainy can breathe a sigh of relief since that's not at all what's done here. Seeing the show tackle a supporting story like this in its own action-adventure style is kind of thrilling, with end result being a presentation of Kreese completely in line with our previous perceptions, yet surprising at the same time. 

Focusing on the volatile relationship between a young Kreese (Barrett Carnahan) and his commanding officer, Captain Turner (a menacing Terry Serpico), it encapsulates why the series is so successful by adding layers to stories and characters without detracting from what we already knew. The desire to understand "why" with Kreese was already there from the beginning, but now we can appreciate Martin Kove's work even more knowing that the writing has caught up to his performance, investing him with substantially more depth than the movies did. 

If Kreese's return to prominence stoked the flames of a dojo feud that was already boiling over after last season's incident, Cobra Kai's now emerged as something more closely resembling a cult for disaffected youths. If there's any criticism to be made of the season it would be that the crimes and assaults committed would result not only serious jail time for all involved, but some kind of charges against the damaged vet. Of course, doing that would damper the escapism of a story that actually does an entertaining job showing how he pulls the wool over the community's eyes, convincing them he's a pillar of society while Johnny and Daniel fume. 

The one character who does serve jail time, Robby, has a really rough go of it, having to not only fight for his survival, but reckon that what he did to Miguel may qualify him as even more like his father than he feared. And we all know Johnny's diabolical former sensei won't waste any time exploiting that rift. It might be Hawk who emerges as the true second coming of Johnny, a dangerous bully whose betrayal of former best friend Demetri (Gianni DeCenzo) has been one of the more underappreciated long-term arcs in the series. It's taken to a whole new level here, even as Hawk shows his first subtle signs of doubt about the direction Cobra Kai's taking. 

Showing less hesitation is Tory, whose troubled home life and anger over Miguel results in the most intriguing Sam LaRusso storyline yet, as she struggles to mentally rebound from last season's attack. And since Peyton List is so ferocious as Tory, it's even easier to understand Sam's paralyzing fear at the mere thought or sight of this girl. Theres' no question it's leading to a big showdown between the two, with Sam having to dig down deep to overcome her crippling anxiety. 

After a clever early episode fake-out, the moment everyone's been waiting for since Ali acceptied Johnny's friend request in last season's cliffhanger finally comes to fruition with Academy Award-nominated actress and 80's movie icon Elisabeth Shue's highly anticipated return to the franchise (Ep. 3.9, "Feel The Night"). While we suspected the possibility, it was far from a lock considering how well they kept her appearance a secret. But does it ever deliver, undoubtedly causing diehards like to jump out of their seats when she reenters the picture some thirty plus years later to discover the more things change, the more they don't. Our first instinct is to want to see her and Johnny back together, and while I'm not sure that wish changes after the two-episode arc, the writers manage to again subvert expectations by giving her a more important purpose. 

The Johnny and recently separated Dr. Ali reunion we've been clamoring for ends up being much more than a mere tease, with them basically picking up where they left off, until Daniel squeezes his way back in (Ep. 3.10,"December 19"). The country club Christmas party scenes that bring the three together for the first time in over three decades just might stand as the best work the series has done thus far, with both guys instantly reverting back to their high school selves in her presence, as if they weren't already halfway there anyway. 

Shue's terrific as a wiser, more experienced Ali, effortlessly sensible and likable in these scenes as the only adult in the room. Well, besides Amanda. who also attempts to bring Johnny and Daniel back to reality (between this and that great Kreese confrontation, this is Henggeler's best season as Amanda).  Lesser writing would have Daniel's wife consumed with jealousy or attempted to manufacture another triangle of some sort that will threaten their marriage, but the show's too smart for that. They both tease and torture both guys about it instead, forcing them to come to realization that they'll always be more alike than different, even if both are too stubborn to admit it. 

Recognizing that Johnny needs to "move on" and the writers are painted into a corner with Shue's limited availability, I'm still not quite sold on his relationship with Carmen. There's a lot work left to do there and if it seems impossible for diehards to endorse him ending up with anyone other than Ali, that's because it is. Still, they made the right decision under the circumstances so if this does ends up being a one-off and we never see her again (please, no!) credit the show for still overdelivering. Waiting the two seasons to bring her in paid off big, maximizing the impact of a return that couldn't have possibly gone any better.

Thanks to Ali, Johnny and Daniel now know exactly what they need to do, if only their egos can allow it. An alliance of some sort is what we've been building toward since this started, but Kreese's stranglehold has forced it, with Cobra Kai's actions putting the community on high alert and even threatening the continuation of the All Valley Karate tournament. A wild Christmas brawl to settle the score between Miyagi-Do, Cobra Kai and Johnny's fledgling Eagle Fan faction rivals last season's school fight, forcing Sam to face her fears, Miguel to test his health and Hawk to make a choice. But its Kreese's attempted poisoning of Robby's mind that ends up being a bridge too far for Johnny.

The sight of Daniel saving Johnny is comparable to what Star Wars fans experienced in the gasp-inducing final minutes of The Mandalorian's second season in that it's this franchise's finest hour in many years, bringing everything back around while still pushing the characters forward. Having the two rivals finally on the same side does feel right for the story at this point, but also well-earned since all the pieces were so carefully placed to get them there. Brilliantly juxtaposing this with the culmination of the Vietnam story puts viewers in the awkwardly thrilling position of seeing Kreese through two different lenses, which are ultimately one in the same. 

With his reckoning in Vietnam, a young Kreese lights a life-altering fuse that rots his soul, causing him to continuously replay that defining event under far different circumstances. In a way it explains everything, while laying the groundwork for the return of another familar character that indicates his war with Johnny and Daniel is far from over. The Karate Kid fans will need to pinch themselves that they're getting all this, but still may need a flowchart handy to track all the turns, betrayals, and shifts in allegiances that take place, all of which feel completely organic to the "Myagi-verse" that's emerged from within this series. While it's becoming repetitive to heap piles praise on each season before the next tops it, Cobra Kai's momentum not only shows no signs of slowing, it may just be getting started.

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