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 **
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.