‘Cobra Kai’: bringing karate back

A lesson on letting go of bias, high school bullying and becoming an adult

Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.

While I was not alive during the 1980s, ’80s movies were still constantly watched in my house. Because of this, I grew up as a huge fan of such movies, including “The Karate Kid.”

So as an ’80s movies fan, I for one was very excited a few years ago when I heard about the “Karate Kid” reboot series in the works called “Cobra Kai.” Originally produced on the YouTube streaming service YouTube Red, I was disappointed that I would not be able to actually watch it, not having that streaming service.

Just recently YouTube Red cancelled “Cobra Kai” and Netflix picked it up, putting both of the first two seasons on Netflix last week and already promising a third for 2021. I do not think I have ever waited so long to be able to watch a show; and I was not disappointed.

“Cobra Kai” begins by focusing on Johnny Lawrence, otherwise known as the bully from the original “Karate Kid” who basically tortured Danny Larusso when he moved to town, and who Danny eventually ended up beating in the All Valley Finals karate tournament at the end of the movie. The audience gets to see Lawrence as an adult, an alcoholic maintenance man who goes around fixing people’s houses.

Lawrence gets fired from his maintenance job just as a new family moves into his neighborhood and he meets their kid, Miguel Diaz — whom audience members, if they were anything like me, absolutely fell in love with as soon as he walked onto screen.

This is the first “Karate Kid” parallel that appears in the show, leading up to others that appear throughout both seasons. Miguel, being the new kid with no friends, is immediately bullied and labelled, such as it goes in high school. Unlike the other kids who he befriends, though, Miguel does not take the bullying lying down, similar to one Danny Larusso in the original film. Also similar to Danny, this results in Miguel ending up in a few fights, which are basically beatdowns at the beginning, including one at the local supermarket witnessed by Johnny Lawrence.

Lawrence saves Miguel from the group of bullies, similar to how Johnny was taken down by Mr. Miyagi back in the 80s when Johnny did it to Danny. Miguel asks Johnny to teach him karate, which at first Johnny refuses to do. Eventually he gives in and ends up reopening his old karate team, Cobra Kai. For a while Miguel is his only student until Miguel takes down the same bullies who attacked him — in the lunchroom for everyone to see and to film in a video that goes viral. Suddenly, tons of kids want to be a part of Cobra Kai : some we have been introduced to because of their friendships with Miguel, and some that we have not been introduced to.

And then there are a few other kids who are not a part of Cobra Kai that come into play, one of those being Sam Larusso, Danny Larusso’s daughter.

Sam is originally introduced as one of the popular girls, but it is revealed that she was not always one of them and does not always agree with what the popular kids do. She is introduced to Miguel during his fight in the lunchroom, as she was dating one of the bullies that was beating up Miguel, and Miguel was defending her in the lunchroom after her breakup with said bully. The two become friends, and eventually go out on a date to a local miniature golf course.

If I am being honest, Sam and Miguel were my favorite pairing on the show, even though they do not last for even a whole season. This is where Robby Keene comes in.

We are introduced to Robby as Johnny’s son when Johnny gets a call from Robby’s school telling him that Robby had been caught with drugs. In the beginning, Robby runs around with a bad crowd stealing from people, and the audience learns that his home life is not good. Not only does he not live with Johnny, but his mother is constantly between boyfriends or out drinking trying to hook up with rich guys to help pay the rent. Robby is left to his own devices, which includes dropping out of school.

Eventually Robby’s crew plans on stealing from Larusso Auto, the car company owned by Danny and his wife. Robby takes a job there to find the ins and outs of the place and is also eventually introduced to Danny himself. In a classic ‘new guy’ prank, some of the people who have been working at the company for a long time convince Robby to go to Danny’s house at night and deliver a top secret report, which turns out to be a magazine. Instead of blaming him, Danny shows Robby around his karate dojo in the backyard and tells him to stop listening to the people at work that keep pulling pranks on him.

Robby returns to work to find that things get better with the help of Danny and his wife, so much so that Robby no longer wants to rob the place and refuses to let his old friends in when they come. When his friends try to beat him up for it, he makes sure they are seen by security cameras.

Robby returns to Danny, who begins teaching him karate, like he learned back in the original movie, and like he used to teach Sam when she was younger. This results in Robby and Sam meeting and Robby being around the Larusso house most of the time.

This brings it back to Miguel . When Sam is hesitant to tell her family about dating Miguel due to his involvement in Cobra Kai, and her father still being against everything to do with Cobra Kai, even all these years later, Miguel takes it on himself to go over and introduce himself. However, he is stopped when he sneaks in the back and finds Robby sitting at the table with the family, right next to Sam. Misinterpreting the situation, Miguel gets mad and leaves.

Later at a party, Miguel, still upset and thinking that Sam was lying to him, starts drinking, even though his friends tell him not to, as most of them are only around 15 years old. When Sam arrives with Robby, a now-drunk Miguel tries to throw a punch at him and ends up hitting Sam instead. Needless to say, the two of them did not last much longer after that.

Not long after, Danny finds out that he has been teaching karate to Johnny’s kid, and kicks Robby out, right before the All Valley Tournament, the same one that he himself won back when he was a teenager.

Robby ends up entering the tournament on his own, and after Johnny gets Cobra Kai able to enter the tournament as well, ends up going against Miguel. In a previous fight, Robby is injured and Miguel chooses to use that to his advantage, resulting in him winning, even though it was through bad fighting.

When Johnny confronts him about it later, Miguel reminds him of the Cobra Kai motto as it used to be in “Karate Kid” and still is when Johnny opens the dojo back up. Strike first, strike hard, no mercy. Johnny realizes how much he relied on this motto when he was younger and how much it changed him into someone he did not want to be, and he decides then to teach his students a better way, one where mercy is allowed sometimes, which then brings us to season two.

Season two begins with Danny officially opening his own karate dojo, Miyagi-Do, and teaching Robby once again. Sam finally decides to return to karate as well, earning Miyagi-Do two students, meaning Robby and Sam get to hang out with each other a lot, resulting in the two of them eventually getting together. Dating Robby also means that Sam finally learns about how terrible Robby’s home life actually is, and Robby moves in with the Larusso’s.

On the other hand, Cobra Kai, after winning the All Valley, gets a surge of publicity and a surge of new students wanting to join, including a girl named Tory, who by the end of the season was my very least favorite character.

Tory meets Miguel and his friends and begins hanging out with them after joining Cobra Kai. Miguel, who is still not completely over Sam, logically as it has not actually been that long and because he knows it was his fault, is still trying to fix things with Sam. Tory tells him not to, as it makes him look desperate. Instead Tory brings Miguel to an abandoned playground, and the two of them end up dating.

Granted, at the beginning I thought Tory was going to be a good character and help Miguel to be happy, and then Sam and Robby would be happy and then everything would be fine. But things just go downhill from there.

Even while Johnny tries to teach his kids a new way of fighting where mercy is a virtue, some of his kids still refuse to believe that, including Tory and Hawk, whose original name was Eli, and who is another of my least favorite characters. This is helped along by the reappearance of Johnny’s old sensei, Kreese, whom everyone thought was dead. Despite Johnny trying to teach his kids a better way to fight, Kreese continues to teach the kids the things that he used to teach Johnny behind his back, and the only one who stops to think about the things that Kreese teaches is Miguel.

Because of Kreese, some of Johnny’s students, especially Hawk, continue on the path of ‘no mercy,’ and do things like become bullies themselves, despite having been bullied in the past, and also destroying Danny’s dojo.

Miguel, while still trying to fix things with Sam, also tries to help fix what happened to Miyagi-Do by bringing back Mr. Miyagi’s medal of honor, which was stolen by Hawk. This and the fact that Danny and Johnny manage to call a truce would make one think that things would start to get better.

But they do not. The kids continue fighting, sometimes in the middle of malls, and sometimes at school or at roller rinks. Because Tory knows that Miguel is still not over Sam, she chooses to take on Sam most of the time, resulting in Sam getting overly drunk at a party that one of her friends throws to try and call a truce between the dojos. An overly drunk Sam ends up kissing Miguel, watched by Tory, though neither of them knew it at the time. Not knowing what else to do and not wanting Sam’s parents to see her drunk, Robby and Sam end up turning to Johnny and staying the night at his house, resulting in Danny attacking Johnny in his house and bringing an end to the truce.

All of this together leads up to the season two finale, which I am still internally screaming about. The first day of school comes, and over the loudspeaker Tory announces that she knows that Sam kissed Miguel and that she was coming for her. The two girls end up fighting in the hallway, which Robby and Miguel both try to stop. But when Miguel arrives and sees Robby pushing Tory away, he ends up attacking Robby and the Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do kids end up in a giant fight in the hallways that not even the teachers can break up. This fight spreads all over the school, with kids on both sides, as both dojos have grown by now, pairing off in fights with those that they had problems with throughout the season.

The fight brings Miguel and Robby to the top of the stairs, with Miguel pinning Robby to the floor. The audience gets a voice-over of Johnny in Miguel’s head reminding him that sometimes it is okay to show mercy, and Miguel lets Robby go, backing up and apologizes. Robby kicks out at Miguel and ends up kicking him backwards over the railing and sending him crashing to the stairs below, finally ending the big fight as everyone rushes to Miguel, and Robby, horrified with what he’s done, runs away.

The season ends with the kids in the hospital with their parents and with the question of whether or not Miguel is going to live.

Johnny blames himself for ever teaching Miguel how to fight, and remembering moments that he and Miguel have had together, in which the audience is led to see that he regards as another son, one that he did not mess up his relationship with until that moment.

It has been a very long time since I have found a show that makes me gasp out loud and throw my hand over my mouth or constantly yell at the screen, but all of those things happened while I watched “Cobra Kai.”

And while “Cobra Kai” remained an obviously fictional story throughout especially in scenes such as the last big fight in the school, a lot of times it had what I considered to be a rather dark and real theme. Other times it had scenes that had me dying of laughter on my bed. These scenes did not seem like they should fit with the show, and yet they somehow did. The one that stands out the most to me is when Johnny is getting his kids to help him make a promotional video for the dojo and tells them to put “hashbrown Cobra Kai” behind it and to “send it to the internet.” Scenes like this floated throughout the show, reminding the audience that this was a show about high school kids and that they were still basically kids, even though they were dealing with a lot of adult things.

Even more important than that, though, are the few lessons that I caught along the way while watching this show. The first one of those was that often those who were bullied end up becoming the bullies themselves, as shown through characters like Hawk. The other two that I picked up on were sort of intertwined and seemed to me to be the biggest lessons that this show was trying to get people to learn. More than anything, I thought this show had a lesson on the fact that as children we create certain biases, such as the bias that Danny forms when he is younger against Cobra Kai, and why he is still so against it in this show, even though it is different. But the most important lesson I think it shows is that everyone can change.

Growing up with the “Karate Kid,” I always saw Johnny as just the big bully who deserved to be defeated. But after watching “Cobra Kai,” I saw Johnny as an actual human with flaws and also good parts, and as someone whose life was a disaster afterwards, but who also made the choice to change and to teach kids like Miguel to be better than him. That right there is what I loved the most about this show.

“Cobra Kai” has just given me another reason to wish 2021 would hurry up and get here.