May 18, 2018

The Tragedy and Comedy of Cobra Kai Episodes 1-4

Posted by Adam Graham in : Entertainment

No, I have not binged all of Cobra Kai. I don’t actually binge. Not judging, just not my thing. I prefer serializing and experiencing a story an episode at a time over several days because once it’s gone, it’s gone.

So my thoughts on Episodes 1-4 of the Karate Kid sequel series. It’s better than it probably deserves to be. The idea of picking up the story of the Karate Kid more than thirty years after the movie sounds like a joke for a  creative community that seems to always going back to some old hat rather than producing anything new itself.

The genius of Cobra Kai is that it takes advantage of the fact that we’re already invested in these characters to go ahead and tell a story centered around them.

Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) is past fifty but is really stuck in the 1980s in so many ways. He drives the same car he had in High School (which is still a cool ride,) listens to 1980s music, watches 1980s movies, and has the same social attitudes he had as a teenager in the 1980s. In many ways, Johnny’s aggressive eightiesness is what makes the show funny.

Yet, it also makes Johnny tragic. He’s grown older but he hasn’t really grown up. Essentially, he’s a very old high school senior, with self-destructive behavior that hurts himself and others. He has a son he abandoned from the time he was born. The kid has gone wrong and Johnny wants to step in and set him straight, but it’s too late. Johnny’s kid and his mom have given up on him.


So has his step-father (Ed Asner) who after Johnny’s latest scrape with the law, writes him a check to be done with Johnny. He had spent so many years bailing Johnny out of one scrape after another because of his promise to Johnny’s mother. Yet, when a man reaches his late eighties, he shouldn’t have to spend the last years of his life taking care of a fifty-year-old teenager.

Daniel Larusso is the focal point of Johnny’s anger. He obsesses over the final fight. He was robbed. That last kick was illegal.  Daniel is successful and Johnny isn’t and Johnny’s conclusion was that Daniel LaRusso ruined his life. Of course, this is garbage. At the end of the tournament, Johnny had two All-Valley Championships, plus a Second place finish which is a respectable career. He came from an upper class family and should have been able to succeed, but he didn’t.

There may be reasons for it. The competition in the first Karate Kid ended with Johnny handing Daniel the trophy and informing him he was alright. Because, that would be the sensible thing to do. However, Karate Kid II tells us that his sensei Kreese went nuts and kicked Johnny off the team and told him he was “nothing and a loser.” In anger, Johnny barked back with high school with that Kreese was a loser, and then Kreese would have killed him if Mister Miyagi hadn’t stepped in.

In the original trilogy, this showed how Kreese lost the respect of his students, setting up the ludicrous events of Karate Kid III.  Yet, Cobra Kai challenges us to look at it in a different way. Johnny came from a wealthy family but one without his natural father present. Karate was Johnny’s area of success and Kreese was his mentor and father figure. The moment in the parking lot was devastating and Johnny dealt with it in the most unhealthy ways possible.

So far, Johnny has been pushed by the likable and guileless Miguel, a young man without a father in his life. Johnny has already grown four episodes in. In the first episode, Johnny beat up a group of bullies attacking Miguel (mainly because they touched his car) and when Miguel came and asked him to train him, the ex-Bully advised Miguel to try not to be so annoying. Yet, as the series has gone on, the two have begun to bond and Johnny really is beginning to care for him. In some ways, he sees Miguel as a way to make up for his failed relationship with his own son.

For Daniel, life is good. The kid who had to push his mom’s crappy car to avoid it breaking down owns his own car lot, and it’s a nice place with good service and charges good prices, with happy employees.  He’s got a nice house and a wife and two kids.  It’s an idyllic life.  Daniel is a pretty nice, easy-going guy. When Johnny is hit and major damage is done to his car at the start of the series, Daniel has his body guys fix it at no charge and assures Johnny he doesn’t blame him for what happened.

Yet Daniel is plagued by the past in his own way. He’s insecure, as the hero of three martial arts films might be. The very presence of the Cobra Kai dojo alarms him. When a competitor creates a cheezy ad to challenge Daniel’s own bit of cheese, Daniel goes down to the dealership of his competitor and gives him what for. Daniel has enjoyed decades of prosperity and well-being, but you get the sense that he thinks he’s never more than a step away from being that poor bullied kid from Jersey.

After their heated confrontation at the Cobra Kai dojo, Johnny sees that he can get tDaniel’s skin and that’s confirmed at Daniel’s daughter’s high school dance when Daniel confronts him for putting up Cobra Kai posters during the dance. There’s a brief smile on Johnny’s face every time he gets under Daniel’s skin.

Both men are in risky places and have emotional baggage to deal with. (Thoough I think Daniel’s got a carry on bag and Johnny’s got a full set of luggage at this point.) It’s interesting stuff because we’re gaining insight into who these men have become.

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