The fact Cobra Kai ever worked is a surprise; that its smart, touching, funny third season works arguably better than ever is a near-miracle.
This review of Cobra Kai Season 3 contains some very minor spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous season by clicking these words.
If we’re being honest, Cobra Kai was a terrible idea. It never should have worked. It wanted to revitalize a pop-cultural monolith that had lain dormant since the ‘80s, using the same actors who were now in middle-age, and it wanted to focus in large part on the first film’s totally depth-averse villain, Johnny Lawrence. Oh, and it was also going to air on YouTube. That’s a recipe for disaster. It should have been terrible.
And yet it was brilliant. The first season ended up being an exceedingly smart celebration of The Karate Kid’s cultural impact while also being a very funny, very engaging story in its own right; a show not about reliving the past but building a future atop it – or at least trying to. Warring karate sensei’s Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) may have grown older, but they hadn’t necessarily grown up. This time, though, it was the next generation of karate students, their sons and daughters and their friends, whose coming-of-age tales were shaped in the context of their petty rivalry. A just-as-good second season was about recognizing the implications that this decades-old feud had for these kids, many of whom only felt a sense of belonging within their sensei’s long shadow. It amounted to an implausible but dramatically necessary high-school brawl between Daniel’s Miyagi-Do and Johnny’s Cobra Kai which left Johnny’s protégé and best friend Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) comatose after having been kicked off a balcony by Johnny’s son Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan).
Cobra Kai Season 3 picks up in the immediate aftermath of Miguel’s hospitalization, with karate being used as a scapegoat in the Valley and both Daniel and Johnny paying the professional and personal prices for their involvement. Daniel’s car dealership – with its karate-themed marketing – is going under, and Johnny has retreated once again to the bottle while his former sensei Kreese (Martin Kove) continues to harden his students into mean-spirited, dangerous bullies. Some soul-searching is necessary. For Daniel that includes returning to Mr. Miyagi’s hometown in Okinawa for various The Karate Kid Part II cameos, while Johnny becomes very personally invested in Miguel’s physical rehabilitation after he wakes up from his coma unable to use his legs. Both men are on a collision course, but for once not with each other – these ten episodes are in large part about how they’re not that different after all, and indeed have a common enemy.
Of course, “enemy” in this show is a relative term. It initially focused on Johnny to show that even a one-note bad guy has much more to them than a red leather jacket and a bandana. He was still coarse and a little toxic in adulthood, but he was also fundamentally decent, buckled by the weight of his failures – especially a disastrous relationship with his son – and determined to do right by Miguel. He wasn’t strictly the “hero”, but he was certainly no longer the “villain”, even though both are concepts that Cobra Kai consistently argues are meaningless.
That nuance is where the show has always excelled. It’s why it works so well as a spin-off from The Karate Kid, too, since the novelty of finding out what these old, beloved characters are doing now also means unpacking how the past has defined them. Nostalgia is central to the appeal of Cobra Kai, but not in a facile way; like Rocky Balboa or the two Creed films, it gives the sense of a world that continues to turn even while we’re not watching it. When Daniel and Johnny run into people from their past, one of the first things they realize is how different they are; how much things have changed, and how little they probably understood about each other in the first place.
This is why Cobra Kai Season 3 spends so much time humanizing characters like Kreese – with all the flashbacks to his past, you could easily say this season is his more than anyone else’s – and his students Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) or Tory (Peyton List). It isn’t just an attempt to excuse their behavior, but to give them real depth, and inform their relationships with others. Hawk and former best pal Demitri (Gianni Decenzo) have a season-long storyline, as do Tory and Sam LaRusso (Mary Mouser), who is still experiencing PTSD after the school brawl and worries she might never be able to defend herself again. These are formulaic dynamics, but they’re not simplistic – in fact, the way that various divided loyalties, romantic urges, rivalries, and friendships intersect is admirably complex, spanning three generations and now three seasons of build-up and development.
The show is also smart enough to know when to subvert formula, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way – Miguel playing sensei to Johnny when his Luddite ways and arrested development threaten his relationships – or to make a point, such as when Daniel runs into an old rival and learns more from him in one episode than he has in three full seasons of squabbling with Johnny. Sometimes a change in perspective is important, and Cobra Kai always tries to offer as many as possible. This is clever, effective storytelling, something the show has always had a facility for, which is why it works so well in spite of how much it probably shouldn’t. It only leverages nostalgia – for both the franchise and peppy ‘80s Americana in general – when it serves the story being told, which is not so much about Daniel and Johnny anymore but about how much their philosophies and experiences can make a difference to others.
Luckily, we’ll get plenty of time to see how that works out since despite having a strong emotional payoff Cobra Kai Season 3 exists in large part to set up the already-confirmed fourth season, which fans will no doubt be eager to see after an impactful finale leads not to a cliffhanger but a brilliant moment of “I knew it!” catharsis for long-time fans. If the next outing is as much old-fashioned fun as this one, I say bring it on.