Cobra Kai Season 4 might sag in the middle, but it builds to a dynamite finale that suggests a more promising future for the show than ever.
This review of Cobra Kai Season 4 is spoiler-free.
Cobra Kai never dies, or so the mantra goes, and nobody seems to be taking that catchphrase more seriously than Netflix. What began as a surprise hit for a fledgling platform – the first two seasons were exclusive to YouTube Premium – became a prized acquisition in the Streaming Wars, and it doesn’t seem like we’ve seen our last Annual All-Valley Under-18 Karate Championship. Cobra Kai Season 4 drops on the last day of 2021, but it’s far from the last day for the show, which caps off an impressive new season with a dynamite finale that delivers one legitimate surprise after another, kicking down all kinds of doors for an already-confirmed fifth season and presumably as many more after that as Netflix would like. Hopefully, that’s plenty, since against all odds Cobra Kai just keeps getting better.
That isn’t to say that the latest season is perfect. But it’s a careful character-building exercise that, even in its saggiest moments, delves deep into its central rivalries, relationships, and themes. It takes the archetypes of innumerable teen dramas and filters them through the framework of a karate tournament, but it relishes in subverting expectations at every turn. Virtually nothing in this season happens the way you expect, and even the things that seem to inevitably course-correct before long. You’d never predict a single tournament winner, plot turn, or character swerve before it happens, but it’s testament to the show’s underrated writing, both as a comedy and as a drama, that everything that happens seems to make perfect sense when you look back on it after the dust clears.
We pick up, predictably, after the excellent third season finale, which saw Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) finally put aside their differences and form a united front to kick, literally, John Kreese (Martin Kove) and Cobra Kai out of the Valley. The stakes are artificially inflated by a handshake agreement that the losing team will stop practicing karate in the Valley, but the show is too lucrative for anyone to honor that, so the season quickly sets about building more organic stakes. In the early going, most of the training is actually played for laughs, usually at the expense of both Johnny and Daniel, both of whom steadfastly refuse to accept that their specific version of karate isn’t objectively superior. (There’s a funny joke about Johnny having come up with “Eagle Fang”, which is still hilarious, in a park three weeks prior, only highlighting how silly each man’s stubbornness is.)
The kids see it as silly, obviously, but they also see it as life and death given how deeply and personally the outcome of the rivalry affects their school lives and relationships, so they have precious little tolerance for Daniel and Johnny’s decades-long game of one-upmanship. Robby (Tanner Buchanan) has gone full Dark Side and joined Cobra Kai, but he’s also teaching them the inner secrets of Miyagi-Do, while Sam (Mary Mouser) is realizing that she responds better to Johnny’s strike-first school of offense rather than her mild-mannered dad’s last-resort defensive mindset. And why not? After all, it’s her who has to suffer the public indignity of being assaulted by her rival Tory (Peyton List) and having her romantic entanglements compromised.
A lot of Cobra Kai Season 4, then, is about how these conflicting ideologies resonate with different people in different circumstances, and how, ultimately, the worst thing you can be in life is close-minded. This idea is explored in a few different ways. One of them is Kenny Payne (Dallas Dupree Young), a new character who becomes a victim of bullying – at the hands of an unlikely abuser – and is driven to Cobra Kai and Robby, specifically, who was a friend of his older brother’s in juvie. Another is Tory, who gets one of the most compelling arcs as her barely concealed rage at the entire world is met with empathy from an unlikely source. Anthony LaRusso (Griffin Santopietro) gets much more to do, and Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) and Demetri (Gianni DeCenzo) have their own mini-arcs. It’s a lot going on, but it impressively never feels like too much, even if the weight of everything can be felt a little in the middle episodes.
But the season’s secret weapon is Thomas Ian Griffith as Terry Silver, a psychopathic though relatively arch villain from The Karate Kid Part III. This show has hardly been immune to cameos from the original three films and even devoted a couple of episodes of the third season to revisiting some characters and places from Daniel’s past, but Silver is more than just a guest-star – he’s a fully-fledged, fascinating villain who eventually develops into more of a menace than even Kreese, adding a more cerebral element to the show’s bad guy roster and proving himself easily the MVP of the entire season. It’s partly through him that Cobra Kai positions itself on the cusp of a new and exciting storytelling direction for next year’s installment; he almost single-handedly breathes more serious life into a show that was beginning to feel like a salvage mission when it was first renewed.
But it isn’t all Silver. With better-than-ever fight choreography, genuinely unpredictable dramatic showdowns, and legitimately surprising twists and turns, especially in the last couple of episodes, Cobra Kai Season 4 proves itself a much smarter show than you’d think, and one with a great deal of potential going forwards. Long live Cobra Kai, which might never die after all.