It’s hard to resist the glory of the past, especially when you’re not doing so well in the present. And when you have such a rich and storied history that has proved successful many times over, it’s an easy fix to bring elements back and repeat them. Yet there’s a danger inherent in that, a risk that it might feel hollow. You’re not bringing anything new to the table, you’re just reminding people that you were awesome once. How long can that last?
Cobra Kai is all about not doing that. The series could have been a simple and easy reprisal of the rivalry seen in the original Karate Kid movies, which starred Ralph Macchio as a bullied teenager turned martial arts student. Instead, Cobra Kai takes a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn by focusing on the villain of the first film, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Rather than using the franchise’s past as something to be siphoned for quick wins, the series instead adds to the history, and even enriches it.
When we meet Johnny in the first season of Cobra Kai, he’s a loser. He lives on the poor side of town — incidentally, where Daniel lived in the movies — he drinks a lot, and he has a son he never sees from a failed relationship. It’s the kind of situation we want to see him in after he was such a jerk back in the ’80s. We’re happy that he’s down and out. It’s what he deserves, right? But as we learn more about his life, in the present and as it was in 1984, we see he was mistreated by a rich stepfather (Ed Asner), who gave him expensive things instead of love, and his rage was built upon and focused by a new father figure: Cobra Kai dojo owner John Kreese (Martin Kove).
Daniel, meanwhile, is doing pretty well for himself. He has a supportive wife, Amanda (Courtney Henggeler), and two children, and he runs a successful car dealership. However, he promotes his business by doing lame commercials that exploit his notoriety as a karate champion, using the slogan “We kick the competition” and giving away a Bonsai tree with every car sold.
The rivalry remains, with Johnny still thinking Daniel is a lucky kid who got away with an illegal kick and Daniel still thinking Johnny is a bully. But there’s a moment in the first season that draws on this in such a fantastically surprising way. Johnny goes to Daniel’s house to throw down in his backyard after his car is set on fire by Daniel’s cousin. A lesser show would give in and this would be a major event, the rematch of the century. Instead, the situation is diffused by Amanda, and the pair end up having breakfast together, resulting in Daniel giving Johnny a new car.
Johnny doesn’t trust Daniel one inch, so they go on a test drive and end up stopping at Daniel’s old apartment block. This is where the show works so well by incorporating little snippets of the original films, cutting between Daniel and Johnny now and clips from The Karate Kid of Daniel and his mother (Randee Heller) arriving at their new place in Reseda. But it’s never dwelled on, just a quick reminder of how things were. Then, as Johnny and Daniel drink together in a bar, with Johnny telling of Kreese being a father figure to him when his stepfather was bullying him and Daniel telling of Mr. Miyagi being a father figure to him after his real dad died, they start to realize just how alike they were.
The series’ second season reunites Johnny with old friends, though it’s not for the happiest of reasons. Tommy (Rob Garrison), the guy best remembered from the first movie gleefully shouting the famous “Get him a body bag” line, is terminally ill. So, the old gang — Johnny, Tommy, Jimmy (Tony O’Dell), who is now a family man, and Bobby (Ron Thomas), who is now a pastor — get together for a final road trip to relive the good times of their youth. As they speed off on motorcycles, the sequence is intercut with footage from the original movie of them as teenagers on dirt bikes, complete with the same music: “The Ride” by Matches.
But it gets more serious when Johnny reveals he has also recently brought back Cobra Kai. The news causes unhappy memories to surface for the other three, who are all horrified that Johnny has dredged it all up, especially with Kreese back in the picture. They’ve grown up, matured, moved on. But it’s also clear that Johnny’s friends still look up to him, and Tommy shows him that, unlike himself, Johnny has the time to change and not relive the mistakes of the past.
In Cobra Kai Season 3, Daniel revisits Okinawa and comes face to face with Chozen (Yuji Okumoto), his opponent from The Karate Kid Part II. The series sets the stage by replaying the climactic scene of that film involving a fight to the death, which Daniel wins but doesn’t follow through on. Then, in the present day, we see Chozen acting silent and angry towards Daniel, so we assume he wants payback, especially as he sneers when Daniel tells him Mr. Miyagi taught him everything he knew.
Chozen takes Daniel to a Miyagi-do dojo where all of the Miyagi family artifacts reside. Daniel argues when he’s told he can’t see a particular scroll. It is “not for you,” Chozen says, a “foreigner.” The scene escalates into the rematch we’ve been expecting. Both men compete furiously until Chozen takes it to the next level and makes Daniel’s arm completely numb so he can’t fight back. As he pulls Daniel’s head back, the show flashes back to footage of the two in reversed positions from the Karate KidPart II climax. Chozen asks Daniel, “Live or die, man?” And as the music swells and we think Daniel is doomed, Chozen throws his fist towards Daniel’s face…. and honks his nose, just as Daniel did to him decades earlier. And then he breaks into laughter.
What is then revealed is that Chozen used a secret “Miyagi pressure points” technique designed to disarm enemies, and he shares this with Daniel. Chozen explains that he felt shame after his original defeat but learned to put it behind him — something Johnny and Daniel both do as well. Later in the season, the pair end up fighting Kreese, who is shocked when Daniel uses the pressure point technique on him. They then end Season 3 teaming up to teach at Miyagi-do together. And thus, the lesson ends.
It’s the present, it’s the now that matters the most, but that doesn’t mean we need to forget the past. Learning from it is the only way to live your life in the present, and that is what Mr. Miyagi always meant: “Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance. Everything be better. Understand?”