Let’s start with gratitude. Here’s a big Thank You to the writers and producers of this show. And of course thank you to the actors, all of them, but especially Ralph Macchio and a huge bad ass blast of “You’re awesome” showered on William Zabka, who has created one of the most complex and loveable anti-heroes of this generation from what seemed like a used up flat character villain from a sappy teenage drama that so many of us fell hopelessly in love with nearly 40 years ago.
Johnny Lawrence begins his rebirth nearly at the bottom of his existence. In fact, he is basically Mister Miyagi, a handyman who lives rent-free in an apartment by exchanging his knowledge to fix things. Mister Miyagi was the lowest form of life to Johnny when Cobra Kai was on top before Daniel Larusso swooped in and stole the love of his life (this is true as we discover towards the end of Season 2).
And we see Daniel Larusso is on top. He has balance. Has the life that Miyagi always promised him would be there if his Karate reflected his mind when it was in balance. And Daniel has been out of balance so many times in his life. But now, things are on point for him and his kin.
And Johnny’s journey to excellence begins when he meets a young kid who is being bullied…just like Miyagi met Daniel and just like John Kreese met a young Johnny Lawrence, a boy abused by a cruel father who died too late followed by an emotionally absent mother and step-father.
John Kreese stepped in and gave young Johnny Lawrence a new life, one built on the vision that the world is a war and everyone else is ultimately against you. This the world John Kreese was taught in the jungles of Vietnam, where he watched his friends die and where he probably killed a few of them also.
No Mercy. Pain Does Not Exist. Mercy is for the weak. That’s Cobra Kai Karate.
And Johnny made lifelong friends in Cobra Kai. Brothers of a different kind instead, as the song “Lost Boy” sings. And so Johnny teaches that kid some moves and Miguel starts to learn about his true potential as a kind soul with Karate that can be merciless. So Johnny, encouraged by Miguel turning on his Life Light, creates a dojo with an old name but a new purpose:
“Be Bad Ass!”
“Stop taking shit from people!”
And above all, “Don’t be a pussy!”
Since Johnny started to learn John Kreese’s Cobra Kai Karate, he has had an angel and a demon, each on one of his shoulders. One angel, the good one, says to him, “Be a bad ass and don’t be a pussy! Allie would never be with a pussy!” And for a long time, Johnny wasn’t a pussy and he was most certainly bad ass in that red leather Michael Jackson Beat It meets the Outlaws motorcycle jacket. When we met Johnny Lawrence back in 1985, he was going with his gang of Cobra Kai’s to apologize to the girl who would become the greatest loss of his life. He got drunk with his buddies, because he wasn’t going to be called a pussy, and he completely abandoned Allie on her birthday, which was an unforgivable sin when you are Seniors in High School in Ronald Reagan’s America.
It’s a great lesson in learning not to accept things at face value. In 1985, when we primarily viewed the situation through Daniel’s eyes, when Mister Miyagi poured his love and his faith and his philosophy and practice of Karate into Daniel, it was impossible not to fall in love with him and cheer for him in his triumph. But there was another side to that coin, and Johnny Lawrence was also a boy that a man poured his philosophy of Karate into and Johnny and all the Cobra Kais in his circle of chosen brothers paid the price for viewing the world as a battlefield and all other humans as enemies. Each of them decried Johnny putting any faith in second chances on John Kreese.
But time has given us the opportunity to hold this jewel of the mythology of Karate Kid up to different lighting and it has yielded a multitude of experiences and nuance. It is just phenomenal how the writers and the actor William Zabka have drawn out the complexity and lovability of John Lawrence from the ashes of Karate Kid, rebirthing the entire franchise into what it really always was, that John Lawrence and Daniel Larusso are mirrors of limitation being held up for one another. Where each sees an enemy, they see their own true self. They have pushed each other from the moment they met, one retreating at times and the other advancing, only for them both to ultimately fall back together like waves breaking from the ocean for a second, only to crash back into a sameness that is universal in its nature.
The show will always be about what kind of Karate rules your mind. Johnny and Daniel have both fallen prey to the Karate of the Cruel as well as the Karate of the Cool, two ends of the same spectrum, each wrecked with danger. The middle path is always the wisest, though the fevered youth, as well as those suffering the hubris of experience and age, often fall into the trap in equal measure. Indeed, we see both fathers and children fall prey to the realistic illusion that the world is at war and the person standing opposite you is always an enemy to be destroyed.
I’d like to refer you to watch a film that came out last year Birth Of The Dragon. It’s a fantastic fighting film that deals deeply with this same theme of what kind of Martial Arts do you practice. Here, I’m including Karate and Kung Fu in the same definition of Martial Art. What’s important is the philosophy behind which one practices this mindset and the actions which emanate from the mindset. This film is about when Bruce Lee fought Tai Chi Grandmaster Wang Xi’an and the film is very much about Bruce Lee’s hubris in challenging the Grand Master to a fight to the death and had his life spared in what becomes a highly political decision between the two men and involves an almost apocryphal plot to rescue a young Chinese woman from being sold into sexual slavery. But the primary point in bringing this film up is that this experience of being beaten by the Grand Master lead Bruce Lee to conceive of the concept of Jeet Kune Do as being so fluid as to assume any style but never be beholden to one. This wonderful breakthrough of an individual who recognized his limitations and then blasted through them came from humility and from grace and from kindness and respect. This is Miyagi’s Karate as well and after he passed, it became Miyagi Do Karate as lived and loved by Daniel Larusso, a disciple of one forced to become a master to defend the youth from the inevitable cruelty and viciousness that follows John Kreese wherever he goes, a plague upon society that was rendered toothless until John Lawrence opened the door for the snake to slither back into The Valley.
Season 2 leaves us at a crossroads for Johnny Lawrence and Daniel Larusso, neither fully understanding what has just happened to the youth of this community; they have just become militarized and motivated to strike at each other, to choose sides that didn’t exist prior to the finale of Season 2. And John Kreese is going to pour his flammable poison on top of this mess. It is going to be up to Johnny and Daniel to come together, combine their styles of Karate into a new balance, a Miyagi Kai if you’ll pardon the obvious naming. And they may take Miyagi Kai into the community and do both good and wickedness unto others as unto each other, and they will struggle against the inevitable conflicts to come with Cobra Kai, both on the streets and in the tournaments.
And is there hope for Johnny’s soul? Is there love waiting for him? Perhaps from the pediatric surgeon and love of his life Allie Schwarber, who walked away from this drama long ago, but who just might take a phone call that comes from both Daniel and Johnny, to come and do what she can for the young man who lies broken because he showed mercy to an enemy, because he listened to John Lawrence.
And that enemy is Johnny’s son, who will no doubt be persecuted and pushed into a justice system that eats the poor of all colors, turning their wasted life potential into money for a faceless machine. Will that old friend and Cobra Kai of Johnny’s, the one currently serving time, come into play? What about Bobby, the Cobra Kai turned preacher? How will Johnny’s friends help him and Daniel fight back for the youth of the Valley?
Find out next season but for pity’s sake catch up on this brilliant expansion of a universe so many millions of us loved to live inside for a couple of hours at a time when we were young and dumb and full of love. Cobra Kai is important for everyone to watch right now because it is the story of Western Civilization, and of course America, where so much cruelty and misplaced fear has met, too briefly, the storms of love and tossed our ship in a bottle on this simple island in the middle of nowhere with nothing but each other to make this society thing work and get through our lives with some smiles intact.
If we learn anything from this bingeable masterpiece of near Shakespearean drama, it is that the person on the other side of the line is not always your enemy, even if they are kicking you in the face.