To say that Season 3 of COBRA KAI was highly anticipated would be a sheer understatement, as the continuation of this ‘karate saga’ has created incredible momentum since this series was first released in 2018. One of the key strengths of the series is its pacing, and there isn’t a complete reliance on exposition, despite the historical importance of the prior cinematic trilogy.
Note some minor spoilers will be presented below:
Season 3 commences right after the surprisingly brutal school fight at the end of Season 2. This resulted in numerous injuries, with Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) copping the short end of the stick – or rather kick, as delivered him by Johnny’s son, Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan) in their confrontation. Miguel’s horrific injuries have left him in a paraplegic state of sorts, and this creates an intense emotional burden for his sensei and surrogate father, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Robby goes on the lam evading police and prompting Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) to collaborate in a search for the now fugitive youngster. This team-up created a cheeky yet deliberate nod to Tango and Cash (which was highlighted in the trailer) with LaRusso standing in for the more upmarket Tango and Lawrence playing the more roguish Cash. Daniel’s sensible wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) continues to be the voice-of-reason for her husband, though in this series she also proves to be a formidable corporate strategist, with sassy attitude.
The early tag team between the two rivals is something that fans had long yearned to see, since both men present as polar opposites yet unknowingly share positive attributes such as honour, determination and a warrior ethos. However, for the purposes of story development this was certainly not a primary focus, with Daniel’s perpetual quest for balance taking him to Okinawa where he rekindles his now-platonic relationship with Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) from Karate Kid: Part II; and even comes to a truce with his former enemy, Chozen Toguchi (Yuji Okumoto). Chozen has not only reformed into a more wise karate master, but also teaches some secret Miyagi fighting methods to his American counterpart. His new persona adds some weight and depth to his character, no longer being the arrogantly obnoxious karateka we see in John G. Avildsen’s 1986 sequel.
Whilst Daniel pursues balance, Johnny seeks redemption for his surrogate son and star pupil, Miguel, indeed his unconventional rehabilitative methods are certainly more entertaining than they are practical. After seizing ownership of the Cobra Kai dojo from Johnny, John Kreese (Martin Kove) sets about instilling the same sadistic principles in the new breed of students with Hawk Moskowitz (Jacob Bertrand) and Tory Nichols (Peyton List) being the new leaders of this vicious dojo faction. One story inclusion that did completely surprise was flashbacks to Kreese’s involvement in the Vietnam War, providing an origin story which denotes his descent into pure malice, uncompromising hatred and sheer psychopathy. The glimpses of Kreese’s backstory shows that he is a product of his environment; the writers cleverly penned this sequence with a tacit intention of creating some sympathy for John Kreese, and to some degree, it does work.
Season 2’s conclusion hinted at the future appearance of Ali Mills (Elizabeth Shue), now a successful pediatric surgeon, and she does indeed honour fans with her presence. It should be noted that like Macchio and Zabka, Shue has aged very gracefully and still has that youthful exuberance. Unfortunately, her appearance is more of a taut cameo, than anything substantive and it would seem she hastily provides the sudden, yet definitive moral center for both Johnny and Daniel. It may seem too convenient that her role was relegated to this, but fans will no doubt rejoice at this quasi-reunion of the original cast. Former Cobra Kai alum, Bobby (Ron Thomas) also returns for a cameo as a dignified Pastor. Despite being a brief encounter, the dynamic between Johnny and Bobby makes the friendship seem more believable. Ultimately, it is certainly satisfying to see that the chemistry between these actors is still as potent today, as it was in the 1980s.
Of course all is not completely focused upon the older generation, with Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser) suffering PTSD as a result of the school brawl, as well as dealing with a very aggressive antagonist in Tory. The rivalry between the warring factions is somewhat comical, and does expect the viewer to suspend their belief in reality. There is a continued assault between Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do students, and this escalates with each episode – with some shocking ‘casualties’ of sorts, along the way. Commendably, it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of violence, and though these machinations may be completely unrealistic in today’s era (especially with clear legal ramifications for assault and battery) the writers do not gleefully celebrate violence – but rather highlight its impacts. There is however, the expected inclusion of a life-saving fighting technique to as a winning ‘finisher’ (as had been seen in the original trilogy, with the Crane Kick, Drum technique and bemusing Miyagi Kata). Though this may be a tired trope, Daniel’s new techniques, imparted by Chozen, does illustrate some practical combat realism, thereby eschewing any esoteric martial arts mysticism.
Ironically, for a series about martial arts the actual fight scenes could be seen as either sloppy, or perhaps tainted with a sense of brutal realism. And yet herein lies the ultimate truth, for at its core the appeal of the series is not because of intricate fight scenes, but rather the emphasis on character development and causality. The original movies did not intend to promote karate techniques, but instead used this as a device for expressing the importance of self-development through martial science. The parental bond that Mr. Miyagi has with Daniel LaRusso, is further explored in Daniel’s relationship with his own daughter Samantha as well as Johnny’s parental dedication to Miguel’s welfare and recovery.
Here in Season 3, the school brawl results in karate being demonized by the greater San Fernando Valley community as an instrument of violence, however the exponents such as Miguel and Samantha, rebut this criticism by demonstrating the developmental value of this ancient art. Uniquely, the opposing dojos all promote a clear goal but each fueled by different attributes. LaRusso’s Miyagi style is heavily contingent on refined defensive counter-attacks; Johnny’s revised American style seeks to bring more integrity into his proactive combat style; whilst Kreese’s is imbued by a vicious mercilessness. Each style is highly reflective of each of the individual teacher’s personalities, denoting the old axiom ‘That there are several ways to scale a mountain, but the view is always the same.’ Whether it’s Kreese’s Cobra Kai, LaRusso’s Miyagi-Do or Lawrence’s All-American style, each method has a clear purpose (Note: This author has avoided revealing the name of Johnny’s new style, as it is comedically retro). Despite the predictability of Season 3’s final acts, the conclusion clearly leaves everything open for a fourth season – one which will culminate in even more formalised confrontations, seemingly resonating the essence of the very first movie.
Season 3 of COBRA KAI is by no means perfect. Some minor sub plots such as the Daniel’s international business dealings; Johnny’s romance with Carmen Diaz (Vanessa Rubio); Demitri’s (Gianni Decenzo) neurotic love life or Tory’s financial struggles; each being glazed over briefly then quickly resolved or ignored. Conflict is at the core of the series, and character views are challenged, amended or enforced by the state of play within the story arcs. However, these can be seen as filler as much as a quick means of re-introducing characters or resolving internal conflicts. To use professional wrestling terminology, within Season 3’s dojos, there are ‘face-turns-from-heels’, and ‘heel-turns-from-faces.’ In other words: Heroes become villains and villain become heroes. It may seem slightly contrived but perhaps the writers can rely on the impetuousness of youth, being the prime motivator for drastic personality changes. Despite minor faults, for the most part, the series succeeds in executing an engaging, enjoyable and at times, emotionally deep narrative. Consequently, it is a narrative which compelled this journalist to view the entire series from start to finish, all in one sitting, on its day one release.
COBRA KAI’s relocation from YouTube Red to Netflix didn’t diminish any level of excitement, but was a clever strategic move in broadening the appeal to a wider audience. Minor imperfections aside, Season 3 of COBRA KAI will certainly meet as well as subvert fan expectations, and that in itself shows the genius of this series. Fans both new and old will easily fawn over this new release and equally anticipate a fourth season with great enthusiasm.
All three seasons of Cobra Kai are now streaming on Netflix.