I am old enough to have seen both The Karate Kid and Karate Kid II: Cultural Appropriation in a movie theater, so I am exactly middle-aged enough to fully understand this show about the regrets of our youth, missed opportunity, and a fickle shot at redemption. The best part about this update of the movie franchise is something that Daniel-san didn’t understand the first time around. It is a delicate balance of sincerity and irony, winking humor and bone-dry hope, martial-arts fantasy and the deadly reality of crushed dreams. Cobra Kai has its cake, eats it too, and then puts it in a black, sleeveless gi and sells it as ’80s nostalgia.
This is perfectly evidenced by the opening moments of the third season, when we’re dealing with the aftermath of the giant karate melee between the acolytes of Cobra Kai and the followers of Miyagi-Do. A newscaster explains the event as, “What can only be described as an all-out karate riot.” I find that statement to be an all-out (karate) riot. First of all, that a fight at a high school would make the nightly news, and also that we live in a world where there are enough students who are elite martial artists that such an event could occur. What if, instead of karate, that was yo-yo tricks or cardistry?
But the show does us one further. Then we have a parent saying, “Now I have to worry about karate gangs at school?” No, you don’t, because karate gangs are not a thing, except in this twisted universe. The writers know this and so the line hits with the laugh that it deserves, but the best moment comes from a group of high-school hippies who are protesting the big fight. “We don’t have to punch and hate. Let’s go get some brunch and meet friends,” eventual Burner Moon sings on her guitar in a circle in the school’s courtyard. How can one show kick so much ass and have me L-ing My A-O at the same time?
So where is everyone after the big fight? Miguel has been in a coma for two months, which apparently consists of him in a never-ending karate fight where he can’t lay hands or feet on his opponent. Robby took off from the police as soon as the fight was over and no one has seen or heard from him since. Hawk is trying to impress all the new freshman girls at school, but now everyone knows he’s a bedwetter who got beaten up so his bad-boy charm isn’t as effective as it once was. Aisha’s parents were so worried about the karate fight that they moved her to another school and won’t let her talk to any of the Cobra Kai kids. Is that the show’s way of writing her out for good?
Things at school have gotten really intense and there are metal detectors at the front door and every kid who enters the building has their backpack searched. Um, guys. Karate is not made of metal. It is not in a bag. What are they going to do? Ban the kid’s arms? Keep them from making their hands too rigid? There is no way to stop karate. It is a silent invader, like radon and Canadians.
Daniel’s daughter, Sam, has it worst of all. Over the summer she didn’t talk to anyone, and now that school is back in session, she’s worried about the claw scar that Tory gave her in the fight. When she walks into school she thinks everyone is staring at her. It’s clear she has PTSD from the fight, but usually PTSD is triggered by something like loud noises or dark alleys. Sam’s is triggered whenever she goes near a railing. Yes, a railing. Damn, loud noises are hard to find, but railings are literally everywhere.
As for the adults, business isn’t going so hot for Daniel ever since the big fight. He says, “It turns out ‘We’re kicking the competition’ isn’t a good tagline when your karate student literally kicks the competition over a railing.” No! Daniel! Don’t bring up the railings! Eventually he finds out that one of his 1993 minivans is missing and deduces that Robby took it and ran off. He follows the GPS and finds it abandoned in a park like a used Whip-It cartridge. He’s going to have to think of something else to track down Robby.
He goes looking for him at Miyagi-Do, but he’s not there. Sam is eating In-and-Out because it is the only fast food joint in a ten-mile radius that certainly will not have even one railing in the building. Daniel tells Sam that he blames himself for this whole mess because it’s his fight with Johnny that really started this whole rivalry with the kids. “I thought we were the good guys,” Sam asks, even though it’s not really a question it’s more of a statement, but whatever, this girl can’t go to school because there are ADA-compliant safety features on the stairs. Give her a break.
“We are. At least we try to be,” he tells her with some of that sweet, sweet Cobra Kai sincerity that we love so much. “There is one thing I know for sure and that’s you can’t run away from your problems.” With that, Sam goes to school, stands up to her bullies, shows off her scar on her right arm like she’s Padma Lakshmi in a sleeveless gown, and walks right up those damn stairs. Take that, railings!
The real focus of the episode, of course, is Johnny. He starts off at a TGIFriday’s ripoff getting drunk on Coors because Johnny’s gonna Johnny. After he picks a fight with some baseball fans who don’t want to let Johnny watch the news about the karate fight, he ends up not only with his ass beat but in jail. “Hey! Applebee’s guy!” the arresting officer says. “What is it with you and shitty chain restaurants?” Shitty chain restaurants? Excuse me? Has this asshole had a TGI Friday’s chicken finger or an Applebee’s Triple-Chocolate Meltdown?
After he gets out of the clink, Johnny tries to go see Miguel but the nurse at reception won’t let Johnny see him because Miguel is in the ICU and only family can go see him. “Come on,” Johnny, with a killer shiner, purrs at her. “Be a bad girl.” Oh, girl. Call your homeowners’ insurance because the basement is flooded. Just the way he says that it’s no wonder why every waitress on probation for DUI in Reseda has a crush on him.
Johnny decides to steal a doctor’s coat to pose as a medical professional to get in, but with his face looking like one of the plastic rodents in Whack-A-Mole he hardly looks like he’s taken the Hippocratic Oath. (Hypocrite Oath, possibly.) Instead, he gets a bright idea: He head-butts the towel dispenser to get himself admitted to the emergency room. That’s what I love about Johnny, he’s always going for the extra credit. He probably could have gotten in based on the gnarly bruise that is covering almost all of his back, but no, he had to go and mess with his money maker just so that he could go in and give Miguel a pep talk.
Johnny goes home and Daniel is waiting for him by his apartment and he tells Johnny he has a lead on Robby and that they should go off and find him together. Is this where the slash fiction portion of the show starts? Are our favorite over-50 hunks going to fall in love and make real the homoerotic tension that has been plaguing them for decades? Probably not, but you know some corner of the internet will be dedicated to this.
Whatever Johnny said to Miguel, all his talk about never giving up must have helped, because as soon as he leaves the room, Miguel starts to connect with the karate opponent in his brain. His kicks hit, his punches make the opponent stumble, and just like that, against all neurological science, Miguel’s eyes open and he’s fully healed. That’s all we needed, people. A good old-fashioned karate riot can cure a multitude of afflictions. It’s like faith healing, but with more broken boards.