Cobra Kai Season-Finale Recap: The Cobra Strikes Back

Cobra Kai

The Rise
Season 4 Episode 10
Editor’s Rating 5 stars

Cobra Kai

The Rise
Season 4 Episode 10
Editor’s Rating 5 stars
Photo: Netflix

“The Rise” feels like a culmination — of a season’s worth of storytelling, but also of four entire seasons’ worth. Even more than the prom episode, it pulls together all the show’s disparate strands into a cohesive whole. Every friendship, every relationship, and every rivalry in the show gets its due here.

Johnny and Daniel’s relationship finally took center stage in season four, to thrilling and often hilarious effect. And that certainly pays off here, when the two sensei eventually, inevitably come back together. But that couldn’t happen without a perspective shift for both men. And that’s where the kids come in.

Miguel, Robby, and Sam have often felt like pawns in the older generation’s stubborn feuds. But one of season four’s greatest accomplishments has been maintaining the humanity and individualism of its younger cast, even when they aren’t foregrounded. Back in the premiere, Johnny and Daniel only agreed to keep their partnership going when they saw how much their two classes had improbably bonded. But those students aren’t just faceless soldiers in their teachers’ battles. They’re kids, flawed and insecure in their own ways. The ceasefire at the end of “Let’s Begin” came about not because either sensei suggested reconciling but because a high-school junior named Eli saw the direction he was heading and made an effort to bring together all the people he’d hurt.

All series long, kids have been the catalyst for Johnny’s change. There’s Miguel, the student he took on who made him realize he didn’t have to live his life the way he’d been living it for years. He made him realize he could move on from his past if he tried really, really hard. And then there’s Johnny’s biological son, Robby, of course, a living reminder of all his failures, who has spent years trying to kill every part of himself that reminded him of his dad.

Johnny’s motivations in preparing his students for the All Valley Karate Tournament have been pure, for the most part; the longer Cobra Kai goes on existing with John Kreese and Terry Silver in charge, the more likely it is there’ll be a new generation of abused kids under the mistaken impression that they’re learning essential skills to give them the power and security that has always eluded them. But there’s also undeniably more than a bit of ego at play here, a drive to win the trophy because it’s the most explicit symbol of redemption.

So when Miguel pulls a back muscle and is given 30 minutes to recover before deciding his course of action, Johnny can only think to say, “Show your back who’s boss.” Victory is still the only acceptable ending he can imagine, especially with Kreese taunting him about Robby. Kreese justifies his mentorship of Robby by saying he actually cares about the kid; he wants to help him win so he can remember the victory for the rest of his life. Daniel has known for a long time that winning isn’t everything, but Johnny is still totally susceptible to Kreese’s line of thinking. When he goes back to Miguel and insists that “You can do whatever you want if you want it bad enough,” he thinks he’s ensuring Kreese’s defeat, but he’s actually reverting to the same harmful position as his old mentor. He even goes so far as to manipulate Miguel by reminding him he won’t be his sensei anymore if he doesn’t compete and win.

So when Miguel agrees to show he’s not a kid anymore, that he’s ready to be a man, Johnny doesn’t even consider that that could mean opting out altogether, allowing Eli to proceed to the finals instead. He doesn’t realize, in the moment, that he’s asking Miguel to fight for him, not for himself. When the countdown clock runs out, Johnny immediately knows he fucked up. “I’m the one that let him down,” he tells Carmen.

When Miguel disappears, quickly making up with Sam on his way out, there’s not much for Johnny to do besides watch the rest of the tournament. His dreams of Eagle Fang winning Grand Champion are up in smoke. But for the second tournament in a row, he’s still forced to root against his own son. This time, Robby’s not a pawn in the Johnny-Daniel feud; he’s the lynchpin in Kreese and Silver’s plan to ban Johnny and Daniel from teaching altogether. Where they stand, if Cobra Kai wins just one of the final two matches, they’ll be crowned Grand Champion.

First up is Robby vs. Eli. It’s not as traditional a rivalry as Robby and Miguel, but these two have their own history. At the last tournament, Eli dislocated Robby’s shoulder with a kick from behind, and this season, Robby shaved Eli’s iconic mohawk off. Quickly, Eli realizes Robby knows all his moves, and Daniel maturely suggests he use his old Cobra Kai training to put Robby on defense. The two stay tied at one-one until they hit the three-minute time limit, forcing the first sudden-death overtime since Daniel beat Mike Barnes in 1985.

Silver and Kreese give Robby the typical ruthless advice: use his anger and stop showing Eli respect. But he can’t stop thinking about what he walked in on just minutes ago: Kenny beating up Anthony in the locker room, insisting “It’s Cobra Kai” when Robby told him this wasn’t how he trained him. Seconds away from winning, he gets distracted by Kenny cheering viciously from the sidelines. In the end, Eli wins, satisfyingly paying off a season of real redemption for him (and paying off his confident prediction last episode).

That’s one win for Miyagi-Do. The second and final big match-up of the season, though, is one we’ve been building toward for three seasons now: Sam vs. Tory. Before the match, Tory thanked Amanda for making her get help. Amanda calmly asks her, in return, to play by the rules and make sure Sam doesn’t get badly hurt in their fight.

Daniel quickly realizes Sam won’t win with his lessons alone, and he enlists Johnny’s help, admitting he was wrong not to value Johnny as a sensei until now. He thought he was doing what Mr. Miyagi would’ve wanted by fighting Johnny again, but he forgot an important Miyagi lesson: Everyone has to go their own way eventually. Maybe by combining two sensei’s lessons, Sam can create her own way. “Whether it’s defense or offense, Miyagi-Do or Eagle Fang, I want you to be you,” Daniel tells her.

It’s certainly a kinder lesson than the one Tory gets from Silver, who wants her to be as aggressive as she can without getting kicked out. After she accidentally elbows Sam in the face, Silver mistakes it as a deliberate move disguised as a counter. When he suggests she do the same to Sam’s other eye, she rebuffs him, and Kreese comes to her unexpected defense after he flashes back to the hard time he gave Johnny in 1984. So Tory becomes the first female champion by playing fair, winning Cobra Kai the Grand Champion trophy.

“We did the right thing and we still didn’t win,” Sam tearfully tells her dad while Silver announces the new Cobra Kai franchises they’ll be opening. But Tory learns soon after that maybe she didn’t win fair and square after all; Silver paid off the ref, who was more conservative with his penalties than he probably would’ve been otherwise. So soon after the win Tory’s been dreaming of, it’s a crushing realization.

The last chunk of “The Rise” is the emotional aftermath. Robby follows Johnny to the newly closed Cobra Kai dojo (they’re moving locations) and opens up about how he failed Kenny. He has a newfound appreciation for the difficulty of being a mentor, of all the ways you can screw it up. Johnny assures him it was his fault for getting in the way of Robby’s training with Daniel in the first place, and Robby replies with perhaps the most shockingly moving line of the finale: “I’m sick of blaming you, Dad.” They finally embrace as Robby cries, one of the most cathartic moments of the series.

If a way forward for Johnny and Robby looks more possible than ever before, things between Johnny and Miguel are less clear. Carmen finds a note from her son saying he’s going to Mexico City to find his dad and learn the truth about why he left, overcoming the same fear that has kept Johnny so stuck in the past. Johnny assures Carmen he’ll find Miguel, but there’s a twist: Miguel’s dad doesn’t actually know he exists.

The season ends with a couple of other big reveals to tease season five. Silver correctly assesses that Johnny is Kreese’s biggest weakness, that this whole thing was always more about Johnny than bringing back the glory days with an old friend. He has also recently realized Kreese is his own greatest weakness — which is why he promised Stingray a spot back on Cobra Kai if he told the police Kreese was the one who beat him to a pulp. Kreese gets arrested for aggravated assault and attempted murder, the first serious comeuppance he’s had since the original movies (or ever, really, if you don’t count Mr. Miyagi honking his nose in The Karate Kid Part II).

In the final scene at Mr. Miyagi’s grave, Daniel says he can’t just sit by and let Cobra Kai take over the Valley. He’ll need to go on offense — and, in a very fun ending reveal, we learn that he’ll have help from Chozen, the master of offense from Part II.

If Cobra Kai lasts six or seven seasons (one per semester), it’ll likely end with a third and final All Valley Tournament, making this one the sort of Empire Strikes Back of the series. Eli’s win aside, it’s a pretty bleak ending: Daniel and Johnny are banned from teaching karate, Cobra Kai is expanding, Kenny is a full-blown bully, and Miguel is on his way to meet a father who won’t necessarily welcome his presence. While deserved, even Kreese’s arrest doesn’t feel quite as satisfying knowing he’s been framed.

But as dark as it could be, this was also a back-to-basics season, with more humor and a strong focus on the show’s central themes of redemption. It had a surprising number of parallels to The Karate Kid Part III — not just the presence of main villain Terry Silver, but the idea that even the kindest of us have a capacity for anger and violence that can come out in the wrong conditions and the idea that everyone eventually needs to carve out their own path independent of their role models. It’s an impressive feat that Cobra Kai was able to fashion such a potent, emotionally rich, consistently entertaining narrative from the material of a movie as ridiculous, outdated, and poorly received as a crappy Karate Kid sequel. But it’s a credit to the show that it was able to turn that retelling into its strongest season yet.

Miyagi’s Little Trees

• Demetri makes the Robby/Anakin parallels explicit, saying, “I had a hard enough time beating him when he was on the good side of the Force. Now that he’s gone all Sith, I feel like a helpless Jedi youngling about to get slaughtered.”

• You could argue that Robby would’ve won if he wasn’t distracted by Kenny, but Eli almost clinched the win at the end of the three-minute round, so it really could’ve gone either way. It’s also too simple to conclusively say Sam would’ve beaten Tory without the ref’s interference.

• So when Silver says he’ll dig up a friend or two to help out with Cobra Kai, he must be referring to Mike Barnes from Part III, right? We’re running out of old characters to bring back.

• One satisfying moment from Silver’s betrayal of Kreese is when he calls him out for his endless guilt-tripping about Vietnam. It’s true, Kreese, it’s kind of getting old.

• Please share your thoughts on this season in the comments! And I’m on Twitter @brosenstock18 if you want to discuss the season more or tell me how wrong I am about this being the show’s best.

Cobra Kai Season-Finale Recap: The Cobra Strikes Back