To my knowledge, “First Learn Stand” is the first episode of Cobra Kai to feature neither Miguel nor Samantha, its two central kid characters. (Sam was missing from two episodes of season three.) That’s a noticeable change, especially with only one brief scene of Robby. Instead, this episode devotes much of its run-time to introducing an even younger generation of potential karate kids: new kid Kenny and his first bully in eighth grade, one Anthony LaRusso.
We’ve never really gotten to know Anthony; he has always just been the twerp little brother. But it’s a good time to introduce him as a bigger character, now that he’s nearing high school and Miguel and Sam are relatively stable in their corner of the story. Anthony is an asshole kid in the same way every kid in Cobra Kai can be an asshole: His acts of teenage douchebaggery come from an inner woundedness and a desire to fit in. When he gets “facialed” with a basketball by the tiny new kid in gym class, he’s humiliated in front of his crush. And when he declines to whip out his fancy LaRusso karate skills to kick that new kid’s ass, he gets called “LaPusso.” (That one actually works better written down than said out loud.)
Kenny’s story this episode is admittedly a bit predictable. As soon as I saw him log onto his favorite MMORPG (“Dungeon Lord Legacies”) and get a message from Lia, the same pretty girl Anthony was eyeing, I knew he was getting catfished. And Kenny doesn’t deserve that, even if he does read every message he’s sending out loud for some reason. (He even says “send!”)
Anthony and his cronies trick Kenny into showing up to Balboa Park in cosplay, then record a video of him in his Dr. Scribblebottoms costume. Luckily for both Kenny and Anthony, Kenny escapes before getting beat up too bad. But it’s only a matter of time before it happens again, and Kenny has very few people to turn to for help: His dad is deployed overseas, his mom works a lot, and his older brother, Shawn, is in juvie. When Kenny visits Shawn at the end of the episode, we learn that he’s Robby’s bully turned friend, or at least his bully turned guy who respects him for not snitching. Kenny vents to him about what has been going on at school, and Shawn says, “I know a guy who can help.”
As Kenny, Dallas Dupree Young is an endearing addition to Cobra Kai’s younger cast, even if some of his line readings are a tad stilted. (Xolo Maridueña, Mary Mouser, and Tanner Buchanan all had their fair share of shaky moments in the excellent first season.) But what intrigues me most is what “First Learn Stand” sets up down the line for Kenny and Anthony: the good kid learning karate from a bad guy, and the bully learning karate from a good guy. We’ve seen Cobra Kai threaten to corrupt many a nice kid before, but never one this innocent and good-hearted. It’s also a smart move to balance the scales of the two dojos: If you pit Johnny, Daniel, Miguel, Sam, Hawk, and Demetri against Kreese, Robby, Tory, and Kyler, it’s a no-brainer whom to root for. But adding a likable new player to the bad guys’ side makes it more complicated.
Like Anthony, Tory’s bullying tendencies are given more context in this episode. We’ve known about Tory’s home issues for a while, but we get to see her on the defensive when Amanda confronts her at her restaurant job, threatening to involve the police if she doesn’t stay away from Sam. It ends in Tory getting fired, a dangerous scenario for someone on probation.
Later, at the grocery store, Amanda runs into Kreese, who tells her to leave Tory alone “or deal with the consequences.” He respects her maternal instinct to defend her daughter. The problem, he points out, is that Tory doesn’t have a mother healthy enough to protect her the way Amanda can protect Sam. She’s all by herself, just trying to make ends meet.
It’s interesting to see Kreese in this new mode, becoming a surrogate parent to Tory the same way Johnny and Daniel have played father roles to Miguel and Robby (and, further back, Mr. Miyagi to Daniel). It would be easy to side with him if he didn’t take such pleasure in threatening Amanda. And it would be easy to side against Amanda if Tory hadn’t sort of done it to herself by telling a random customer to shut the hell up — and if she hadn’t started this whole thing by almost straight-up murdering a girl twice. Tory started this show as a generic but likable bad-girl type, but she has turned into someone with a real and ugly bloodlust. It’s going to take some work for me to feel much sympathy for her, especially after she shows up to Amanda’s work to reject her sympathy groceries and promise to humiliate Sam at the All Valley.
Let’s be real, though: the highlight of this episode is watching Daniel and Johnny teach each other their karate styles. It’s the kind of story Cobra Kai has been building to for three seasons now, the kind of exhilarating fan service this show excels at. I couldn’t stop grinning.
Johnny takes the student role first, painting Daniel’s house side to side and quickly getting sick of it. “Defense is boring,” he says. “Offense will always be more badass.” It takes Daniel’s chopping his Blue Moon bottle horizontally in half and referencing Mr. Miyagi to get Johnny to take this more seriously. And take it seriously he does: We get a hilarious montage of Johnny waxing on and off and practicing the balance wheel while Daniel paraphrases many of the same lessons Mr. Miyagi taught him, Bill Conti’s original Karate Kid score soaring in the background.
“Walk on the left side of the road, safe. Walk on the right side of the road, safe. Walk down the middle, get squished like grape.”
“Ambition without knowledge is like a boat on dry land.” (That one’s actually a rare reference to The Next Karate Kid, which Daniel isn’t in, but he probably learned the same line offscreen.)
“Center yourself, Johnny. Look inward. Find your balance.”
“The best defense is no be there.”
Next, it’s Daniel’s turn to learn. Johnny takes him to an abandoned factory, where he makes him shovel coal, climb up a hanging chain, do knuckle push-ups, and smack back baseballs being fired at him from a pitching machine. The lesson, of course, is that striking first is sometimes necessary, that never making your own move can be fatal. To force Daniel to play offense, Johnny ends the day by taking him to a hockey game, where dirty fights are no big deal.
Daniel resists Johnny’s attempts to provoke a fight at first. Then the aggrieved hockey player whom they got penalized figures out he’s the owner of that auto shop with the hot wife, and the players taunt Daniel by suggesting they do things like “take her for a test drive.” So we get the glorious sequence of Daniel LaRusso, master of discipline and preacher of pacifism, letting go and allowing himself to beat the living shit out of some guys. And sure, they fight back, but there’s no self-preservation going on here. Daniel is enjoying this. And perhaps, in the right circumstance, that isn’t so terrible.
When Johnny returns after the fight is over, Daniel asks where he was. “No be there,” he says, walking away. Maybe they could have been learning from each other this whole time.
Mr. Miyagi’s Little Trees
• No idea if this is intentional, but the factory where Johnny trains Daniel is called “Webber Industrial,” and Daniel’s name was “Daniel Webber” in early drafts of the original Karate Kid screenplay.
• We get our first glimpse of Robby teaching Miyagi-Do blocks to Cobra Kai, and it feels so wrong to hear him teach “wax on, wax off” and “paint the fence” without having them actually wax a car or paint a fence.
• Dallas Dupree Young is the son of former MLB player Eric Young.