Maybe I’m an easy mark, but this opening stretch of season four has struck me as the best beginning to any season of Cobra Kai so far. The first three episodes were chock-full of fan service in the best way possible, giving us the Daniel-Johnny partnership we’ve (or at least I’ve) always longed to see.
We’re moving toward the halfway point of the season now, though, and it’s time to get the ball rolling on the plot. “Bicephaly” is the first episode to really push the story forward, planting seeds of conflict that are sure to bear fruit as we get closer to the All Valley Tournament. The first of these seeds, hinted at in the final moments of the last episode, is Johnny’s jealousy of Daniel mentoring Miguel.
When the episode begins, Miguel still spends a lot of time with Daniel, and Johnny can’t stop watching them train. It’s gotten to the point that he can’t perform in bed with Carmen because he’s thinking about the two of them and what he and Carmen are keeping from her son. He mournfully looks at old photos and videos of his hangouts with Miguel like he’s missing an ex. He even fires up a search engine to search, “How do I tell my student that I’m banging his mom?”
What makes this story work so well so far is that Johnny has good reason to be jealous. Daniel is much more of a traditional role model than Johnny: He won’t give a kid booze and definitely won’t make him jump off a building. He actually has more in common with Miguel than Johnny does, in a lot of ways, with his similarly cash-strapped upbringing. They relate effortlessly, like when Daniel takes Miguel on his first drive, and they connect over growing up with a single, dating mom. It’s hard not to see why Johnny might think of Daniel as a threat, especially when he’s got Miguel calling Peter Cetera a badass. Besides, how can you not react a little when you hear your student calling another man “sensei”?
But it goes beyond that. In the car, Miguel opens up about his upbringing in Ecuador, mentioning the dad he secretly knows lives in Mexico. Daniel helps him remember that his mom was looking for a better life when she and her mother decided to immigrate. Mr. Miyagi, Daniel mentions, “made [him] realize that just because [he] didn’t have a dad didn’t mean that there wasn’t someone who could fit that role.” It could describe Johnny’s relationship with Miguel, but it could also be describing Daniel’s own growing closeness to the kid.
Cobra Kai is full of these surrogate relationships. At Cobra Kai, Robby quickly becomes an older brother figure to Kenny, whose real brother is in juvie. When Kenny gets picked on by Hawk and some other Miyagi-Dos on a tour of West Valley High School with the other eighth-graders, Robby takes action. He goes to Johnny, asking him to get Hawk to stop the bullying. And when the onslaught continues at the local drive-in screening of Bloodsport, Robby puts himself between Kenny and the Miyagi-Dos, agreeing to a rumble at the baseball diamond. (It turns out to be a trick to get them caught in the sprinklers.)
You can guess the two-word solution Kreese has: Strike back. But Terry Silver, officially back as a Cobra Kai teacher, points out that got them nowhere before. To restore Cobra Kai to its former glory, they need to learn from their mistakes and try something new. The episode ends with the two men showing up at the Miyagi dojo, reuniting Daniel with the man who traumatized him back in The Karate Kid Part III.
But this Terry Silver has a gift he didn’t have in the ’80s: perspective. He’s able to shake Kreese out of repeating old patterns, and he warns Robby that channeling his anger isn’t enough; he needs to face his fears head-on or they’ll hold him back. When Robby confronts Johnny, he makes those fears explicit: Becoming his father is his worst nightmare. He rejects Johnny’s warning about Kreese brainwashing him, insisting that he’s only using Cobra Kai to get what he wants.
While Robby and Miguel both have a number of different father figures vying for their attention now, Tory is in a desperate search for a parent of her own. When Amanda sees her getting obnoxiously taunted by Sam at a kid’s birthday party — Tory is in character as a mermaid as part of her job — she tacitly offers her help. “No one can help you if you don’t let them,” she says. “If you ask, you might be surprised.”
I appreciate that Amanda has developed some empathy for Tory, and I also appreciate that the show isn’t exactly papering over the multiple times she almost murdered Sam. Amanda makes sure to point out that Tory can’t exactly fault Sam for trolling her with glitter bombs and sloppy Miguel kisses when Tory did much worse. If a surrogate relationship is happening here, it’s developing slowly and realistically. For all the exciting fights and winking references, it’s those moments of unexpected empathy and connection that this series often does best.
Mr. Miyagi’s Little Trees
• In a flashback scene, young Johnny learns his mom is engaged. He’s understandably resistant to the idea of having a “new daddy,” which ties back to his paranoia about telling Miguel about him and Carmen. The flashback also provides an unexpected origin story to Johnny’s attachment to Coors Banquet, which his mom finds in the box of his deadbeat dad’s old things.
• Miguel’s dad must be showing up later this season, right?
• Referring to the harder rock bands Johnny loves, Miguel assures him, “They’re cool, too. It’s just different, is all.” Daniel and Johnny’s music tastes — and Miguel’s enjoyment of both — serve as a smart parallel to Miguel’s attitude toward them as mentors.
• Another great unspoken detail that furthers Johnny’s paranoia about Miguel and Daniel: The sprinkler trick reminds him of being doused with a hose by Daniel in The Karate Kid.