I suppose Johnny and Daniel could only keep getting along for so long. Cobra Kai has repeatedly tested their partnership this season, but until now they’ve stuck together, moving past their differences to show their students two different, equally valid interpretations of karate. In “Match Point,” both of them give up. Maybe some partnerships just aren’t meant to last, they figure. Maybe if they keep trying to make this work and it still isn’t working, there’s no reason to stay together.
What kicks off all this drama: a visit to Miyagi-Do from Terry Silver and John Kreese, reminding the two sensei about the deal they made to stop teaching karate if they lose the All Valley. Silver apologizes to Daniel for his “inexcusable” behavior back in the ’80s, and it’s true that he’s different now — he’s (probably?) not on coke anymore, and he’s actually preaching temporary pacifism to the Cobra Kai kids, urging them to store their anger and use it at the tournament. It even causes some tension with Kreese, though the episode ends with Silver admitting his friend was right about him living a lie.
The Terry Silver of Cobra Kai is generally wiser and less psychopathic than the Terry Silver of The Karate Kid Part III, but the old Silver still lives in Daniel’s mind. After recapping their past to Johnny at the bar, he tells him that you “can’t strike first” with Silver — thus, Daniel should take over training, since Miyagi-Do defeated the man before. Johnny objects, of course, especially since he’s smarting from Kreese’s taunt about him playing second fiddle to Daniel. He points out the two of them never actually fought to the finish, and just like that, it’s happening: a tournament-style fight on the sparring deck, winner takes all the students.
What’s striking about this is that not all of the students are particularly excited for the fight. Like the audience, both groups of students have benefited from seeing Daniel and Johnny working together; they’re not eager for a breakup, even if the prospect of a Daniel-Johnny rematch is irresistible. For a while, it seems like they’ll call it off. When Amanda hilariously confronts Daniel about it, he suggests it was just the alcohol talking, and they weren’t serious. (“Seriously, Daniel? Are there any other Cobra Kais from your past that are gonna come out of the woodwork and destroy our lives?” “No. Well, I can’t say that for sure.”) Sam, standing in for the Miyagi-Do students in general, defends Johnny’s “different style,” telling her dad she wants to learn both. Miguel, the corresponding Eagle Fang representative, tells Johnny the same.
But Daniel and Johnny’s egos get in the way, as they so often do. Instead of listening to their students, they react defensively, taking away the wrong lessons from the pushback. Johnny calls Daniel’s style “ancient philosophical bullshit,” while Daniel (maybe unfairly) attributes Sam’s growing aggression to Johnny’s teaching. They each have their own training montage remembering all the times they’ve been insulted or hurt by the other; Johnny listens to Survivor’s “Burning Heart” from the Rocky IV soundtrack, and Daniel addresses Mr. Miyagi. He says that he tried and tried, but settling this with a fight is the only option. It’s clear he’s rationalizing his own ego trip out of guilt. He knows how Miyagi would react if he were here.
Right up to the start of the fight, there’s a chance to back down. Johnny, to his credit, suggests, “Maybe there’s a better way.” But Daniel’s blinders are on full display this episode, and he immediately rejects any option other than him as sole sensei, full stop. “Don’t you ever think you might be wrong about anything?” Johnny asks. While both men’s egos made this happen, I’m inclined to side with Johnny on this one: This time, Daniel’s constant perception of himself as the hero is actually negatively impacting his students.
If you guessed Daniel and Johnny would somehow tie, since it would break the show to prove either of them as definitively better than the other, you were right. Each sensei scores two points, then they strike each other and connect simultaneously for the third point. It’s a funny moment and one that you’d think would help them realize how misguided this all is, how perfectly they complement each other in their differing approaches.
But then Hawk shows up, his mohawk shaved and maimed by the Cobra Kai kids as revenge, and everything feels gravely serious again. Johnny wants to strike back, of course, and Daniel wants to break the cycle of violence, of course. The drama here is compelling because the circumstances are engineered perfectly for a blow-up, based on who Johnny and Daniel are. Both men are stubborn, ego-driven, and slow to forgive, and their central teaching ideologies are diametrically opposed. But when they’re willing to meet in the middle, magic can happen because they share values: They love karate, they’re nostalgic, they want to do the best by their families, they fiercely care. At this juncture, faced by the psychological threat of the two sensei who literally abused them as kids, they just can’t help surrendering to their worst impulses.
It gets personal when Sam tells her dad Johnny is right, and Daniel smiles bitterly. “And you were worried about my influence on your kids?” he asks. “Is this what you want, Johnny? To have my daughter and the rest of my students acting like you?” It’s the point of no return, and you can’t blame Johnny for taking his students and going. It’s clearer than ever that there’s no strict bully/victim divide here anymore, if there ever was.
It’s likely that this split won’t last very long; the tournament should remind the two sensei how much they need each other. But it still hurts in the moment, for everyone involved. We didn’t want this. They didn’t, either.
Mr. Miyagi’s Little Trees
• Demetri and Yasmine are happier than ever together, and Hawk might have a chance with Moon again now that she and her girlfriend are broken up. The first cafeteria scene of the show — with Miguel, Demetri, and Hawk gawking from afar at Sam, Yasmine, and Moon — is funnier to think about every year.