There’s nothing like a big party to stir up some drama. The junior prom around which “Party Time” is centered is shockingly eventful for almost every character of the show, give or take a Kenny. It feels like the second of three climaxes of the season, the first being the dojo schism and the last being the All Valley Tournament. And it effectively sets the table for the season’s endgame, exploding some relationships in the process.
Where to start? Junior prom wouldn’t seem like a huge deal at this point. For Miguel and Sam, it’s a time to relax, spend time together, and not think about karate. Leave it to Robby and Tory, of course, to take a wrecking ball to those plans by making the chaotic-evil (or chaotic-good, take your pick) decision to show up together and give West Valley’s sweetest couple a show. From the moment they arrive, there’s no way this night can go well. There’s just too much history there, too much heartbreak, too much resentment. It’s a powder keg waiting to go off.
The complex love rectangle here reminds me of Cobra Kai’s soapier moments, especially when Sam dated Robby and Miguel dated Tory in season two. Those relationships always felt like placeholders to stall the inevitable Miguel-Sam reunion. They led to a cycle of misunderstandings and miscommunications that sometimes could be frustrating (though I maintain season three is the show’s worst, not the second). In “Party Time,” though, Cobra Kai spins gold from the high-school drama. It’s a nice switcheroo to see Robby and Tory as the uncomplicated couple enjoying themselves for a night, even if their presence is an elaborate provocation to begin with. And it’s a realistic touch to note that Miguel and Sam were both still hurt by their breakups with Tory and Robby, even if they ultimately weren’t right for each other.
It starts with their constant gawking at the dance, and it boils over at Stingray’s afterparty. (More on him in a bit.) Sam calls Tory out for always picking at her leftovers when it comes to boys, eventually giving in to her anger and starting a brawl that spirals out of control until the words are more painful than the kicks. Miguel tackles Tory and they share an intense look on the ground together. Sam grabs Robby and exclaims, “You think I broke your heart? You broke mine, too.” Robby taunts Miguel, saying, “You think my dad cares about you? He’s just trying to make himself feel better for screwing up with me!”
Everyone jumps in when the fight enters the pool, turning an intense fight into just another carefree party moment. Miguel yells at Sam for ruining their night and stalks away when they come to an impasse — neither is quite able to deny that their exes set them off. And again, in an interesting subversion, Tory and Robby are the ones to move on quickly. They enjoy the rest of the night together, complementing each other’s karate moves as they park somewhere in a luxury car borrowed from Terry Silver and share their first kiss.
It’s good to see Tory happy for once, and there’s a nice moment at prom when she verbalizes what winning the tournament would mean for her. All these rich kids around them don’t need this. They’re set for life. But if Tory could just win this one trophy, she’d know she was best at something. It neatly establishes her motivations going into the upcoming tournament, making it harder to automatically side with Sam.
Unfortunately, Robby has no real grasp of the man whose car he’s enjoying. While he’s out having fun, Silver is setting his latest trap. Finding out from Robby’s mom about Silver’s various gifts — he also gave her money and offered her a job — Johnny realizes it’s time to take action. He busts into Cobra Kai and gets a call from Silver, who’s villainously watching him on the cameras. When he comes to the meeting place Silver picks, Johnny steps into his old dojo, the one where he spent so many hellish hours as a teenager. Silver’s planning to buy back the location and expand Cobra Kai the way he and Kreese always wanted to. But for tonight, he basically just wants to use the space to beat Johnny senseless, with the flimsy excuse that he’s trying to demoralize Johnny’s star student.
Until that moment, Silver’s latest show of loyalty to Kreese was really working. But punishing Johnny for his “betrayal” and presenting him on a silver platter is too much because Kreese does care about the man in his own weird way. He orders Silver to just focus on the tournament for now, as they’ve always planned. And Johnny heads home to get shit-faced, devastated by how thoroughly he got his ass handed to him, how completely he failed to protect his son from the monster who wants to break him the way Kreese broke Johnny.
Of all the relationships in the show, Johnny and Miguel’s has not gotten as much attention during this specific episode. But their plots dovetail unexpectedly — and heartbreakingly — late in the episode. When Miguel comes over to vent about Sam, he finds Johnny deliriously drunk on the floor. He helps him to bed like he already has before, and in Johnny’s self-loathing stupor, he opens up. “I wanna be a father to you,” he slurs, wet with beer, spit, and pee. “I really do. I try to protect you. I try to be there for you. I just suck at it. I really suck at it. But I want to so bad.”
“You’re doing just fine,” Miguel says, tearing up. “I love you.” It’s an unbelievably tender moment, almost shocking in its candidness. In a way, it’s the exchange that needed to happen most on this show, an affirmation necessary to preserve its (arguably) most important relationship, a salve after a series of passive-aggressions and dueling allegiances.
Then Johnny, crying in bed, replies, “I love you too, Robby.”
In the last episode, I mentioned the moving scene when Johnny and Miguel reaffirmed their sensei/student, quasi-father/son dynamic. Then this came along to wipe me out. It’s one of the most emotional moments of the whole series, a perfect confluence of bad timing, misinterpretation, and long-building insecurity. It hurts to know that Johnny has been worried about losing Miguel all season, and now he won’t even remember how nakedly emotional and brave Miguel was in speaking how he feels about the man who’s been more of a parent than his absent father ever was. It hurts to know that Miguel undoubtedly remembers Robby’s cruel taunt from earlier and views Johnny’s mix-up as a mortifying rejection when Johnny could easily say those same words to Miguel. And it hurts to know that for all the maturity they’ve both gained over the past year, neither of them will likely rehash the interaction the next day because it’s almost impossible to express love so confidently in the sober light of day.
For all the compelling drama with the season’s central players, though, “Party Time” makes the surprising choice to begin and end with Stingray, the poor middle-aged guy who joined Cobra Kai in season two and hasn’t been seen since. Now he’s back, readier than ever to prove himself. He’s dealing with a sort of bully of his own: Greg, a neighbor who’s fed up with all the loud music and keeps calling him “Stink-Ray.”
When Stingray reports for duty at Cobra Kai and immediately gets shut down by Kreese, told in no uncertain terms that he’ll never be Cobra Kai, it’s easy to see where this is heading. Inevitably, Stingray will get fed up with all the rejection, and he’ll snap at Greg, probably beating him up. And that does happen at the afterparty when he receives another noise complaint and Greg, in turn, receives a roundhouse kick to the face.
But we don’t really see why Stingray is brought back until the final scene when he visits Cobra Kai and pleads with a drunk, furious Terry Silver to let him in. It’s all he wants in the world, he says. Silver’s counteroffer? A brutal beatdown that cuts to black as the episode ends, single handedly transforming Stingray from a silly comic relief character to an almost tragic one, his aspirations cut short in cold, abrupt fashion. And it’s at the hands of the unhinged Silver of The Karate Kid Part III, his mania slightly less cheesy and more genuinely scary.
In every way, “Party Time” clarifies the stakes going into the All Valley Karate Tournament. It conclusively establishes the psychopathic genius of one central villain and the complicated, almost-but-not-quite-conflicted evil of the other. It reopens all the old wounds of love triangles past. Most of all, it showcases the best and worst of the show’s wounded hero, a man trying to be better as both a surrogate father and a biological one. It makes me dread what’s to come; it also makes me more thrilled than ever to find out.
Mr. Miyagi’s Little Trees
• Cousin Louie assures Johnny that he doesn’t hang out with the biker guys who lit Johnny’s car on fire back in season one anymore.
• Louie’s sister Vanessa, who’s studying child psychology in grad school, does some funny armchair psychology to imply Anthony’s unsupervised screen time is the cause of his insolence. Daniel starts to take pity on his grounded son until he hears a ding and cracks Anthony’s hidden tablet over his knee. But Anthony later admits he screwed up and wants to hang out at the dojo again, so I guess Daniel did something right!
• Honestly, Yasmine’s obsession with Demetri is a little much for me, and I’d like to know more about how she abruptly switched from reluctant attraction to full-blown adoration, but good for him. He also rocks a truly amazing Pac-Man suit, so he makes it out of this episode on top.