Cobra Kai may be the most aggressively nostalgic show on television right now. A sequel of sorts to the original Karate Kid movies, it features characters from those 1980s films, including underdog turned winner Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and his martial arts rival Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), who, even in midlife, are still fixated on the events that transpired in those movies.
During the first two seasons, both become sensei at competing dojos and draw their teenage students, including their own children, into the conflict that has fueled their decades-long mutual dislike. Both spend a lot of time reflecting on or reveling in moments from their youth. Johnny’s fashion aesthetic might best be described as “hair band T-shirt non-chic,” while Daniel assesses every life decision by asking WWMMD, or “What would Mr. Miyagi do?”, a reference to his late mentor, played in the movies by Pat Morita. The series itself, co-created by three Gen-Xers — Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald, co-writer of Hot Tub Time Machine — blatantly caters to Gen-X nostalgia with frequent flashbacks and references to the movies and a stylistic approach that makes Cobra Kai itself feel like a product of the 1980s. Dramatic fight scenes, corny dialogue, and an abundance of generic ’80s pop music abound.
Yet, in contrast to all that, the underlying message of Cobra Kai is this: Nostalgia can be toxic. In the most recently dropped third season, the first to go directly to Netflix after the streamer acquired seasons one and two from YouTube, that theme is banged on even harder than it has been before. Both Johnny and Daniel begin to realize that they may be able to do more good by burying the hatchet and working to undo the damage their relentless one-upmanship has wrought on a younger generation. When Ali (Elisabeth Shue), the woman who fueled the competition between them as teenagers, reenters their lives late into the season, she sounds an alarm for both of them. “Sometimes it’s good to visit the past so you know where you are today,” she tells Johnny. “But you can’t live in the past.”
The show’s excessive sentimentality and its paradoxical emphasis on the need to break from the constraints of the familiar are the most interesting things about it, and also the most confusing, especially in this latest season. Because Cobra Kai itself doesn’t quite practice what it preaches, it is hard to take that “don’t live in the past” theme seriously.
The way that Johnny Lawrence is portrayed exemplifies this problem. One of the hallmarks of Cobra Kai is that it aims to bring more nuance to its characterizations than the Karate Kid movies did. Johnny, someone to root against in The Karate Kid, is a screwup in Cobra Kai, but the show takes care to reveal his gentler side and desire to become better. Similarly, though Daniel remains the more mature and measured of the two, we also can see how petty and condescending he can be.
But Johnny is more complicated because, in so many ways, he remains emblematic of the stereotypical awful older white dude. He uses inappropriate language, calling people pussies on the regular. He is culturally out of touch, so much so that the show asks us to believe that he doesn’t understand how the internet works at all. (Until recently, he had somehow never heard of Wi-Fi.) He believes so much in tough love that when he tries to help his star pupil, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), recover use of his legs after being paralyzed from the waist down, one of his approaches is to set the kid’s foot on fire.
The series doesn’t endorse Johnny’s attitudes or behavior; often, his detachment from contemporary reality and his old-school attitudes make him the butt of Cobra Kai’s jokes. But it also doesn’t un-endorse Johnny’s attitudes and behavior, either. Eventually, his unorthodox methods of training Miguel pay off, which suggests that going hard — an approach that is specifically depicted as a departure from what Miguel’s New Agey physical therapist does — is the most effective way to get results. Johnny also takes Miguel to a Twisted Sister concert as if the kid would (a) know who Twisted Sister is and (b) enjoy seeing Dee Snider live. Cobra Kai can and does foist ’80s pop culture on anyone within leg-sweeping distance.
Later in the season, Johnny is forced to form his own new dojo after his former mentor, John Kreese (Martin Kove), retakes control of Cobra Kai. The first scene of episode eight toggles between the three instructors — Kreese, Johnny, sensei of the unfortunately named Eagle Fang dojo, and Daniel, sensei at Miyagi-Do — to highlight the contrast between what they preach. Kreese, of course, still advises his charges to show no mercy. Daniel advocates for compassion and only acting in self-defense. Johnny has become the middle ground between the two. “Eagles don’t get shit on,” he tells the group of mentees before him. “They’re the ones that do the shitting.” But then he adds: “Being a badass doesn’t mean being an asshole. Your goal isn’t to hurt other kids.”
For Johnny, one of the consummate ’80s teen movie assholes, this messaging technically counts as progress. But it is also still flawed. “Be the ones that do the shitting” hardly counts as an inspiring mantra, and it still implies resorting to violence. Like Johnny, Cobra Kai views the younger generation as capable of being better than their elders. But also like Johnny, Cobra Kai likes to call them out for being too soft.
Here’s another example: After the “all-out karate riot” (the show’s words) at the end of season two that caused Miguel’s injuries, the high school takes anti-violence measures to ensure that students are respectful to each other. When one of the nastier Cobra Kais picks a fight with some Miyagi-Do kids, he’s able to talk his way out of trouble by saying he was “triggered in his safe space.” That sort of language is lampooned on the show in the same way that Miguel’s liberal, granola physical therapist is. Being a bully is most certainly a negative according to Cobra Kai’s moral code, but so is the decision to show too much sensitivity.
As Johnny puts it so eloquently, the reason to learn karate is “to show the world that you’re not a bunch of pansy-ass nerds.” That’s not the reason Daniel cites for learning karate. He believes in what Mr. Miyagi taught him about balance and using violence only when necessary. But Daniel still gets into a lot of serious, real-world fights during the course of the series, outside the framework of karate tournaments. As much as Cobra Kai acknowledges the hazards of both toxic nostalgia and toxic masculinity, it can’t quite shake the testosterone that infused so much mainstream entertainment in the 1980s (and beyond, for that matter).
Perhaps it’s no accident that the clearest voice of reason in season three belongs to a woman: Ali, whose narrative purpose, aside from reminding us that Elisabeth Shue is awesome, is to set Daniel and Johnny’s minds straight. “You both think there’s only one side to the story,” she tells both of them as they bicker during a holiday party. “There’s three.”
“There’s your side,” she says, pointing to Johnny. “There’s your side,” she adds, gesturing toward Daniel. “And there’s the truth.”
Cobra Kai goes out of its way to show us everybody’s sides. But it’s tough to gauge exactly what it thinks the truth is. The series shows as much empathy toward its teen characters as it does toward its adults, and it praises them for being more progressive in certain ways. But as much as it advocates for embracing the present and the future, Cobra Kai also tells us over and over, sometimes quite literally, that things were better in the ’80s.
The third season ends by teeing up a season four showdown between Kreese on one side and a partnered-up Johnny and Daniel on the other, which suggests that maybe the show will finally veer more forcefully from that mindset. Before Johnny and Daniel join forces, Kreese tries to sway Johnny back to Cobra Kai, where Johnny’s son Robby is now under Kreese’s tutelage. If the three of them work together, Kreese says, “We’ll melt this whole snowflake generation.” (The dialogue on this show is not subtle.)
That sounds like something Johnny would say. But he rejects that idea — and Kreese. Maybe the guy who’s stuck in the ’80s and the show that’s stuck there, too, can finally find a way out.