With everyone back in the Valley, “Playing With Fire” feels like a back-to-basics episode of Cobra Kai. There’s a little of everything: a little teen relationship drama, a little adult relationship drama, a little karate, and a new appearance from a character from the movies: one “Mike fucking Barnes.”
At the end of season four, Terry Silver mentioned a plan to bring back an old friend or two to help with Cobra Kai. He repeats that threat to Daniel and Chozen in the first scene of this episode, leading the two men to take preemptive action. If Silver’s words last season immediately made you think of Mike, you were on the right track; Daniel also figures Silver is going after Mike, whom he tracks down with Chozen’s help.
The episode builds up the tension around “karate’s bad boy” so much that it becomes a little obvious he won’t be the bully Daniel and Chozen expect him to be. Still, the classic series of misunderstandings that follows is great fun, starting with the two handsaws he removes from his trunk (“good for cutting bone,” Chozen notes) and continuing with the phone conversation Daniel overhears. Even knowing that Daniel is probably missing some context, it’s delightful to wonder what else Mike could mean when he mentions wanting to “get rid of that Italian piece of shit.” The same goes for this declaration: “By the time I’m finished with them, they’re gonna be unrecognizable. I’m gonna start by cutting off their legs.”
The truth, which Daniel learns when he grabs the phone from Mike, is that he owns a furniture store passed down from his father-in-law. As Daniel and Mike catch up, we get a drastically different picture of the needlessly cruel mercenary bully of The Karate Kid Part III. After he was banned from karate in 1985, he picked up odd jobs and discovered a new calling. Since then, he’s wanted to apologize to Daniel but didn’t want to dredge up unpleasant memories. “It’s nice to know there are some ex-Cobra Kai out there who actually don’t want to get in a fight with me,” Daniel admits.
Of course, this immediately leads to a fight between Mike and Chozen, the latter of whom mistakes their shadowboxing for a real fight (and already beat down the “goons” who, it turns out, were Mike’s employees). Once everything’s been cleared up, Mike mentions an old lawyer of Silver’s who could help expose him — but the voicemail Daniel leaves him immediately gets passed along to Silver, who confronts him ominously in the sauna at the club they belong to. “I told you not to play with fire,” he says, assuring Daniel that he’ll deal with them after he deals with his “old friend.”
In the episode’s closing moments, we see exactly what that means for Mike Barnes, who finds his furniture store burning to the ground. (Silver’s threats are very literal.) I can’t believe I’m saying this about the little shit who once snapped Mr. Miyagi’s bonsai tree, but poor Mike! His monologue catching Daniel and us up to what his life has been like since that fateful All Valley Tournament is surprisingly effective in endearing us to him. While I don’t anticipate him becoming a Chozen-level major character this season, I hope we see more of him.
The other storylines of the episode are much more grounded. When Carmen suspects she might be pregnant, the old Johnny rears his immature head, panicking about how unprepared he is to have another kid. He doesn’t want to be that guy anymore. Still, it takes some time to himself — and a welcome heart-to-heart with Miguel, whom he offers some simple but genuinely good advice — to remind him that he isn’t. By the end of the episode, he can swaddle a baby. He’s turned the filthy bachelor pad we’re used to into something alarmingly clean and kid-friendly. (But not before a truly disgusting shot of the army of cockroaches under his couch cushions.)
Carmen eventually comes over with the news: they’re having a baby! “Badass” is the best possible response you could get from Johnny Lawrence. It’s a good week for Carmen, whose relationship with Miguel is tighter than ever now that he’s home and everything is out in the open.
Miguel is most occupied in this episode with Sam, their relationship on shaky ground. As the two of them share a tense back-and-forth over text, we get some much-needed time with the friend trios that were neglected in the last couple of episodes. On one side, Demetri and Eli show some adorable (and justified) concern about the lack of emojis in Sam’s texts; on the other side, Yasmine and Moon urge Sam to keep it cool and wait until they can talk in person.
Demetri has the right idea when he and Eli take Miguel to a jewelry store to buy an expensive octopus charm for Sam. (Jacob Bertrand’s earnest delivery of “Do you maybe have one with fewer tentacles?” is perfect.) And Johnny has the right idea when he tells Miguel to be honest with Sam. But when it comes down to it, the biggest issue in their relationship can’t be solved with a gift or even a sincere apology. It’s Sam who needs some time to herself now, the same way Miguel did when he spontaneously took off for Mexico to find his dad. Her time in a sensory deprivation tank earlier — sorry, a “self-actualization pod” — made her realize how much shit she has to sort through.
While I like Sam, her angstiness (along with Robby’s) can sometimes get old; she’s rarely given a chance to have fun and crack jokes like Miguel and his friends. It feels like Tory traumatizes her differently every season and goes on living rent-free in her head. That’s continuing this season: In the tank, she sees various characters demanding different things from her, with a hallucination of Tory transforming into a hallucination of Sam herself. They even come to blows in a fight reminiscent of Sam and Tory’s brutal Miyagi-Do brawl in season three.
Let’s hope Sam’s time alone helps get over her demons before they become too repetitive — and let’s hope the romantic angst doesn’t overwhelm everything else the way it occasionally has in the past. Either way, “Playing With Fire” feels like a return to the Cobra Kai we know and love.
Mr. Miyagi’s Little Trees
• Eli, who once turned his moon tattoo into a Grim Reaper tattoo after Moon dumped him, now covers up that tattoo with a lotus flower for Miyagi-Do.
• “That guy tried to kill me once. You don’t forget or forgive something like that,” Daniel says about Mike, not realizing he’s offended Chozen. “Except you,” he hilariously backpedals. “You and I, we’re good.”
• At least Chozen gets a nice couch from Mike before the store burns down. I love the moment when Mike charges him more, probably still aching from that stomp on his knee.
• Johnny tries to get a refund on his ill-functioning “Tiger Glove” condoms, which are labeled “best condom in the wild kingdom.”
• A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it callback: when Johnny types in “How to,” his prior search results are “How to tell my student that I’m banging his mom,” “How to get rid of graffiti,” and “How to find hot babes.”