We thought 2019 was a Cruel Summer.
But then 2020 happened.
Infinity Warriors, you know the drill about this. There are no spoilers in dojo. Or, rather, no spoilers are allowed out of this dojo.
Where do I even begin with Season Three of Cobra Kai? After waiting for long, after everything that happened in the previous season, it was almost too much to bear.
This series has been excellent. Its creators, Robert Mark Kamen and Josh Heald found the chi — or qi point — between nostalgia from the original Karate Kid films, and building a continuous legacy. You get to see how the events of the past 1980s films, at least so far, affect everyone and everything in Reseda, Los Angeles, California. Each character, from Johnny Lawrence to Daniel LaRusso is given character development decades beyond their film appearances, and their current lives make sense. Johnny attempts to find balance and redemption in a wise-ass way, while Daniel also tries to honour his late mentor and father-figure Mr. Miyagi by passing on his Okinawan karate martial arts to the next generation.
The Balance isn’t an easy one. The story lines with the younger generations, even the older characters are by necessity dramatic, almost soap opera-like in scope: especially when you factor into it teenage friendships and romances. Also, martial arts are depicted as almost superhuman feats: with teenagers smashes themselves into glass and wooden surfaces with only bruises and cuts, and continuing to rain blows down with near eternal amounts of fortitude and endurance … with one grievous exception that ended the last season.
I almost used the term Wuxia here, which confuses matters further when you consider that it is a Chinese genre of martial arts heroes, or chivalry where you get to see the interconnection of relationships between characters, spectacular combat, and their place in societies with unjust or incompetent governing bodies and situations that must be addressed.
Cobra Kai is a near-Wuxia story about teenagers and their adult mentors fighting each other, allying with one another, and navigating the clueless and sometimes opportunistic social strata of the Valley. And it also deals with consequences, made all the more challenging when you consider that the series has to navigate being both a drama and a comedy.
For instance, Johnny Lawrence losing his dojo to his malevolent former mentor Kreese, his prize pupil being critically injured by his alienated son, and everyone leaving him despite attempting to turn his life around could have continued in a darker way, but the show doesn’t allow for that: yet it allows Johnny to process, and deal with these matters in a way that fits in his character. He goes out there and tries to repair the damage, tries to step up in the most abrasive and ridiculous manners possible but you never doubt his heart.
And Daniel LaRusso nearly loses his business, and has to — at least temporarily — give up on his dream to pass on Mr. Miyagi’s Art — Miyagi-Do — after Robby, his first pupil since his own daughter, nearly kills Miguel. He goes to Japan, and then eventually Okinawa where he meets his graceful dancer former love Kumiko, and the reformed and seemingly taciturn Chozen. For me, this is … I loved the entire arc of this season, but it is one of my favourite scenes, where you remember that Chozen was the nephew of Sato, who had almost learned what would be called Miyagi-Do by Mr. Miyagi at his side. He has knowledge of techniques that you see in the other seasons Daniel is lacking: mainly anything to do with chi-disabling, or even healing. Seeing Daniel realize this and that circular journey that links back to his business, that Balance, is a beautiful moment. It makes me wonder if he will ever be Mr. Miyagi’s equal in terms of ability.
Chozen’s redemption makes sense as well. He’s come a long way from that aggressive, angry boy that carried his uncle’s grudge and turned on Kumiko when his uncle all but renounced his old ways. It’s good to know Sato didn’t abandon him, and left him the legacy of Miyagi-Do which makes a nice moment and call-back with Daniel.
A lot of this arc is about healing and reconciliation. Johnny tries to do so with his estranged son Robb, but something always comes in the way. But it is with Miguel, who let’s face it, is his son in all but blood and helping him recover from what seems to be a spinal injury from his fight in Season Two, that heals the both of them.
I even like the fact that we see Samantha, Daniel’s daughter, coping with PTSD from the karate fight at the school and her injuries at Tory’s hands. And Tory becomes something of a spectre of the fear of defeat and pain for Samantha, a legacy of Cobra Kai dojo. She even goes as far as crashing a Christmas Party attempting to reconcile Miyagi-Do with Johnny’s new Eagle Fang dojo with former Cobra Kai members : wearing a sweatshirt with a skeleton reminiscent of the Halloween costume Johnny wore when he attacked Daniel as boy, and I believe even Miguel wears this later. This callback is so elegantly done, and how it should be applied in cinematic storytelling in my opinion.
I like how there are three dojos now, even if the Eagle-Fangs are a bit … weird. Hell, I also appreciate the fact that Demetri gets the arrogant popular girl Yasmine to … sign his cast, and they seem to be dating. Demetri is probably the most I can relate to the show because I grew up with motor-skills issues, and had trouble learning martial arts as a result: if only because my brain has more activity processing information over my body. I was, however, more like Hawk in his initial temperament, before he took the wrong messages from Cobrai Kai and then Kreese getting to him.
Hawk’s own redemption makes sense as he sees himself fighting along side the same bullies that used to torment him. I think the turning point is when Demetri torments him with the fact that his former girlfriend loved him before he became a jerk, and then afterwards when he breaks Demetri’s arm. He finally just … can’t take it anymore. He realizes what Kreese’s Cobra Kai ultimately is, and he actually returns back to his friend’s side.
I am curious to see how Eagle Fang, if it lasts, and Miyagi-Do reconcile their Arts together — extreme defense and possible chi-discipline, and offense as defense with extreme survivalist training regimens.
But there are some things that are irreconcilable. And one of these is John Kresse’s Cobra Kai.
I thought there would be few surprises after the last Season. I believed that this season Daniel might have found out that Miyagi-Do and the Korean Tang Soo Do had a common origin: that Kim Sun-Yung, the practitioner of the latter style learned a variant from Okinawa. Or that he made Cobra Kai, and Kreese and Silver stole and perverted it to their own ends. And while this so far proved not to be true, some of that theory of mine panned out in that Chozen explained to Daniel that the people of Okinawa practiced Miyagi-Do in a disabling offensive, and the implication is that Mr. Miyagi did know this history and these techniques but chose not to teach Daniel because he didn’t think he was ready, and he didn’t want to train a child in the arts of war.
I always thought Kim Sun-Yung taught Kreese and Silver Tang Soo Do, or at least the original Cobra Kai techniques. But we find out differently. Cobra Kai has essentially been almost every character’s martial arts origin story: how they encounter it, and it changes them. What we are gradually introduced to, through this season, is the story of Kreese’s Start of Darkness.
And … I never thought I’d feel bad for Kreese. I didn’t even feel bad for him when he was homeless and Johnny found him. But the show creators make a double feint. They make you think, in the 1960s flashback, that this jock being an asshole to a young girl named Betsy is Kreese, but Kreese is really a diner employee whose mother died after a lengthy mental illness. You might also believe he is already dangerous, but Kreese is a boy that is constantly bullied, and tormented: who just wants to belong and even get acknowledgement. You are made to genuinely feel for him, and when he beats the hell out of those bullies, and Betsy comes to his side, you root for him. I never thought I’d root for Kreese beyond seeing a villain doing evil things.
It’s scary, when he tells Betsy on his way to basic military training to improve his life, that he will come back “a hero” and you know what he will return as the very opposite.
Even when he is sent to Vietnam, he’s still idealistic. He has genuine friends and brothers in the American Army there. We find out, at least at the time, that he and Silver weren’t trained by Kim Sun-Yung, but Kim Sun-Yung trained their commanding officer Captain Turner during the Korean War: who ended up training them. He keeps getting photos and letters from Betsy. He plans to return to her.
And then, everything turns to shit. On a special mission, both Silver and Kreese refuse to detonate a Viet Cong base with Silver inside and they are all captured. The Viet Cong soldiers force their prisoners to fight to the death on a bridge over a pit for their sadistic amusement. Kreese’s superior scolds them and says the reason they are even there, is because Kreese showed mercy and he is thus weak.
Then, Kreese volunteers to fight their former commander in Silver’s place — and you see why Silver owes Kreese his life — only to find out he had a letter where Betsy died in a car crash. This is enough. It sets Kreese over the edge as his former commander tries to kill him, saying “he has nothing left to live for.” And even when American reinforcements come in, Kreese decides — in that one defining character moment — to Captain Turner, who was all too willing to kill him, into the pit.
It makes you wonder, much in the way I wondered what would have happened if Daniel and Johnny knew each other before the events of The Karate Kid — when we find out Johnny was a geeky kid bullied and humiliated by his rich, cold, arrogant stepfather — what would have happened if Mr. Miyagi had met young Kreese, or if the other characters could have seen him then. Or what young Kreese would think if he could see what he has become.
It also makes me wonder what would have happened if Betsy hadn’t died, or Kreese hadn’t gone to Vietnam. I always thought he had simply had a desk job or he exaggerated about his time in the Green Berets. I truly believed Kreese had been a coward, but seeing what happened to him doesn’t take away from his maliciousness or his evil. Even villains are human beings. I like to think that when he saw what Tory’s landlord was attempting to do to her, and he remembered Betsy and her former boyfriend, there was a small part of that young, tormented man left: somewhere in there.
But, I could argue that John died in Vietnam: with Betsy and his innocence. What came back was Kreese. What returned was Cobra Kai.
I do feel sympathy for the man Kreese used to be. He was used by the American military industrial complex and discarded, a weapon left to his own devices. He is the subversion of the macho American soldier-hero: venerated and despised. More than Rambo, as Daniel’s wife derisively calls him, this is a realistic, damaged version of what an action hero — once charming and bad-ass, even still having those qualities — would be like.
Moreover, this depiction of Kreese in the American military shows you that the conflict between forces like Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai is older than the rivalry between Johnny and Daniel. It is a struggle between the ideals of self-defense, and a powerful and aggressive offensive. However, I also consider that Mr. Miyagi had to leave his first love in Okinawa when his friend and brother turned on him, that he had been interned with his wife and family in America, that his wife and child died in the camps while he was fighting for the country that imprisoned them, and how he did not turn bitter and hateful. He didn’t turn into a monster. He didn’t embrace his demons. We see Mr. Miyagi mourning his wife and child in the first Karate Kid film, but he still maintains his compassion and seeks to help others .. just as we see that, while he saved Daniel through his guidance and training, Daniel saved him too by being his friend and surrogate son.
Perhaps it’s because Mr. Miyagi learned martial arts during peace among his family, from his father, while Kreese learned it in one of America’s most contested wars. But even that isn’t true when you consider that Mr. Miyagi taught his commanding officer Lieutenant Pierce martial arts during WWII according to The Next Karate Kid, and the man did not seem to have turned into the cruel monster that Kreese became.
This whole season is excellent. Because karate, or martial arts, is used as a metaphor here. While in Season Two it had become a tool to talk about violence in American schools as something of a messy mixed metaphor — and the show and the original films eternally focus on the themes of bullying and abuse — Kreese’s Cobra Kai, with its terrorist tactics, and social undermining, with its survival of the strong, might as well be fascist. Miyagi-Do and what becomes Eagle Fang are people and ideologies against each other, but both want to help people who are outcast and lost — the youth and next generation — in the Valley.
You have a community that equates them all together as the same, all dangerous, and do almost nothing to stop them: while also going as far as to give bullies and abusers equal time and care, a tone-off approach to bullying. But it’s only when both the Miyagi-Do and Eagle Fang spectrums unite to defend themselves, and also have a place to face off against the malignancy of Cobra Kai that we realize this series isn’t over yet. The battle has only begun, and it is a process. An event.
It’s timely, what Cobra Kai does with this metaphor of martial arts, and it makes me miss the days when I practiced them. And this conflict, this struggle for Balance, this cycle of success and failure, of battles with one’s inner demons and adversity never ends.
It will never die.