Sunday, April 28, 2019

"Cobra Kai," Season 2: review

[NB: spoilers.]

I just noticed that my review of "Cobra Kai," Season 1 came out almost exactly a year ago. This seems to mean that YouTube Premium is pushing this series out at a rate of one season per year, which makes me worry about how long the series can really last. Both Ralph Macchio (Daniel Larusso) and William Zabka (Johnny Lawrence) are in their fifties; they're not getting any younger. By the time we hit Season 5 or 6, our leads are going to be in or near their sixties—far from decrepit, but also far from spry. We'll see what the future holds, I suppose; in the meantime, we'll simply enjoy each season as it arrives.

Season 2 of "Cobra Kai" picks up where the end of Season 1 left off: with the return of mean old sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove). Kreese is no longer the loud, angry man he was back in the 1980s: he's older, time-weathered, softer-spoken, and arguably cleverer and subtler. ("Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made."—Gen. 3:1, KJV) Along with Johnny's adoptive father (Ed Asner), Kreese is an abusive paternal figure from Johnny's past, and his arrival stirs up strong emotions in Johnny. Over the course of Season 2, the Johnny-Kreese arc focuses on Johnny's own struggle to gain perspective and realize that Kreese's presence in Johnny's dojo can't bode well. Johnny is trying to take Cobra Kai in a new and arguably better direction, away from the nasty Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy doctrine written in large letters on the dojo's walls. He genuinely cares, in his own gruff way, for his students' welfare, and he is sincerely trying to put them on a path of good moral conduct and success. Kreese, who wants to insinuate himself into Johnny's project by repeatedly noting that he's the one who founded Cobra Kai, moves slowly but surely in on Johnny's territory, breaking through the layers of the younger man's caution until the old snake is finally in a position to take the dojo back from his former student.

Johnny's relationship with Daniel goes through much the same roller coaster as in Season 1. Season 2 features a different sort of bonding moment between the two, but the harmony is shattered in the final episode when something happens involving the kids. I felt that Season 1 did a very good job of balancing our sympathies between Johnny and Daniel; it was easy to want to root for both them. Season 2, though, seems to depict Johnny more sympathetically than it does Daniel, who comes off as an imperceptive asshole incapable of seeing anything deeply. We see the human side of Johnny, who gets a couple crying moments this season—first when he's telling his best student Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) about how much he regrets abandoning his son Robby (Tanner Buchanan), and next when he's standing outside Miguel's hospital room when Miguel has been injured in a high-school brawl. Daniel's own sense of competitiveness is part of what leads him to create a dojo where he teaches Miyagi-do karate for free, and because he has set his dojo up as a rival to Cobra Kai's, it's only natural that his students and Johnny's students will carry that rivalry into their own lives. Daniel's obsession over creating and maintaining his new dojo is even affecting his marriage and his job performance: his wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) is increasingly frustrated with how Daniel has been abandoning his duties at the car dealership (where the Larussos have lost one of their best employees), and she's not happy with how all this karate mania in the San Fernando Valley is happening alongside a spike in teenage violence.

In fact, one of the things Season 2 does well is to question the very idea that learning a martial art can be beneficial. By the time we hit Episode 10, things literally get bloody. When a school-wide fight breaks out between students from the two rival karate schools, and both Daniel's daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) and Johnny's student Miguel get seriously injured, the situation has turned grim. Episode 10 ends with no clue as to what the real-world consequences of the brawl will be; in the real world, assault with a deadly weapon is a jailable offense (a Cobra Kai girl named Tory assaults Sam with a bracelet covered in short blades), and Robby's enraged sucker attack on Miguel could be seen as attempted murder. I have no idea whether season 3 will soft-pedal the violence; I'm actually kind of hoping that the dramedy will aim for legal realism, here, but I'm not holding my breath. What the episode does show, however, is how the women in Daniel's and Johnny's lives reject all karate in the aftermath of the in-school violence: Amanda tells Daniel, "No more karate!" and Johnny's potential girlfriend, Miguel's mother Carmen (Vanessa Rubio), tearfully tells Johnny she never wants to see him again because of the way she thinks he has poisoned her son's mind.

Season 2 is as good as Season 1 when it comes to weaving a very tangled web of relationships. The drama is often soap-operatic, what with Sam and Miguel still having feelings for each other despite Sam's having recently fallen for Robby (who has moved into the Larussos' home). The introduction of tough, bitchy Tory (Peyton List) gives Miguel someone else to pay attention to, but Tory quickly turns out to be bad news, and she's very partial to the harder-core instruction being given by Master Kreese because she sees life as a struggle in which the under-privileged have to fight for everything they want. Miguel is still basically a decent kid, but a bit like Sam in Season 1, he tends to hang with the wrong crowd, and all those toxic personalities are going to have a bad influence on him.

One of the climactic fights in Episode 10 is between Johnny and Daniel. I'd say, given the choreography, that Johnny arguably whoops Daniel's ass this time, but Daniel is still standing and still seething with anger: he goes nuts when he discovers that his daughter, drunk after a wild party, has ended up spending the night at Johnny's place. (Sam insisted on not going home because she didn't want her parents to see her in her current drunken state; Robby obligingly took her to his father's apartment.) Daniel discovers his daughter's whereabouts when he traces Sam's iPhone all the way to Johnny's apartment, and when Johnny refuses to let the furious Daniel in, Daniel kicks in the front door, and the two end up fighting. Johnny has every right to defend himself in his own domicile, and there's no way to read this scene other than to say Daniel is utterly in the wrong. We could perhaps justify Daniel's wildness by observing that this is about his daughter's welfare, but it's Daniel's own fault that he doesn't even try to assess the situation rationally. All he sees is that his daughter is being kept by his enemy. Johnny actually tells Daniel to "calm down" before Daniel kicks in the door. Ultimately, both Robby and Sam run out from the back bedroom and beg the two adults to stop fighting. The way the scene is written and shot is consistent with my view that Season 2 is generally more sympathetic to Johnny. Daniel comes off as a hothead who is often the cause of his own troubles. Already convinced that Miyagi-do is the superior way, Daniel is buoyed through life by an underlying arrogance about his own rightness/righteousness. Without the calming, rational influence of his wife Amanda, Daniel would easily spin out of control. This aspect of Daniel's character might be interesting to explore in Season 3 because Season 2's running joke is that Daniel thinks he has mastered Mr. Miyagi's principles for leading a "balanced" life. The issue of balance is treated both sincerely and ironically in Season 2, with Daniel mostly unaware of just how unbalanced he really is.

One huge shocker was seeing Johnny reunite with his old cycle gang from the first movie. The series brings back Bobby, Tommy, and Jimmy, with the angriest and most violent of Johnny's minions, Dutch, conspicuously absent. (Dutch is apparently doing time.) Tommy—the twerp who famously shouted "Get him a body bag! Yeah!" during the finals of the All Valley Karate Tournament in 1984—is now dying of cancer. The gang spirits him out of the hospital for one last Harley joyride; the group ends up at a bar, and the mood darkens when Johnny reveals he's restarted Cobra Kai. Long past their bully-boy years, the rest of the group thinks this isn't the greatest idea. Bobby, now a bald Protestant minister (you'll recall he was the one whom Kreese ordered to injure Daniel's leg in '84), is particularly grim. The conversation ends when a bar fight breaks out, and the group of old men—yes, including the dying Tommy—bring forth their barely remembered karate skills to kick some ass. The group rides out into the woods for an overnight camp, and the next morning, Tommy is found dead while Queen's "The Show Must Go On" plays. Tommy, who shouted the line about the body bag, is shown being zipped into a body bag—a fitting, poetic end for his character.

"Cobra Kai" seems intent on bringing back as many old stars from the movies as possible. There are plenty more characters out there to choose from, and as it turns out, Ali (Elisabeth Shue) is likely to appear in Season 3, so I was wrong in my prediction that the showrunners would never get Ali onto the show. We shouldn't forget that mean old Kreese has a war buddy, Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), who appeared in "The Karate Kid, Part III" as a co-founder of Cobra Kai. There's also Chozen, Daniel's rival from "The Karate Kid, Part II" (Yuji Okumoto), and Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan), the student of Terry Silver.

Overall, Season 2 gets a thumbs-up from me, but after tilting so obviously in favor of Johnny this round, I hope the series will tilt the other way and be a bit more sympathetic to Daniel, who spends much of this season coming off as a temperamental idiot in constant need of correction. Daniel is written smartly enough to have a good side, though; he proves to be a warm and competent teacher even for kids who seem to have zero aptitude for karate, and he even refuses to have a video of one of his fights uploaded to YouTube to promote his dojo.* That said, the focus this time is primarily on Johnny's arc. He's realizing that teaching his kids to be "badass," as he puts it, doesn't mean they need to learn to fight dirty. He wants to teach his kids to fight with both bravery and honor, and by the end of the season, he is openly questioning the six-word Cobra Kai motto, claiming that it's the royal route to becoming an asshole. Johnny is more in the right than he is in the wrong, here, and despite having to deal with his own demons, he's obviously struggling to become a better person. So score one for Johnny this time around. I'll be interested to see how the story evolves come next season.

*Robby, who had gone in search of Amanda Larusso's missing wallet, which had been stolen at a beachfront party, had placed a cell phone in a location to expose the thieves who had taken Amanda's wallet plus a bunch of other wallets. When Robby's attempt to apprehend the thieves on video went wrong, Daniel suddenly appeared and intervened, taking out the three toughs. This exploit got caught on video, and Robby later asked permission to upload the vid to YouTube. Daniel refused, saying that Miyagi-do karate wasn't about taking credit.

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