Confession time. I’m not much of a fan of “binge watching”, but by golly I binged Cobra Kai season 2 in the first 24 hours after it was released. Now, granted, it’s only about five hours long, and all the Cobra Kai mania in my Facebook feed made it a moral imperative, lest I get spoiled. But also, it’s just a binge-worthy show. That’s both a compliment and an insult. The story pulls you in and would be described as a real “page-turner” if it were a book. But it also isn’t a terribly complicated plot and doesn’t need a week between episodes to digest and discuss it around the water cooler.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a deeper message here.
A Quick Recap of Season 2
Overall, I’d say it was a good season, but it wasn’t a great one. The writing this season was not up to the standards of season 1. For one thing, there was way too much of the “withholding information to create tension” trope. Virtually every conflict this season arises out of a misunderstanding because one or both sides do not have all the information. Very frustrating. Many of the characters start fading into one-dimensionality as the main plot drives relentlessly towards the final confrontation and its tragic consequences in episode 10. The payoff is there, but a lot of steps along the way to get us there feel forced, such as the West Side Story style pairing off of Cobra Kai versus Miyagi-Do student rivalries.
The timeframe of season 2 is compressed into the summer months immediately following season 1, which allows for the cast to get whittled down a bit in this season. A handful new characters are introduced to round out the rosters of the two opposing dojos, but honestly with only one exception (new Cobra Kai girl Tory), I found myself completely unable to care about any of them. And let me just say this now, “Stingray” is the Scrappy-Doo of the series, taking the viewer right out of any scene he appears in. Ugh, please, someone punch this guy in the face!
That’s not to say that there weren’t some real golden moments in this season. Johnny’s opening up with Miguel regarding his failures as a parent was particularly well done. A fan wish-fulfillment shipping moment plays out nicely between Johnny and Miguel’s mom, on an impromptu double date with the LaRussos. And once again, the ladies of Cobra Kai have all the best words of wisdom, even if the gentlemen never manage to follow them. The acting from both the older and younger generations was top notch, the fight scenes were much better choreographed, and the use of flashback scenes remains masterful, expanding out to include the sequels in the Karate Kid movie franchise.
And of course, there is that final fight scene. Cobra Kai has never been all that firmly anchored in reality (just consider the junkyard scene from season 1), but this time they really outdid themselves. A 9-minute long battle that stretches from one end of the school to another—probably one of the most epic karate battles ever filmed for a Western production. It’s hard to see how they can continue to heighten things in the now-confirmed third season.
Flipping the Script Again
Last season, there seemed to be a definite theme running through the undercurrent of the story, which I wrote about in Cobra Kai and the Coddling of the American Mind. The ways of the past may still hold some merit in the present. Kids don’t need to be protected from harm, but rather they need to be prepared for it. I’m not gonna lie, I felt a bit vindicated when in the first 30 minutes of season 2, Kreese tells Johnny:
Our society has gotten weak. Kids today are coddled. They get trophies just for showing up. Something’s got to be done.
That said, it’s not clear initially if there is any such theme to season 2. The entire season plays out in service to the final episode, and that, in turn, just seems to be setup for what will come next. It’s not even really a cliffhanger ending. It feels more like the middle act of a three act play. Comparable, if I may be so bold, to The Empire Strikes Back.
At the end of season 1, Johnny saw that his students were making the same bad choices he made as a student of Cobra Kai. He realized he’s gone too far. In preparing them to deal with bullies, he has instead turned them into bullies. He leaves his students to celebrate their victory without him, while he goes back to the dojo to drink alone and ruminate on what went wrong. Having Kreese show up just puts the last nail in the coffin for him.
Nice Guys Get Finished Off
So right away, he course corrects them on the first day back, declaring that cheating and fighting dirty are “pussy moves”. He later coaches them that:
Life’s not black and white. More often than not, it’s gray. And it’s in those gray areas where Johnny Lawrence’s Cobra Kai sometimes shows mercy.
He hasn’t painted over the black words on the white wall behind him, but he can no longer talk about Cobra Kai without a qualifier. “His” Cobra Kai: the one he bragged about to the tournament committee for how it was making a positive difference in his life and the lives of his students.
From Johnny’s perspective as a sensei, the entire season has been about trying to find a balance between “no mercy” and “no honor”. When it was just him, on his own, he didn’t have to worry about that balance. He didn’t have people who depended on him; people he cared about. Now, he tries to live the lesson by showing Kreese mercy, both when they tangle and in giving him a second chance to teach. His star pupil, Miguel, takes the new message to heart as well and shows Robbie mercy in their final fight.
And together, Johnny and Miguel lose everything.
So then, is this the message of Cobra Kai season 2? Nice guys don’t just finish last, they get finished off. When you show mercy, the “real world” continues to tick along showing no mercy, and you’ll be crushed under its boot heel. Certainly, that is where we leave off, but let’s hope that’s not the end of the story.
Becoming the Enemy
If Johnny is on a path to enlightenment, Daniel’s path seems to be headed in the opposite direction. He lacks patience. He angers easily and flies off the handle. He cannot find any balance in his life. More importantly, he views everything as an “us versus them” battle.
Early on, he has this conversation with his daughter:
Daniel: Well, that’s why I’m opening up Miyagi-Do. So we can fight back, take down Cobra Kai.
Sam: I don’t wanna fight them. They’re not my enemies, they’re my friends. At least, they used to be.
Book-ending this discussion, in the final episode of the season, Daniel shows just how little he has grown in this conversation with his wife:
Daniel: I know, I swear, I’m not gonna let Cobra Kai get away with this.
Amanda: Enough with Cobra Kai! Don’t you see what this stupid rivalry has done?
Despite everything that has happened–his daughter in the hospital, his student having turned—Daniel just cannot wake up to the reality of what is going on. He has embraced the “us versus them” mentality, and it is a battle that must be won at all costs. He’s becoming Kreese much more so than Johnny ever has.
The Untruth of Us versus Them
In fact, this was another one of the three “Great Untruths” Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff talk about in their book, The Coddling of the American Mind . The Untruth of Us versus Them: life is a battle between good people and evil people. We allow pundits and social media algorithms to divide us, and those divides just get deeper and deeper. We retreat into bubbles of confirmation, where our worst fears about the “evil” other side are confirmed and amplified. When someone tries to rise above all of this, it’s often the people on their own side that call them out and drag them back in line.
This is an “untruth” because there is no “us” or “them”. No one is wearing an all-white hat, and no one is wearing an all-black hat either. As Sam points out, and Demetri also echoes later, these kids were all friends. The bullies of season 1, Kyler and Yasmine, are not even present in season 2. You see what they did there?
Last season was a commentary on a society that has gotten soft, a society that has accepted a false message of fragility to the point where we are trying to protect kids from thoughts and ideas. This season is a commentary on a society that has gotten too hard. A society where the thinking man hesitates to consider his actions, while the unthinking man charges forth, confidently assured that he is on the side of the angels; a society that has seen civil discourse distilled to sound bites that really only seek a thumbs up from the coliseum crowd; a society without mercy, and without honor; a society where the bullies have won.
What Do We Do When the Bullies Win?
When Johnny and Daniel are brought together in the penultimate episodes of both this and last season, the boundaries defining their lifelong conflict begin to melt away. They have so much in common and are really not so very different. Of course, circumstances always rip them apart again in the next scene, because after all, their conflict is the engine of the series. But I believe it’s inevitable that this is where Cobra Kai is headed as a final resolution.
The bullies win when they tear us apart; when they drag us down to their level; when we willingly give up our mercy and our honor. But the nice guys outnumber the bullies; they just need to stand together. Mark my words, the elusive balance that both Daniel and Johnny seek will be found at a place where Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do come together as one.
Notes / References:
- Haidt, Jonathan and Lukianoff, Greg. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. New York: Penguin Press, 2018