Netflix has searched high and low for their next big hit to capture this “watch whatever new is on” generation of streaming customers, to mixed success. They have neither the critical acclaim of Apple+ nor the water cooler effect of Disney+, the long in the tooth Stranger Things aside. But humming along in the background, Cobra Kai has proven to be the little engine that could.
The acquisition of the series from the long departed Youtube Red proved to be incredibly shrewd, as its per episode budget is probably less than your average CW episode. Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg’s approach to the revival series has been one of knowing revision balanced with a loving devotion to the entirety of the Karate Kid franchise. In a now waning era of 80’s revivalism, Cobra Kai may very well have proved to be the most successful embrace of the earnest storytelling mechanisms that shined their brightest during the Reagan era. It’s just that damned good, and its addictive nature almost fully justifies the Netflix “drop all at once” model.
Season 5 of Cobra Kai follows up on the tantalizing hook at the end of last season, with Miyagi-Do shutting down thanks to their loss to Cobra Kai in the latest All-Valley Under 18 Tournament. Daniel (Ralph Macchio) then recruits former nemesis Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) to assist in finally taking down the ruthless enemy dojo once and for all. He’s got his work cut out for him though, as Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), having framed John Kreese (Martin Kove) for assault, has begun the spread of Cobra Kai across the valley. It’s basically two men against the world! But what of Johnny (William Zabka)? Well, he’s headed south of the border, and has his son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) in tow to both reconnect as well as find Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), whom he’s played a father figure to this entire series.
This fifth season was basically filmed back to back with season 4 (perhaps due to COVID concerns? Or just talent scheduling? Maridueña is playing Blue Beetle, after all). To say the least, it has some really early struggles. The first two episodes, which are easily the weakest of maybe the entire run of the series, mostly focus on Johnny, Robby and Miguel’s sojourn in Mexico (a not terribly well disguised Puerto Rico). The former two hit the road in the Eagle Fang minivan, building to an eventual reconciliation, while Miguel finally connects with his long absent father (Luis Roberto Guzman). It turns out, he’s not such a great guy, and once Miguel learns this fact, the show literally drops the plot point almost in total. It’s absurd to describe it this way, but that’s genuinely what happens. I’m not sure if the writers felt like they wrote themselves into a corner with the “Miguel’s dad mystery”, or there were scheduling concerns that necessitated a quick resolution, but either way it’s the most deeply unsatisfying narrative effort Cobra Kai has produced to date. That Guzman’s English proficiency is distractingly bad, undercutting any revelatory moments, is also a huge strike against this season kick-off.
But thankfully, there are 8 eight more episodes following, and I’m happy to share that’s when the season you signed up for kicks into gear. Silver has the Valley in the palm of his hand, and everything Daniel and Chozen aim to to do, even subterfuge, is met with immediate turnabout from Silver – to the point where his machinations are driving a wedge between Daniel and Amanda’s (Courtney Henggeler) marriage. I just can’t say enough about, in a show where a lot of actors are clearly having a great time, how deliciously evil Griffith is in his return bout as Terry Silver. Where Kove’s John Kreese has to bridge a gap between duplicity and strained emotional ties, Silver is able to dive headfirst into unrestrained maliciousness, and in so doing, effectively becomes the closest thing Cobra Kai has to a Lex Luthor figure. Griffith has such a charming screen presence and is still quite physically imposing as a threat too. Griffith had a very healthy post-acting career as a producer and a writer in Hollywood, but if there was any justice, he should have been as big as Steven Segal – bigger even.
And while Silver is making “Danny Boy’s” life a living hell, he also is party to one of the deepest continuity cuts that the showrunners have yet showcased by way of new Cobra Kai sensei Kim Da-Eun (Alicia Hannah Kim). The moment this was revealed got a major “WHAT?!?” from this reviewer. If you ever doubted this team’s ability to fully mine every bit of lore of the Karate Kid films, think again.
But with all that said about the bad guys, what still makes this show work at its absolute best is the interplay and budding relationship of Daniel and Johnny. Increasingly over the last couple of seasons, they’ve been on divergent paths. Daniel has largely been the party that faces much of the returning elements of the franchise, particularly in these most recent seasons that are quite mythos heavy. Johnny, on the other hand, has been centered more on a journey of inner growth. Watching that come together – while less exciting on paper – is actually the more satisfying arc overall. Either way, this is the season that finally sees these two fully in acceptance of one another as friends and equals. If you are at all invested in their relationship, this season is going to work like gangbusters for you.
Not long ago, I saw someone on twitter point out that Cobra Kai is basically a live action shonen anime. It was a brilliant observation, and comparing it to series like Hunter x Hunter or maybe more appropriately, Haikyu!!, you can absolutely see the influence this style of storytelling has had on the show’s creative team. The teen anguish, the ridiculous (yet very compelling) fights that break out in public, the training montages, and of course, the tournaments themselves. It all maps perfectly, and this season easily feels like the clearest showcase of that source of inspiration yet, particularly as it builds to a majestic crescendo.
God, this is my favorite show on tv. Give me one more season, pretty please?