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My Love Letter to Cobra Kai

With the new (and maybe conclusive?) season coming out at the end of this year, I thought I’d talk about why this series appeals to me.

Because it really shouldn’t. For one thing, I didn’t see The Karate Kid until I was like, thirty? So I didn’t grow up with it in my pop culture bubble. I liked talking animals, cartoons, and cool robots. I did not go for cough, cough realism. Same reason I never watched The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Dirty Dancing, Uncle Buck, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Top Gun, or Commando. Unless it had some fantasy element in it, I wasn’t buying.

But now I’m a grown-up and I can appreciate all the genres. When I finally saw The Karate Kid, I wished I had seen it as a child. I liked that Daniel wasn’t a perfect kid–he had a mouth that got him in trouble, that he tried learning martial arts from a book (something I also did). I liked the nurturing Luke-Yoda relationship with Mr. Miyagi. I liked that the bully, Johnny, wasn’t just a trope, but he had a reason for acting as he did (a poor sensei + obnoxious NY kid muscling on his girl + friends to keep a rep for). Best of all, Daniel-san conquers his demons, beats the bully with a super move (really just a glorified jumping front kick), and wins the day. Just like a good eighties movie should.

But they never tell you what happens afterward.

Sure there was The Karate Kid Part 2 and Part 3 (and we don’t talk about the Hilary Swank/Michael Ironside one). But number two shares little continuity with the first. And the third had a good concept poorly executed (turn Daniel into a Johnny). But what of Johnny?

But what happened to the bullies in The Neverending Story after they were chased by Falcor? Did they start treating him better, revere Bastion as a god, or declare themselves insane thinking they were chased by a puppy-dragon? What did Baby and Patrick Swayze do after their sexy dancing? Was Swayze fired? Did Baby write letters to her beau? Did Scut Farkus change after Ralphie handed him his ass in A Christmas Story? We don’t know. The fairy tales end when the dragon dies.

You always tell yourself that the jack-offs from your youth went on to get low-paying crappy jobs, lived crappy lives. That they peaked in high school and went downhill from here. Wil Wheaton said that a friend once told him “If you win at high school, you lose at life.” So that’s why Cobra Kai had immediate appeal to me from the first episode. Because it shows what the high school bully did after the little David slung stones at him.

Johnny is working in a crappy job, living in a crappy flat, eating crappy food, drinking crappy beer, having a crappy family, living a crappy life. I get a little bit of schadenfreude seeing him suffer from the fact that what worked in high school does not work in real life.

But you know what I also love? A redemption arc.

Johnny is a fallen king. A bad king to be sure, but you can’t say he didn’t have what we all wanted–friends, a girlfriend, parties, respect, and the ability to fight. He could have run away to the other of the country to escape his humiliation, exile himself. Maybe join the Bundy’s in Nevada. But he stayed in Southern California, probably because that’s all he knows. And he’s been haunted by the mistakes of his past for twenty years. I can’t imagine that — nothing in my life has lasted twenty years yet. Not a marriage, not my kids.

But I also relate because we all feel we got screwed over in high school. Both because of things we did on our own and what was influenced by the people we associated with. I look at the opportunities my kids get nowadays and I want to kick my high school in the nuts. Opportunities that might have steered me away from the bitter personality I have today.

And for Johnny, that bitter ire has a face–Daniel LaRusso. It’s like a ghost that never leaves him. Seeing him plastered on billboards, getting away with things because he has money. Meanwhile, the only thing that you love gets trashed by him. It’s gone beyond punishment for past sins and is now torture.

The question is does Johnny deserve redemption. Yes…ish? I believe he’s served his time and he has learned his lessons. What’s great about the Cobra Kai series is that even though he’s trying to not make the same mistakes, he’s also A) making all new ones B) still making some of the same mistakes he made as a youth. It’s hard to break away from those behaviors when that’s how you got positive reinforcement in your formative youth.

Cobra Kai is about the trappings of nostalgia while using a nostalgic medium (that’s why it’s so genius!). That we see the past through rose-colored glasses, even while its knife is still sticking in our sides. We forget the crap that came with it, like a Rennaissance Fair. Those things never mention the disease, the child death, the slavery, the forced marriages, and all the poop everywhere (see Horrible Histories).

We also see that Daniel LaRusso’s life isn’t 100% perfect either. He’s finding that what worked for him in high school also has trouble being applied today. The karate techniques he learned don’t work for everyone (kids don’t have the patience to wash cars anymore). He can’t relate to his daughter. The protege he took under his wing betrays him. And he vastly underestimates the evil that high school kids are capable of (especially when they have a karate fight in his own house).

But what’s additionally great about Cobra Kai is that the characters are always evolving and changing. It’s two sides of the same coin–LaRusso is also still trapped in his past, it’s just had a better influence on him. But he still keeps revisiting it because that’s where he spent the best times of his life.

You can only take Cobra Kai as seriously as one could take the original Karate Kid. Those cheesy fights go on way longer than is plausible. And you can’t get out of a medical halo in a week. But the characters, their search for relevance in today’s world weighs around their neck. That’s what makes the cheesy parts forgiven. Because if you can relate to those characters, that’s what makes great stories.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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