You Guys Wanna Fight?
Cobra Kai: Season 4
It's weird to think about just how long Cobra Kai, the Karate Kid continuation, has been going for. The series, four seasons in, now has way more story and screen time to it than all the previous Karate Kid productions put together (and that includes all four movies, plus the remake and the cartoon, and hell, throw the old LJN video game on there too). An d yet, despite all that, it does feel like the series is circling round its same scenarios over and over again.
The weakest parts of the franchise -- The Karate Kid Part III and The Next Karate Kid -- are criticized for not really pushing the story of the franchise forward. The third film was a dull retread of the first movie, while the fourth basically said, "what if Daniel-san, but a girl?" Neither really gave us fresh stories to latch onto, which is what made Cobra Kai different... initially. A story from the perspective of a character that was the villain? That sounds interesting.
The first couple of seasons certainly played to that, giving us a clash and contrast between Cobra Kai sensei Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and his old rival Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), flipping the script so that Johnny was the underdog while Daniel was suddenly the snotty bad guy. That contrast worked and actually pushed the series through two pretty solid season. The issues have just started to sink in the last couple of seasons with the introductions of past villains John Kreese (Martin Kove) and Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith). The dynamics of the show have changed and that's changed the focus of the show, not always for the better.
In this season of Cobra Kai Daniel and Johnny have been forced to team up after the bet they placed with Kreese that one of their dojos would beat Cobra Kai in the next All-Valley Under 18 Karate Championship (a delightfully ridiculous name that only gets more ridiculous the longer the show goes on). Whatever dojo wins, either Miyagi-Do & Eagle Fang (Johnny's post-Cobra Kai dojo) or Kreese's Cobra Kai, the other dojo goes out of business. This forces an uneasy alliance between Daniel and Johnny as they try to work together so they can defeat Kreese. Since those two are working together, though, Kreese brings in his own big gun: Terry Silver (villain of the third film). Together they hope to make Cobra Kai even better.
While the adults are all circling around each other, bickering and in-fighting, the kids of the dojos have their own issues. Miguel (Xolo Mariduna) starts having father issues, not sure of Johnny's long-term place in his life while longing for a father he never met. Robby (Tanner Buchanan) has his own daddy issues, still hating Johnny (Daniel as well) for years of past betrayals. Life for Tori (Peyton List) completely fell apart after the fight in school (at the end of season two) and she's since been on probation, desperate to keep working while she supports her younger siblings. And Samantha (Mary Mouser) struggles to balance the expectations of her father, Daniel, against her own desires while also (without realizing it) becoming the villain of her own story.
When it comes to the adults I do miss the earlier days of the show when it rivalry was just Johnny versus Daniel. The storyline didn't paint Daniel in the best light but it did allow for a lot of growth from Johnny. In the process it allowed the show to recontextualize the villain and hero and give each of them new arcs so they could grow and change. By having each character feed off each other the show managed to push both of them forward, growing as characters, and it made the show better for it.
Most of that growth has, sadly, been lost. Neither Daniel nor Johnny are any different now, at the end of season four, than they were at the start, with the whole season basically forcing them to spin around each other for a while until they end up essentially right back where they started: uneasy allies in defeating Cobra Kai. That's still better than anything going on with the Cobra Kai guys as neither of these two have progressed at all since Karate Kid Part III. Silver at least starts off this season in a new place, having pushed past his evil from the film, but then he regresses back to his old patterns complete. Kreese, meanwhile, is an immutable force that doesn't change at all. It's hard to care about characters when they don't change.
The kids, meanwhile, aren't exactly an afterthought for the show but they similarly aren't growing. The show either doesn't give them much to do or simply ignores a lot of the characters development potential they have. Tori has problems at home but we never actually see it, not like we saw the abuse Miguel received from bullies in the first season. We understand why Miguel uses karate as a support system but Tori's home life is completely nebulous, something hinted at but never seen, and that limits how far her character can grow. We don't fully understand her so we don't care much about her.
About the only character that seems to have a real arc is Samantha and that's as she grows into a villain. She's an entitled rich girl who, over the course of the season, abused Tori and picks fights with the girl. It's justified, in a way, after watching Tori abuse Sam in the last two seasons, but considering Tori is attempting to rebuild her life here, watching her get attacked by Sam feels mean-spirited. That would matter if the show worked to spell out Sam as a villain, but it doesn't really seem to want to. It wants to let Tori build herself up but as Sam's rival that would force Sam down, but since Sam is on "the good team", that can't happen. It's a confused storyline.
I suppose I should also mention Robby, who takes a new kid, Kenny Payne (Dallas Dupree Young). Kenny is getting bullied by kids at school including the youngest LaRusso, Anthony LaRusso (Griffin Santopietro), so Robby helps train the kid in Cobra Kai. This ends up creating a monster as Kenny goes from cool kid that just needs some confidence to a bully in his own right, flipping the script of what you'd expect. This should push Robby to get some growth of his own, but Robby is honestly so disconnected from most of the events this season that the storyline, as interesting as it is, lacks the weight it should have. It doesn't help that Anthony has been a nothing character up until now so making him the villain of a story doesn't really do much for him or the characters around him.
I don't want to make it sound like I hated this season as I didn't. Cobra Kai is just as watchable as always and I devoured the whole season in a single day. The actors are great, their dialogue is solid, and while the karate isn't great it's still fun to watch (none of these people are professional fighters so their action scenes are average at best, as it's always been). The issue is more that the show is lacking forward momentum. This season should have been a big culmination with so much riding on the line but it never really feels like anything is truly in doubt. If the guys lose their bet against Cobra Kai are they really going to pack it all up and go? Kreese and Silver certainly wouldn't and would welch on the bet in a sec, so it's pretty obvious from the outset not much would change, only exacerbated by the fact that it never feels like the show is trying to push anything forward.
By the end of the season some things have changed around a bit and dynamics are slightly different (none of which I'll spoil here), but the fact is that it doesn't feel like the show is in fundamentally a different place after these ten episodes than it was last season. The big wager, the main event of the tourney, none of that really matters when everything is going to go back to status quo again. I like this show and I continue watching it to hang out with these characters and this setting, but I really hope that the show can find a way to shake everything up next season. We need to start getting some change going, and fast.