Plot: Everyone is reeling in the aftermath of the violent high school brawl between their dojos, which has left Miguel in a precarious condition. While Daniel searches for answers in his past and Johnny seeks redemption, Kreese further manipulates his vulnerable students with his own vision of dominance. The soul of the Valley is at stake, and the fate of every student and sensei hangs in the balance.
Review: When Cobra Kai debuted on YouTube Red (later YouTube Premium), I kept my expectations firmly in check. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Josh Heald, Hayden Schlossberg, and Jon Hurwitz crafted a series that was not only a worthy sequel to The Karate Kid feature films but one that refocused the story on William Zabka’s villainous Johnny Lawrence. With Ralph Macchio back as Daniel LaRusso, Cobra Kai flipped the story in a refreshing way. As season two continued the rivalry between Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do, it also saw the return of John Kreese (Martin Kove) which brought the story even closer to the feature films. With a shift to Netflix, the third season of Cobra Kai brings back even more familiar faces, this time primarily from The Karate Kid Part II, while delving further into both the original cast as well as the younger generation of martial artists. The result is a season that will please fans of the first two even if it doesn’t deviate from their formula.
Picking up with an episode titled “Aftermath”, Cobra Kai‘s third season addresses the fallout of the school brawl that sent Miguel (Xolo Mariduena) to the hospital in a coma and Robby (Tanner Buchanan) on the run from the police for his role in the fight. Johnny spirals while Daniel tries to do whatever he can to salvage relationships with his daughter Sam (Mary Mouser), Miguel, and help Robby all as the school and town ban karate. Johnny and Daniel’s relationship is also stretched as they contend with Kreese’s new leadership of Cobra Kai. All of this drama makes this new season feel like a Freeform teen series and the switch to Netflix brings with it a lot more profanity and mature themes than in the first two seasons combined.
Having seen the full 10 episode season, I can say that this is by far the most uneven of the three seasons to date. There has always been a tricky balance between nostalgia and fan service for those who grew up with The Karate Kid movies and introducing a new generation of teen martial artists. When the episodes focus on the ongoing feud between Daniel and Johnny, the series feels far more natural than it does when it focuses squarely on the teen characters. There is also an added focus this season on providing a back story for John Kreese that takes us back to his days as a soldier in Vietnam which helps us understand how he became the man he is today. While these flashbacks do not make Kreese a sympathetic villain, we understand better why Cobra Kai means so much to him.
The first few episodes of the third season of Cobra Kai take some time to gain momentum. There is so much attention paid to Miguel’s recovery from surgery, Robby’s legal consequences, and Sam’s trauma from the rumble that each episode struggles to give the growing cast enough screen time. Aside from the added f-bombs to the scripts, the writers use their new Netflix funding and take the opportunity to send Daniel LaRusso back to Okinawa to learn something new about Mr. Miyagi. LIke Kreese’s return at the end of the first season, these connections to the Miyagi-verse are full of nostalgia and handled with respect. They also work in the confines of the story without feeling forced or arbitrary. I had a pretty good idea of who was going to show up based on the trailers but it still made me smile once I saw them on screen. Without divulging any spoilers, this season brings back another character from the feature films while teasing another for the already greenlit season four.
Cobra Kai started out as a series focused on the Johnny Lawrence side of the story but more than ever feels like it is now an even split between screen time for William Zabka and Ralph Macchio. Both have very distinct story arcs that lead back to one another, but where it was them versus each other for the two prior seasons, this run pits them against each other as well as Kreese. At times it feels like far too much going on and not enough focus which may be why the season ends somewhat abruptly. I kept thinking there was going to be an eleventh episode to tie these story threads together, but instead, this ends up feeling like part one of two.
There is a lot to enjoy in this series and I had fun watching it. But, that doesn’t speak to the fact that pretty much every plot device used this season can be figured out from the first episode. I don’t need Cobra Kai to reinvent the genre, but aside from the connections to the movies, this season feels the least developed. Callbacks to events from the movies that have already been referenced in the first two seasons pop back up again and characters make the same bad decisions they did in prior episodes. It is easy to overlook these faults because there is a lot of fun to be had with this show, but I was hoping for more from these episodes. Hurwitz and Schlossberg clearly already had the fourth season in mind when they wrote season three and my opinion may change once I have seen them together. Cobra Kai is still a fun return to a franchise that still has life in it but this season is the first misstep in the franchise since Hilary Swank became the next karate kid.
The third season of Cobra Kai premieres on January 1st on Netflix.