Cobra Kai Season 4 defies expectations, issues a call to courage
In the fourth season of Cobra Kai, sparks fly as students and senseis prepare for another pivotal karate tournament – this one to decide the fate of the All Valley karate community. The action is relentless. Characters and relationships veer dynamically. And the show’s thematic palette evolves and deepens as our heroes grapple with more moral challenges in one season than most of us face in a lifetime.
What began in 1984 as an underdog story of teenager Danny LaRusso facing up to his bullies at a karate tournament has spawned three movie sequels and, in 2018, a successful streaming series. Danny and his bully, Johnny Lawrence, have grown up and moved on with their lives. But both remain haunted by the events of that long-ago tournament and the sinister shadow cast by Johnny’s evil sensei, John Kreese. The series picks up with both men opening their own karate dojos and joining forces against Kreese while bequeathing their knowledge, prejudices and rivalry to a new generation of students.
Nostalgia sells, and Cobra Kai is no exception. Another writer in these very pages rightly pointed out the series’ appeal to (now graying) Gen-X. But these days, a preoccupation with morality also sells. Hollywood rules regarding Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (DIE) seek to cement a moral framework within the industry that tools every stage of the process to provide fresh-baked, woke content to an audience preoccupied (or so we’re assured) with virtue–signalled and otherwise. To outsiders, the moral focus of the DIE crowd (pronouns, gender, cultural appropriation, etc.) may seem somewhat contrived. But moral reflection is what the industry appears to be demanding.
Cobra Kai answers that call in a bold and unusual way: by working from the simple premise that right and wrong actually exist and that human beings must make moral choices that have ramifications in the real world.
Season 3 ended on a cliff-hanger: a challenge issued and a wager made that the losing dojo in the next All Valley Karate Tournament must close. The battle between LaRusso/Lawrence and John Kreese has reached a boiling point. Relationships, too, hang by a thread. The story constantly tests the uneasy trust between heroes Danny LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence and strains relations between the two senseis and their respective students. And younger protagonists like Robbie, Tory, Sam and Miguel each face stark choices of right and wrong. One cannot overstate this component to Cobra Kai’s appeal.
Just as the dance moves in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies served to establish characters and further the story, so do the karate sequences in Cobra Kai. provide an arena for the characters’ true colors to show through. Danny’s teenage daughter Samantha has inherited the karate mantle, as well as a rivalry with her nemesis, Tory. Martial arts, in addition to self defense, is also about the development of character. The closing episodes of Season 4 serve not only to showcase the two girls’ showdown, but also reveal how both have grown and evolved because of the pressures of their rivalry. The choreography of their dramatic and intense final battle reflects this growth.
In the world of Cobra Kai, conflicts between right and wrong are stark but the path forward is not always clear. Self-interest clashes with dojo and family values. Daniel’s preoccupation with teaching karate causes his family life to suffer. Johnny ends up involved with the mother of one of his students. As dojos prepare for the tournament, egos and personal rivalries hamper group progress. And everyone in a position of authority (parents, senseis, bosses, teachers) believes they posses ‘the answer’ for their young charges. This, too, plays to Cobra Kai’s success.
In the age of moral relativism, we seem to have wished away such fundamental distinctions as good and evil, right and wrong. People these days merely have differing ‘perspectives’ which, with few exceptions, the ongoing ‘justice dialogue’ of woke culture, one increasingly scaffolded by an elaborate and ever-shifting morality, can address. Cobra Kai isn’t explicitly woke or anti-woke (indeed, it seems to exist in a parallel universe untroubled by such Kulturkampf). Neither is it revisionist, didactic or contrived. But the ‘Miyagiverse’ is one in which the moral choices of characters, for better or worse, propel every event.
A world in which people’s actions have more or less immediate consequences is the one in which most of us live. Lying is wrong. Hurting others is wrong. Taking what does not belong to us is wrong. Good stories never tell us anything new. They instead remind of lessons we’ve forgotten. But sometimes it seems like the ongoing social justice ‘dialogue’ seeks to swap that world for a contrived one that imposes consequences for violation of increasingly abstract rules of conduct. But there is nothing abstract about someone kicking you in the face.
The show’s cast of fully-defined characters make moral choices that change the complexion of their immediate environment and have tangible ramifications in each other’s lives. These characters wax alternately good or evil (sometimes both at once) based on those choices. This provides the basis not only for good drama, but also allows for the possibility of heroism.
Sometimes stories that remind us of forgotten lessons (such as that personal heroism is occasionally necessary to face down and beat back evil) are just what the doctor ordered. Our day and age, considers it ‘just’ to deprive people of employment for minor verbal infractions or for holding the wrong political convictions. We routinely excuse the hurt we impose on our political opponents by claiming they brought it on themselves and so deserve it (the justification of abusers everywhere). And we lie again and again about it to ourselves by excusing this behavior as ‘morality.’ When you level the ethical to a single ideological variable, heroes cannot arise.
Cobra Kai’s emergence from YouTube Premium breakout hit to online streaming colossus complete with Emmy buzz suggests that not only observing the basics of good writing and performances but also centering a narrative of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil hits people where they truly live. Or, put simply: when amplified and dramatized by karate sequences, basic moral conflicts jump into sharp focus without the need for abstruse sermonizing.
Cobra Kai does what the best television has always done. It reflects our world back at us in a way that helps make sense of things, prompts us to think and aspire to be more. It outlines an imaginative landscape where heroes may arise. And it calls us to dare moral courage.