Bending Reality: Cobra Kai Season Five

(Caution: this review contains some spoilers. If you haven’t yet watched the series but intend to watch, it might be better not to read this review until you’ve done so.)

Background

The Karate Kid franchise has captured our imagination for many years, and rightly so. After all, who doesn’t love a good underdog story, especially one with such obvious overtones of the endless battle between good and evil (or in this cased, the bullied and the bullies)?

The original film (1984) was successful enough to spawn two sequels (1986 and 1989), but that turned out to be just the tip of the dojo. A 1989 cartoon series dipped into fantasy by introducing the hunt for a magic artifact. Then a third sequel to the original film, The Next Karate Kid (1994) still had Mr. Miyagi as the sensei but featured a new female student in the title role.

Even that was not the end of the line. The original had a remake in 2010. It might be more appropriate to call it reimagining, since it’s set mostly in China and, despite the title, features kung fu rather than karate. I guess Kung Fu Kid didn’t have the same ring to it. In 2012, there was talk of a Karate KidRocky crossover (involving Rocky’s son and Daniel’s daughter) and a few other projects that didn’t quite take off. There were also video games, actions figures, and other merchandise. Currently, there is a Broadway musical in the works, as well as a new feature film that styles itself as “the return of the original Karate Kid franchise.”

That last part is a little difficult to believe, in part because the TV series, Cobra Kai, is so clearly the return of the original Karate Kid franchise–and there will be no connection between it and the upcoming film. Go figure!

The Perils of “Halloweenification”

One of the potential pitfalls of an iconic concept having such a long life is that different creative visions become entangled with each other, creating what could be called the “Halloweenification” of the franchise–long discussions of what’s canon and what isn’t, ending in several parallel-universe style timelines, even if they aren’t labeled that way. Actually, maybe it should be Starwarsification. Either way, don’t get me started on that. It’s a phenomenon that deserves a post of its own.

Cobra Kai as the Fulfillment of the Franchise

Cobra Kai is rooted in the “Miyagi-verse.” In other words, it only acknowledges the first four films as canon. Let’s face it–it would have been hard to do anything else. Much as I like fantasy, it’s hard to imagine how the show could have embraced the animated series and remained coherent. Nor could it logically have absorbed the reimagined version.

Cobra Kai  has a lot going for it. The underdog theme is still there, as well as the underlying battle between good and evil–but now, the portrayal of both is even more nuanced than in the original films. We can see this most obviously in the growth of Johnny, who was never a carboard cutout villain but now has a more developed backstory and gradually evolves into a hero. John Kreese doesn’t ever become a hero, but his behavior is also made more understandable by fleshing out the backstory.

The heroes are equally nuanced. Daniel is in his own way as fixated on the past as Johnny and has his own problems with self-awareness. The fact that his own son is becoming a bully–which Daniel doesn’t notice at first–is a poignant touch. When Ali, former girlfriend of both Johnny and Daniel, points out that they are more similar than they realize, her words ring true.

The new characters (AKA Karate Kid: The Next Generation) are also realistic. Basically good people, Robby and Miguel nonetheless end up in an on and off conflict–sometimes serious conflict. They and other characters, such as Hawk and Kenny, also illustrate how hard it is to walk the fine line between self-defense and aggression. This is particularly true in the complicated battle in which Robby and Miguel inadvertently end up in a totally unnecessary fight that leaves Miguel unable to walk. Hawk and Kenny both move from bullying victim to bully, though Hawk moves back in one of the more moving redemption sequences I’ve seen recently.

Nor are the women left out of the dynamic. Sam and Tory are locked in on and off conflict that nicely parallels that of Robby and Miguel without seeming like a mere imitation of it. They have struggles of their own, as do Amanda (Daniel’s wife) and Carmen (Johnny’s girlfriend).

Despite the many shifting alliances and perspectives, some of which might have felt contrived if executed by lesser artists, the show manages to keep true to its own ideals and to realism at the same time–not always an easy feat.

On a more technical level, Cobra Kai feels like meeting an old friend again after many years. It’s not just that it captures the spirit of the original movies, though it certainly does that, even as it manages to modernize the application of that spirit.

What pushes Cobra Kai even beyond that is that so many of the cast members from the original films are reprising their old roles. It’s not always easy to do that for reunion specials, let alone five TV seasons. Unfortunately, Pat Morita passed away (as did his character, which was the right choice). But every other major figure and some minor ones are played by the same actors. Even Yuna, the young girl Daniel rescues from the typhoon in KK II, returns, played by the same actress, as the executive vice president of an auto company who helps Daniel save his car dealership. (Sometimes, good deeds really do pay off.)

It’s true that sometimes it was necessary in some of the expanded backstory scenes to have other actors play the younger selves of the characters. But whenever possible, flashbacks are scenes from the original movies or occasionally camera angles from the cutting room floor. These scenes contribute to the feeling of reality and help cement the continuity between the films and the series. 

On the whole, this series was one of the best  dramatic series I’ve seen in a long time.

And then came season five.

The Problem with Season Five 

 To be clear, season five isn’t bad. It just doesn’t quite live up to the high level set by the first four, though it is still worth watching.

The problem is that the carefully maintained realism in the first four seasons cracks in several spots in season five. For instance, Johnny, trying to prepare to support his future baby, takes a job as a rideshare driver. We all know that Johnny has some rough edges, but in that job, which is theoretically important to him, he acts like a complete idiot. The scenes in which he screws up are actually painful to watch. He’s never been more of a loser, despite the considerable progress he was supposed to have made in the first four seasons and continues to demonstrate in other parts of the season.

Writers, it’s called subtlety. It should have been possible to show he was struggling a little to adapt without creating scenes that strain credibility far beyond the breaking point.

Even worse, however, is the way the season ends. (Remember what I said about spoilers? If you ignored me at first, now’s the time to stop if you haven’t watched yet.)

Honestly, the ending feels like the writers hadn’t realized until too late that they had only one more episode to go. The result is that a complicated and difficult situation gets wrapped up in a completely implausible way.

I don’t care how drunk some of the protagonists are at the time. There’s a difference between drunk and irrational–or insane. Mike Barnes–who, now that I think about it, may not even have been drunk–decides for no apparent reason that Daniel is responsible for the fire that destroyed his furniture store and basically kidnaps the drunken Daniel, Johnny, and Chozen. (To make that plausible, the foundation would have to have been laid for Mike to be that irrational–or at least so lacking in business sense that he forgot to buy fire insurance.)

This same guy, apparently hellbent on getting revenge on Daniel and two other guys even Mike doesn’t think had anything to do with the fire, immediately changes course when Daniel tells him Terry Silver is responsible. Why he takes Daniel’s word for this without even checking is at best unclear. In a split second, he drops his revenge/beat-down (or murder?) plan that would have gotten him twenty years or more in prison and decides its better to attack billionaire Terry Silver at home–because how could anything go wrong with that plan?

Daniel at least has the sense to say no. But I have trouble buying Johnny going along with that plan. And the idea that Chozen, ever the careful strategist, would go along with such a mess–not to mention abandoning Daniel on the roadside to implement the plan immediately, is completely ridiculous. There just isn’t enough alcohol in the world to make that plausible. They’d all be comatose from alcohol poisoning long before that plan seemed like a good one.

Nor is that the end of the attack on logic. Do the three musketeers attempt any kind of stealth in approaching Silver? Not for a moment. They smash through the front gates with their rental vehicle on the assumption that a billionaire’s home has no kind of security system. Then they charge into the house intent on–what exactly? Which one of their problems would beating Silver to a pulp have solved? Unless they killed him, Cobra Kai would still have gone to the international competition at which their actions would no doubt prevent Johnny and Daniel’s hybrid dojo from competing. Of course, beating Silver or killing him would go against all the values the franchise has advocated from the beginning. But hey, it’s going to make for some nice actions sequences, so let’s make sure the good guys are all in.

The one credible thing in the whole sequence, given the way Terry Silver had been portrayed up to that point, was that, instead of calling the police, he has his army of corrupt sensei, who were conveniently all living with him, beat the good guys to a pulp. The only one in the scene who apparently thought about the law at all, Silver pointed out to them that he could legally respond to trespassers with force.  His excesses are fully consistent with his earlier actions and philosophy.

 Keep in mind that earlier in the season, Johnny and Chozen together could at best equal one of Silver’s super sensei. But as the farce at Silver’s house progresses, Johnny, who keep in mind is too drunk to know what he’s doing, defeats four of them. I’m not bothered by someone exceeding his or her normal limits as a result of remembering something inspiring (like Johnny’s expected baby). But to become eight times as powerful, even though physically impaired? That’s a little too much even for me. With a little foreshadowing, having Zhen Wu, the god of martial arts, appear and fight at Johnny’s side, accompanied by the ghost of Mr. Miyagi and maybe a special appearance by Jackie Chan, would have seemed more natural. (Cobra Kai wouldn’t even have been the first show to lurch into the supernatural. Pretty Little Liars and Riverdale both come to mind.)

Meanwhile, what the younger characters are up to is actually more rational than what their older counterparts are doing, though by entering the main Cobra Kai dojo, they are guilty of trespassing. But at least their mission, to find and publish incriminating video that will sink Terry Silver, is rational.

However, they survive the inevitable arrival of the Cobra Kai students through yet another lapse in reality. I can buy Stingray having a change of heart, alerting Amanda and Carmen to the danger the kids are in, rescuing Daniel, and heading to the dojo. Stingray’s taking a big risk, but at least there was some foreshadowing of a possible conversion experience. What I don’t buy is that he, whose relative lack of karate skills is a running joke, would be able to defeat two Cobra Kai students Daniel doesn’t want to fight because they’re kids. Has he been practicing secretly? No, actually, he’s been hanging out at the luxury pad Terry Silver gave him, playing his weird version of Dungeons and Dragons. Apparently, that was just the right preparation to make him a karate master. Sigh!

There are heartwarming moments, like all of the basically good karate students finally fighting on the same side at the same time and the downfall of Silver (which is set up in a credible way). But by now, the storyline has diverged so far from reality that it’s impossible to have a realistic ending. Yes, Silver might be in prison for a long time–but in real life, he’d hardly be the only one arrested, or at least questioned.

The ending brushes aside the fact, that, absent a plea deal, Stingray should go down for bribery and perjury–and that his unsupported testimony may not be convincing enough to a jury to get Silver locked up. (A police officer refers to a multitude of charges, but it’s difficult to imagine what they are, aside from framing Kreese and maybe assaulting Stingray. In this season, Stingray describes the situation as if he agreed to be beat up, in which case, there are no charges for that. The premise from earlier is that there’s no evidence of arson to hang that on Silver. Acts like winding up Daniel and bribing a referee are immoral, but not illegal. Maybe they can make a case for child abuse over Tory’s hand–but technically, she does that to herself.)

Meanwhile, Johnny, Mike, and Chozen (once he gets out of the hospital) should go down for vandalism, breaking and entering, and trespassing at the very least, maybe assault depending on how Silver’s legal team can spin that. After all, they announced that they’d come to beat him up.  Mike should also go down for art theft because of the Rembrandt we’re supposed to think that he can sell to rebuild his furniture store.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want season six to be about legal woes for all those good people. It’s the writers who made them do it–very literally. The ending really needed more than one episode, though I can imagine ways (such as Silver, rather than Mike Barnes, being the one to kidnap Daniel, Johnny, and Chozen) in which the good guys’ actions could have been justified, morally and hopefully legally as well. As it is, they look like inept vigilantes at best. And they seem to have betrayed their own philosophies. The writers show some consciousness of this awkwardness by keeping Daniel out of it, but it’s too little, too late.

All of that said, Cobra Kai is so good in general that I still love it despite the last episode being an epic train wreck. If there is a season six, I’ll just pretend the problems were resolved in some more rational way and hope the writers can keep the train on the rails this time.

 PS As I think about a possible season six, I realize that John Kreese is likely to be back as a villain, even if he’s only creeping around in the shadows. His earlier conviction will be overturned, but he will probably also be charged with his jail break, which included violent assaults on officers, so he’ll need to keep a low profile. But if he does come back, he’ll be an unpleasant reminder of yet another implausible situation.

Remember how Daniel and Johnny promise Kreese legal assistance in exchange for information about Silver’s plans and then renege on the deal? Keep in mind that at the time, they were pretty sure he wasn’t guilty. But they’re content to keep him in jail for a crime he didn’t commit because reasons. I would imagine the writers did that so he’d have an excuse to want revenge on Johnny and Daniel. But the whole thing makes Johnny and Daniel look so bad that part of me hopes Kreese gets revenge. Yes, he’s done a lot of harm in his life, but what they do goes against their own principles–an eerie foreshadowing of what they will do later.

 (The featured image is copyrighted by Martin Trama and licensed from www.shutterstock.com. Factual information in this review comes from Wikipedia and IMDB. Specific details from the show are derived from my own viewing.)

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