No Mercy: The Bittersweet Victory of Cobra Kai

The Karate Kid, All Grown Up

Bryan J. / 9.2.20

I’m as surprised as you are that my favorite summer show turned out to be a sequel to an 80s karate flick styled as prestige TV. Formerly hidden away on YouTube’s premium subscription video service, Cobra Kai dropped on Netflix this weekend, bringing the world of The Karate Kid franchise to the small screen. It’s a double surprise that the show was such a hit for me. As one untimely born (in 1986), I just missed the 1984 premiere of the film and subsequent wave of karate popularity that followed. I tried the show out anyway last week, mostly out of curiosity. Was the world of The Karate Kid movies really worth five hours of TV across ten episodes? The answer, it turns out, is absolutely! I’m here to tell you that the show’s first season is a masterwork in articulating what life and victory look like apart from mercy.

Cobra Kai picks up the stories of Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso 30 years after the events of the first movie. We meet Johnny, the original antagonist of the first Karate Kid movie, sprawled out in his apartment, drunk and unemployed. Across these 30 years, that infamous crane kick to the face seems to have handed Johnny a defeat that extended way beyond the All Valley Karate Championship. Divorced from his wife, estranged from his teenage son, and disowned by his step-father, it’s hard to imagine more pitiful circumstances. This high school bully has landed where bullies often land — defeated, broke, and in serious need of recovery.

When Johnny uses the youth karate skills on a clique of preppy teen bullies messing with his car, his neighbor, young Miguel, begs him for karate lessons. Those same bullies had been beating up Miguel before Johnny got involved, and Miguel is desperate to defend himself. Johnny refuses at first, but things change when the rock-bottom bully is forced to accept charity from his old karate rival, the crane-kicking, girlfriend-stealing Daniel. 

The passage of time has been as kind to Daniel LaRusso as it has been unkind to Johnny. The hero of the original franchise is selling cars in a Southern California suburb, karate chopping the prices, and giving away bonsai trees with every sale. While the original movie set Johnny on a losing trajectory, Daniel is well on his way to winning at life. He has a beautiful wife, two kids, a McMansion in the suburbs, and a country club membership. Not so bad from a New Jersey kid who moved to California with nothing.

Overcome by his jealousy for Daniel’s success (and enraged that Daniel’s daughter played a role in damaging his beloved 1980s Pontiac Firebird), Johnny decides to reopen his old karate studio, Cobra Kai, and train students in the dojo’s aggressive fighting philosophy: strike first, strike hard, no mercy. Miguel, Johnny’s neighbor, becomes his first student, while Daniel, traumatized by the memories of the infamously cruel and bullying dojo from his youth, is livid.

The old rivalry is reignited. The two teen karate adversaries are now two dueling sensei, presenting dual philosophies of karate for the kids of a new generation. Johnny and the Cobra Kai dojo bring forward a nihilistic view of the world. Only the powerful win, says Johnny, so be powerful. Mercy is weakness. Strike hard and fast to get what you want. Daniel, reflecting the teachings of his famous mentor, Mr. Miyagi, articulates a stoic worldview of balance. Peace and power come from the mindful acceptance and rejection of life’s highs and lows. Mercy and forgiveness are tools that help a karate practitioner develop that inner balance. The battle ahead is not just between two high school athletes looking for closure, but between warring understandings of the world and opposing ideas of how to live.

Alongside the show’s focus on the importance of fatherhood and the wounds that time doesn’t heal, one of the show’s key themes is the necessity of mercy. As Miguel trains under Johnny’s Cobra Kai ethic, the dojo’s mantra seems to work for him. The once bullied Miguel beats up the school’s bullies, asks out a pretty girl, and fills the dojo with friends who want to emulate his new confident lifestyle. His friends also commit to the dojo’s merciless ethos, getting tattoos and taking revenge on the popular kids who cyberbullied them a few weeks prior. Say what you will about the Cobra Kai ethos, but for these kids, the no-mercy mindset delivers them from their high school world of dog-eat-dog popularity contests. Their life turns around, seemingly, for the better.

At the same time, Johnny’s estranged son, Robby, seeks out a relationship with his father’s karate rival. Robby is introduced to viewers as a truant young criminal, the high-school-class-skipper stealing laptops and car parts for weed money. His father wound is deep and obvious. Intending to rile his father, Robby gets a job working at the car dealership owned by Daniel. As Daniel gets to know his new employee Robby, he not only begins to teach him his Miyagi-do style of karate, but he develops a father/son bond, too. Under the guidance of a loving father figure, Robby transforms from a hustling and scamming teen to a respectable young man. For the first time, Robby begins to experience inner peace, guided by the ideals of acceptance, forgiveness, and mercy. 

Cobra Kai and Miyagi-do attract the same kind of student. The community’s outcasts, the overweight, the bullied, and the rejected: they all show up on both Johnny and Daniel’s doorsteps, hoping for relief. And for the first six or seven episodes, that’s what they experience. All the kids taking karate lessons overcome serious life obstacles and become better people. But toward the end of the season, a shift takes place in the characters studying at Cobra Kai. These newly confident teens begin to bully the teens who bullied them. They embrace the “alpha-male” personality, throwing popcorn at moviegoers and buying beer with fake IDs. Even Miguel, who is introduced as a sweet and loving goofball at the show’s outset, starts to throw fists before asking questions. Even though students find release in both dojos, the Cobra Kai students undergo darker transformations. Make no mistake: Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do are not producing the same kind of karate champion.

The two rival schools with opposing ideologies and feuding teachers finally meet in the All Valley Karate Championship, the same tournament where Johnny and Daniel fought thirty years prior. By this point in the series, viewers have been exposed to the burgeoning dark side of Cobra Kai disciple Miguel. His new girlfriend dumps him after breaking up a fight between Miguel and a rival, and Miguel sees the tournament as an opportunity for release. (Spoiler Alert!) Inspired by the dojo’s no-mercy ethos, Miguel is particularly brutal in the tournament’s early rounds. In the final match of the series, Miguel faces off against Daniel’s pupil Robby. The two star pupils from rival dojos with opposing ideologies meet in the ring, and the callbacks to the climactic fight from 1984 aren’t subtle. In the same way Johnny took advantage of Daniel’s injured knee back in 1984, Miguel takes advantage of Robby’s injured shoulder.

Unlike the events of 1984, however, Miguel and Cobra Kai win the tournament. Although we start the series rooting for Miguel, by this time in the show’s trajectory, viewers aren’t sure if Miguel’s victory is a good thing. As Miguel holds his trophy, cheered on by teammates and family, he scans the crowd searching for his ex-girlfriend, who had left before his final match in disgust. Meanwhile, as Robby walks away with a second place finish, he’s embraced by the love and care of his new father figure. Who’s really walking away from the tournament with a win? The young man with the trophy and a lost love or the young man with the beloved mentor/father?

The students of both Cobra Kai and Miyagi-do begin karate from a place of need and distress. But while these karate schools offer confidence and a way out of the affliction of the outcast, the youth of Cobra Kai are achieving victories we might describe as bittersweet. It’s as if their own souls have been given up in the process, and the abnegation of mercy turns them into the bullies they had previously loathed. A life without mercy is, fundamentally, a life without love. As young Miguel longs to reconnect with this girlfriend, he hasn’t yet realized that his no-mercy mantra and his desire for forgiveness from his girlfriend are mutually exclusive.

Is there any redemption for the students and teachers of Cobra Kai? Is it possible to strike first and strike hard but also give mercy? Well, I still have season two to binge, and season three is due to drop in 2021. In the meantime, for a parable of life lived without forgiveness or grace, Cobra Kai is available for your Netflix viewing pleasure. Word has it, it’s the best around.