Despite not releasing any episodes in 2020, Cobra Kai became a pop-culture touchstone of the year. The former Youtube Premium series found a new home with streaming giant Netflix. Unsurprisingly, the series found immediate love and adoration once it arrived on the platform. Cobra Kai drew in the casual Karate Kid fans with twenty episodes in the bank and created new fans thanks to some sick karate moves. The rivalry between Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Danny LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) had moved on to a new generation in Season Two. Reseda still has a Karate Dojo problem in the latest season of Cobra Kai. Sadly, an overly serious tone dampens the mood over an otherwise enjoyable narrative.
The third season of Cobra Kai picks up with Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) in a two-week coma. The young karate champion and student of Johnny Lawrence’s dojo fight for his life as Reseda copes with the schoolwide brawl that ended Season Two. Amanda LaRusso (Courtney Henggeler) has been suspended. Johnny’s son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) is on the run. Members of Cobra Kai and Miyagi-do have been expelled. With newfound control over Cobra Kai, John Kreese (Martin Kove) places his former students Johnny and Danny in his crosshairs.
Cobra Kai’s largest issues in the new season stem from decisions made to close out Season Two. The lighthearted and morally ambiguous lens towards the rival dojos has disappeared. Early on, production triumvirate Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg make it clear: Cobra Kai has gone to the dark side. Miguel’s injuries have strengthened the Cobra Kai students’ resolve, but without Johnny to bring some balance, Kreese’s violent rhetoric leads to dangerous consequences.
Former heroes, including Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) and Tory (Peyton List), stew chaos and seriously harm their enemies. The ever-present tension between Miyagi-do and Cobra Kai grows tiresome and erases the first two seasons’ nuance. Fights and beatings occur in nearly every episode. With the Sensei’s looking to take a step away from their respective dojos, chaos and bullying reach new highs. Yet, the teens who populate the show are prone to wild overreactions. Rather than building rivalries and friendships, many students come across as sociopaths.
This anger and violence cannot allow for the lighter moments that made Cobra Kai a surprise hit last year. Maridueña finds himself out-of-commission for most of the season. That absence is clear, leaving the series without an underdog worth rooting for. His journey, from nerd to angry bully, provided the series with true conflict. Watching Miguel morph into the new Johnny induced anxiety. Without that story, something is missing from the season. Meanwhile, other characters suffer from PTSD from the school fight. It would be irresponsible of the showrunners to return to the laughs and jokes in the same manner as previous seasons. The excitement the school fight creates leaves frustrating repercussions over the season.
Cobra Kai has always used footage from the previous films to remind us of moments within the franchise. Season Three adds some considerably more flashback material, often to the benefit of the storytelling. For fans of the franchise, Danny’s trip to Japan brings some surprising faces back into the fold. With more of these montages, even those unfamiliar are delivered context for upcoming films. The overreliance on this technique can be helpful, but it simultaneously highlights the show’s obsession with nostalgia-based payoffs. What makes this technique so frustrating are the other moments in the series made from whole cloth. Increased exploration of Kreese gives Kove some interesting subtext in his portrayal of the vet turned Karate master. Kove makes the most out of the opportunity, but the storyline raises more questions than answers, namely, “how is Kresse not in prison?”
Despite some of these frustrations, it’s impossible to ignore Zabka’s excellent turn at the heart of the series. His interpretation of Johnny and his intense guilt is relatable in every scene. With fan service abound, including a guest spot for Elizabeth Shue, it would have been easy for Zabka to take a round off. Instead, his earnest performance gives Cobra Kai the foundation to be a great series. The best moments throughout the season stem from Zabka, who carries the show on his shoulders. He has turned Johnny into one of the most empathetic characters of the 1980s, thanks to his textured turn in the series.
With some adjustments, future seasons of the series may tone down the absurdly dangerous tone. Instead, the series must re-engage with the lighthearted and nostalgic tone that sparked the sensation over the summer. There’s still plenty to like in the silly karate show about rival dojos and senseis. The action setpieces remain as impressive as ever. Zabka continues his endearing return as the reformed sensei to great success. While the third season of Cobra Kai may not be the same runaway success as the first two, it remains a fun action series for the family.