After four seasons, three competing dojos, two streaming sites ownership and one rivalry that started it all, Cobra Kai has enforced the message that nostalgia is toxic. The opportunity for redemption is always within reach because the past does not determine who you have a chance of becoming. The miraculous appeal of this reboot series from The Karate Kid movies has clung to mirroring the source material; grainy film flashbacks, the eighties pop culture references and the infamous rivalry between Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio).
But over the past three seasons, Cobra Kai has milked every character revival, connecting plotline and unfinished arc from The Karate Kid movies. The younger cast has thus far only been driving forces for the 34-year-old feud between Lawrence and LaRusso. Cobra Kai was trapped in its message of toxic nostalgia as it tried to balance spinning new ways to keep the original The Karate Kid movies relevant over the potential of the younger cast. A new approach was needed for the fourth season, and the nostalgic leash on the younger cast was finally released.
With an ensemble cast and multiple interesting character arcs to follow, this season of Cobra Kai focused on balancing their players across the board instead of turning the tables. The characters have successfully flipped their respective tables, both physically in epic fights and emotionally in characterization. One more flip to drive the wedge between Lawrence and LaRusso would have been a lazy attempt and could no longer mask the number of times the characters have switched sides to raise the stakes. So instead of holding the mirror up to the rival senseis, this season took the time to reflect the spotlight on the younger cast.
We pick up immediately after the season three finale: Lawrence and LaRusso team up against a greater threat to the karate scene in the Valley, original Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove). The battle is no longer for vengeance but to keep their dojo and dignity if they win the All Valley Tournament. Season three cemented Kreese as the master manipulator he came to be in The Karate Kid (1984). Kreese has managed to shake the core of Lawrence and LaRusso, but that will not be enough to defeat them both. So he reached out to Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), co-founder of the original Cobra Kai establishment and the main antagonist from The Karate Kid: Part III (1989). Now he is a reformed LA mogul, and his grey hair is pulled in a tight ponytail. Long gone is the karate businessman who terrorized children, or is he?
Lawrence and LaRusso attempt to hold off their long-brewing rivalry for a comical contrast on their approach to karate. Lawrence dethroned from the Cobra Kai dojo, now the sensei of Eagle Fang focuses on the aggression and “badass” aspects of karate training. LaRusso focuses on the defence, the mindfulness aspects of karate and the unconventional training he received from the revered Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). The buried hatchet is basically a zombie between Lawrence and LaRusso, their rivalry always haunting them and indirectly wounding the younger cast. A tale told again and again, even in this season. The bore of it is unavoidable as they remain the leads, but what was recognized this season was the radical attempt for the younger cast to break away as pawns of this rivalry and become the protagonist of their own story.
Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) and Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan) are meant to be the prodigal sons of the opposing karate dojos. Though they have switched sides before, this season saw both Miguel and Robby try to stand against this game of pawns that the senseis have set them. Miguel, hopeful of making a name for himself beyond the karate feud and for a future in college despite financial constraints. Whereas Robby, optimistic about forging a path other than the ways taught and betrayed by Lawrence and LaRusso, and tries to be a better role model towards a much younger karate trainee. For once, both boys want to prove that they are more than what their senseis see them as; weapons.
Sam LaRusso (Mary Mouser) and Tory Nichols (Peyton List) are on the other end of the spectrum, who have become poisoned from their senseis conditioning. Sam, trained for the peaceful practice of karate, is tired of healing and craves the violence she’s been told to suppress. While Tory, trained to fuel her anger into her fierce karate, analyzes that she needs peace to stop fighting the financial and social barriers built against her. Sam’s morals now hide behind a vengeful shadow, while Tory’s ethics are pushed into pure enlightenment. They are perfectly written foils for each other. More importantly, they are no longer foils for the opposing dojos they represent.
The choice of the younger cast taking control of their own narrative instead of indirectly pushing Lawrence and LaRusso’s narratives’ was far more effective this season. Lawrence, LaRusso, Kreese and Silver maintain the toxicity in their nostalgia. This tether they have against their opposition is too close to becoming a noose for the partner in their duo. This season, the Gatsby’s pursuit of repeating the past was most interesting. New character Kenny (Dallas Young) is bullied at school by a spiteful clique led by Anthony LaRusso (Griffin Santopietro). Kenny seeks protection to defend himself and begins training with the Cobra Kai dojo.
This is meant to mirror the events from The Karate Kid (1984) and from the first season of Cobra Kai (2018). Instead of going through this arc once more, as we already have through three movies and three television seasons, there is a realization that this cycle can be stopped. The past is bound to repeat itself if our characters don’t learn from the mistakes they left behind. The path to redemption is acknowledging the past as much as it is of looking forward. But this occurs too late, and the cycle continues. The past is replayed through other characters, and it is deeply saddening that the thought of stopping this cycle comes after the wreckage is all too familiar.
The pace is much slower this season, but all the more time to flesh out the young cast beyond their senseis’ objectives and simmer in their own narrative. The new characters breathe much-needed fresh air in a feud that has become stale. The tension and anticipation towards the All Valley Karate Tournament pay off spectacularly. The tragedy strikes faster than any punch, and the plot twists kick hard. What matters most is that the younger cast has taken control of their own arcs, and while it spiralled out of their grip, it sets up a bolder future for themselves and for the series.