Prior to the release of the first season of “Cobra Kai” in 2018, fans of the original “Karate Kid” had played around with the idea that Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka, “The Man in the Silo”), long known as an antagonist, was in fact the tragic hero of the film. “How I Met Your Mother” brought the sentiment into the national pop culture conversation when Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris, “A Series of Unfortunate Events”) endorsed the stance.
When the first episode of “Cobra Kai” reintroduced middle-aged Johnny as a co-protagonist, perhaps even more focal to the story than Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio, “Kevin Can Wait”), the intended hero of “The Karate Kid,” it felt natural. Since its inception, “Cobra Kai” has sought to blur the line between good guys and bad guys and instead treat each of its characters as authentic, flawed individuals. Now in its fourth season, “Cobra Kai” has mastered this formula, leading to one of the most bingeable and entertaining seasons of television in recent memory.
Season four picks up right where season three left off; Johnny and Daniel have joined forces to create a unified dojo to rival Johnny’s sinister and manipulative former sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), and his Cobra Kai dojo. The stakes are high with a bet in place between Daniel and Johnny and Kreese: If one of Daniel’s or Johnny’s students wins the All-Valley Karate Tournament, Kreese will quit teaching karate for good, and vice-versa. Throughout the season, Johnny and Daniel struggle to reconcile their opposite styles of karate, based on offense and defense respectively. This difference of opinion is exacerbated by Johnny’s abrasive nature and Daniel’s my-way-or-the-highway attitude.
Meanwhile, the students — Miguel (Xolo Maridueña, “Cleopatra in Space”), Johnny’s star pupil and surrogate son, Sam (Mary Mouser, “Gates of Darkness”), Daniel’s student and daughter, Robby (Tanner Buchanan, “He’s All That”), Cobra Kai’s best fighter and Johnny’s estranged son and Tory (Peyton List, “Light as a Feather”), a self-reliant and resentful girl who Kreese takes under his wing — struggle with their identities. While these are the series’ main characters, season four features a hefty amount of notable supporting characters, including Kenny Payne (Dallas Young, “The Big Show Show”), a good-hearted eighth-grader who turns to Cobra Kai after dealing with incessant bullying and Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith, “The Pirate’s Curse”), Kreese’s diabolical partner in “The Karate Kid Part III.”
The writers impressively balance the arcs of each of its numerous characters. With the season clocking in at approximately five hours long, there isn’t a second to spare in getting every character to their final destination by the end of episode ten. In every scene, characters push one another to the next step of their development. However, none of the prominent characters are there solely as a vehicle for another. Each one has their own valid aspirations, fears and goals. No matter how seemingly evil or unlikeable a character is, they all have genuine intentions that we understand. Even if we don’t want them to achieve their specific visions of success, we are still rooting for them to end up in the best place possible.
Therefore, dilemmas arise when the interests of characters are at direct odds with one another, each plotline intersecting in a neat pretzel. The show cleverly uses our desire for each character to come out on top to keep us engaged and pressing play on the next episode. As inevitable complications arise, driving characters further apart, we can’t help but keep watching to see how everything resolves.
Many fans watch “Cobra Kai” for the badass fighting scenes, 80’s nostalgia or goofy humor. These are definitely all great aspects of the show. Even so, the heartbeat of the show is its nuanced approach to the characters. There is no simple ending where the heroes overcome the villains. In a show without the concept of heroes and villains, the only happy ending is one in which every character finds peace. Needless to say, season four of “Cobra Kai” leaves us on the edge of our seats, waiting for that glorious moment to arrive in future seasons.
Daily Arts Writer Aidan Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.