WARNING: This essay/review contains massive spoilers for the Netflix show Cobra Kai. Go watch the show—you will not stop if you start—then read this. Technically, it also contains spoilers for the movie Whiplash, but that movie is six years old so you should have seen it by now, you uncultured ignoramus. And The Karate Kid, if you want to get real nit-picky, but come on.
When I was younger and not as “in control” of my schedule as I am now, every once in a while my family would go out of town and leave me home to work. Usually, this was an opportunity to catch up on movies the kids would never be interested in or couldn’t watch.1I discovered Pacific Rim at the Ontario IMAX during one of these interludes, as well as Captain America:The First Avenger, back when Marvel movies were just another release.
On one particularly bleak night, I chose to stay home and watch a double feature of Spotlight and Whiplash, a pair of movies so bleak that the night not only remains memorable, but so does the resulting depression.
Spotlight is the more traditional of the two, depicting the Boston Globe’s efforts to expose the rampant sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Though a cast headed by Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton may not be a “glamour” cast, the movie is full of A-list movie stars and the story is compelling. It’s a good movie.
The more memorable movie, however, was Whiplash. A young drum prodigy (Miles Teller) wants to push himself to be the best. He adopts as his mentor (an admittedly electrifying and insanely evil J.K. Simmons) a music conservatory conductor with the best jazz orchestra in town. But the mentor is abusive—screaming, throwing chairs, demanding perfection until fingers are raw and bloody. At one point, the prodigy is injured in a car crash, but runs off to perform only minutes later rather than disappoint the mentor. He’s rewarded by having the mentor dismiss him for poor play in the middle of the performance, after which the student physically attacks mentor and is expelled.
The tables then turn. Mentor is fired when student anonymously testifies against him in an ethics investigation after another student has been bullied by the mentor into suicide. Mentor and student briefly reconcile thereafter, and mentor invites student to play in his jazz band at a prominent concert hall. But it’s a trick. On the night of the concert, mentor switches the music on student—the rest of the orchestra is prepared to play something entirely different.
Student leaves the stage, but comes back and essentially takes over the orchestra before launching into a virtuoso, minutes-long solo drum riff. The mentor is shocked—but pleased. He’s created his own Charlie Parker.
The movie was unanimously acclaimed and Simmons won the (well-deserved, for playing a psychopath) Oscar. The acclaim may be deserved, but Whiplash resides in a category of entertainments that must be considered philosophically unsound.2Examples of such art include the Watchmen graphic novel and anything written by Ayn Rand.. The inescapable assumption is that mentor and student have achieved this plateau by way of their abusive, dysfunctional relationship. But inevitably this ending comes off as mere apologia for abuse and dysfunction. As one reviewer who agreed at the time put it, Simmons’ character was less creating a musical genius than “making the kind of musician that would throw a cymbal at him.” Or worse, frankly.
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that ending, in no small part because it is one of the few movies where I’ve found myself admiring the craftsmanship of a message I found somewhat revolting. What I didn’t expect to find is to finally find the response to Whiplash in the first season of the Karate-Kid reboot-cum-continuation Cobra Kai.
You remember The Karate Kid. Ralph Macchio played Daniel LaRusso, the New Jersey kid with nothing whose single mom moved him to Reseda. Pat Morita, the lovable Mr. Miyagi. The evil Cobra Kai dojo with its authoritarian sensei, Kreese, and its star pupil, tow-haired legend Johnny Lawrence. Macchio’s crane kick to lay out Johnny and win the match remains an all-time classic moment.
Cobra Kai picks up the script nearly 40 years later. LaRusso is now a successful car dealer, living in an Encino mansion near the country club. Lawrence lives in a small apartment in Reseda, doing odd jobs to get by and drinking himself into an early grave. To summarize a whole season in one sentence, a chance encounter with a kid much like LaRusso convinces Lawrence to reopen Cobra Kai. He attracts a group of nerds and losers, but teaches them the way of the Cobra Kai. “Strike hard, strike fast, no mercy.”
The kids start to change. They stop being nerds and losers. The quiet kid with the cleft lip surgery scar becomes a Mohawked beast calling himself “Hawk.” The bullied, unpopular girl joins the dojo and finally has an outlet for her humiliation. And that LaRusso clone—Miguel Diaz—is Lawrence’s new Cobra Kai star pupil.
Most of the season is spent rooting for these hardscrabble kids and their suddenly sympathetic sensei to overcome their obstacles and, as Lawrence is fond of saying, “kick ass.” Meanwhile, LaRusso‘s tailored suits and first-world problems alienate him from his surroundings and, more importantly, the audience. Indeed, when Johnny goes to the Board of the All-Valley Karate Tournament to get Cobra Kai reinstated after it was banned in the wake of the LaRusso debacle, LaRusso’s attempts to maintain the ban seems like sour grapes. Let the kids fight, LaRusso. They’re you now, boomer.
But there’s too much karate in the air now for LaRusso to focus on car sales.3Do the Reseda police ever note the sudden upticks in karate-related incidents? He cleans out his long unused home dojo4Right? I know, it’s like rooting for Bill Gates and through a series of coincidences, ends up unknowingly tutoring Johnny’s estranged son in the wax-on, wax-off methods of his own mentor.
It will be of no surprise to learn that there is a karate tournament at the end of all of this, and that Cobra Kai and LaRusso will face off through their respective proxies. Only now, this is a Cobra Kai you can root for. A Cobra Kai you can take home to mom.
Because Johnny has sanded off the rough edges. Sure, he’s taught them that there will be no losing in his dojo. Sure, he’s taught them that they must strike first at all costs. Sure, he’s taught them no mercy to opponents. But we’ve seen Johnny change through his experiences. We’ve seen what these kids were and now what they’ve become. The kid with the cleft lip scar could barely speak—now he’s able to talk liquor store cashiers into selling him beer and he has a hot girlfriend.
Only, as it turns out, Cobra Kai dogma is Cobra Kai dogma. The awkward, unpopular girl loses in the quarterfinals, and rather than shake hands with her opponent she stomps off telling him to “eat shit.” Hawk makes it to the semi-finals, where he pulls the same stunt as the Cobra Kai kid back in 1982, illegally injuring his opponent—Johnny’s estranged son— weakening him for the final. Only this time, Johnny didn’t expressly order the hit—Hawk learned it by osmosis, having been taught the Cobra Kai crews that only winning matters. And Miguel exploits those injuries just as Johnny had tried to do with LaRusso almost 40 years earlier. Miguel takes home the trophy for Cobra Kai, but it is a lifeless victory for Johnny, who has revived the ideology that ruined his own life all those many decades ago.
To make heroes out of a repentant Johnny and his backward kids, and a cartoon enemy out of the country-club version of LaRusso would have been easy, and possibly entertaining. But we’ve already seen that show—it was called The Karate Kid.
This show is about something much different and far more interesting. It’s about ideology. It’s about indoctrination. It posits that you can put anybody in a room, teach them a flawed and hateful ideology, and they will learn it. They will execute. If you teach them they cannot lose, they will avoid losing at all costs. If you teach themare they must strike first, they will look for people to strike. If you teach them to show no mercy, well, that is mankind’s default setting in any event.
Unlike Whiplash, Cobra Kai sends no mixed signals about its philosophical bent. As Johnny returns to drinking on the night of Miguel’s Pyrrhic victory, a man steps through the door of Cobra Kai. It is Kreese himself, Johnny’s malevolent Cobra Kai mentor of forty years ago, long believed dead but now returned to preside over the Cobra Kai revival. Whatever Johnny had intended to this point, all bets are certainly off now. There is no satisfaction at the heights. No appreciation for the artistry. We already know its costs, and that they are likely to rise.
Cobra Kai’s writers could have created a flawed, but well-meaning hero in middle-aged, down-on-his-luck Johnny, given him the high school’s geek squad to train into fighters, and won the audience’s heart by racking up victories for the underdogs.
But revealing loftier goals, the show’s writers unlock a great (and timely) insight—sometimes bad ideas are just bad. It doesn’t matter who does the teaching or the learning. And when bad ideas are released into the world, they cause damage. They injure and can even kill. Cobra Kai accepts that at the heart of its premise is a bad idea, and that makes for one great, insightful television show.