Note: As we come to the end of the year, I have had little to add to the dumpster fire of this Administration. While in little mood to write things that are either obvious (Trump is a fascist) or repetitive (Trump is unfit/insane/stupid/a monster), I did remember a series of essays I wrote on the first half of Cobra Kai, the Netflix series whose third season will be released on January 1. I had meant to write about each individual episode, but the baseball playoffs and the crushing depression attendant to America’s moral collapse interrupted my flow. These pieces aren’t particularly timely—but if you haven’t watched the show, I still recommend it highly. These pieces also assume you’re familiar with the characters already. I wrote about Season 1 in its entirety here.
If anybody needed to escape his past and start again, it was Johnny Lawrence. Cobra Kai taught Johnny that only winning would validate him, and so when Daniel LaRusso landed that famous crane kick to Johnny’s face and claim the championship, Lawrence lost everything. He lost not only the championship and his girl, though those were the least of his losses. He lost his sense of identity and community. He lost the support of his supposed friends. He lost himself.
Season 1 was about Johnny trying to find himself. He found himself where he last left himself. Miguel wants to learn karate. Johnny knows karate—he learned it at Cobra Kai, from a man named Kreese, who taught his fighters to cut corners, fight dirty, never show mercy and, above all, never lose. Indeed, that last admonishment is the most critical of all, because people who can’t lose must pull out all the stops. They must cut corners and break rules, because whatever the consequences of those acts, losing would be worse.
Johnny knows this is the regime that broke him, but he decides he can modify it. He’ll learn from his mistakes. Moreover, the kids that have come into the dojo are hardly killers. Maybe a little Cobra Kai toughness will do them some good.
But the experiment goes awry. “Strike first, strike hard, no mercy” only has so many applications. The kids start replicating the sins of the past. Worse, this time they bring home the trophy Johnny couldn’t win. All of a sudden, Johnny has not only failed to escape his past—it has engulfed him.
Then Kreese walks through the door. The community believed Kreese was dead, but he tells Johnny he’s been in “brumation,” the word that describes how a snake waits underground until it becomes warm enough to emerge. Johnny has made it warm enough to emerge. At what should be the height of his comeback, Johnny is in more existential peril than ever.
Kreese fails in two separate conversations to convince Johnny to bring him back. In both, Kreese presents himself as the next logical step in Johnny’s plan. He is the epitome of Cobra Kai. He has traveled the world honing his skill in special operations. His participation would make Cobra Kai unbeatable. But Johnny knows the costs, and he doesn’t want his students to pay them, as he once did.
So Kreese does the unthinkable. He stops by the dojo one last time to see his old pupil. He invokes better times. He apologizes. He knows he went too far. He’s had Johnny’s second-place trophy fixed. And with that, he’s out the door.
But walking very slowly, as if he just happens to know that Johnny will come after him. And how about that? Everybody deserves a second chance, as Johnny well knows.
It’s the Cobra Kai way. Identify your enemy’s weakness. Exploit it ruthlessly. Strike first. No mercy. Win. Kreese has identified and exploited. It’s only a matter of time before he strikes. Johnny isn’t starting over. He’s starting again.