The hit ’80s throwback series brings back some more old faces but keeps them stuck in the same old conflicts.
When Cobra Kai first premiered on YouTube Red, it seemed just like a fun tribute to The Karate Kid, but it soon revealed itself to be impressively complex. In its first two seasons, Cobra Kai reflected on the dichotomy of good vs. evil. Then, in season three, it became a story about how nostalgia can curdle into something toxic. While Cobra Kai’s fourth season continues to explore these topics while remaining funny and badass, the show’s seams are beginning to show, and its scripts are starting to run out of new ideas.
When last we checked in on the San Fernando Valley’s martial arts scene, two major events had occurred. First: life-long rivals Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) joined forces for the long-awaited All Valley Tournament. Second: the duo struck a deal with common enemy John Kreese (Martin Kove)—whichever dojo wins the tournament stays in business. The loser must shut down.
Aware that Johnny and Daniel have joined forces, Kreese calls up an old friend, The Karate Kid Part III’s Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) to help him prepare his students for the tournament. When Silver initially refuses to join his pal, claiming he’s left karate behind, Kreese plays on their shared history (namely his saving Silver’s life in Vietnam) to secure Silver’s aid.
The dynamic between Kreese and Silver serves as one of Cobra Kai season four’s main through-lines. Flashbacks offer glimpses of why Terry is so loyal to Kreese, and of their mutual fascination with one another. But while Kreese and Silver’s history is depicted captivatingly, and both Griffith and Kove are riveting when they share a scene together, the sequences do not successfully offer deeper context for how they perceive each other in the present—whether Kreese is strictly manipulating Silver or what Silver’s personal goal is. The main purpose of their reunion is overly nostalgic fanservice.
Cobra Kai season four’s storytelling struggles extend to Johnny and Daniel. Early in the season, the show treads new ground by exploring how the two interact as allies, rather than rivals. Daniel is trying to learn from Johnny’s teaching style and Johnny from Daniel’s, which leads to the birth of a newfound respect. Zabka and Macchio really deliver during this long-awaited arc, feeding and building off of each other’s energy. When they need to be funny, they’re hilarious. When there’s a heart-to-heart moment between their characters, they’re moving.
But instead of sticking to this new dynamic, Cobra Kai’s writers revert to the familiar Daniel vs. Johnny dynamic during the second half of the season. True, sometimes differences cannot be overcome. After four seasons, it’s disappointing that Cobra Kai opts for the safe and familiar rather than pushing and challenging its main characters. The weakness of this storytelling is particularly frustrating since the other aspects of the show remain top-notch—to the point that they’ve improved.
The action choreography, especially in the final two episodes of the season, is brilliant. The jokes are funny, and their corniness has been toned down in a good way. The high school drama is especially improved. In fact, Cobra Kai’s season four’s strongest point is the work it does with its younger characters.
Sam (Mary Mouser) deals with the high expectations and pressure Daniel puts on her. Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) struggles with the work and guilt that come with redemption. Tory (Peyton List) is forced to be an adult well before she’s ready. And both Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) and Robby (Tanner Buchanan) long for a father figure in their life. The cast’s strong work is backed by strong writing. Would that the same could be said for the adults’ stories.
Despite the whiffed punches in its scripting, Cobra Kai remains highly entertaining. It’s a charming, easy binge with fun fights. Johnny and Daniel’s dynamic is disappointingly repetitive, but there’s still a lot to enjoy here. Hopefully season five adds some new moves to its katas.
Cobra Kai waxes its way onto Netflix for season 4 December 31st.