The Netflix series remains a high-kicking breeze to get through, even as its premise shows its age as much as its middle-aged protagonists.
Cobra Kai has always been about comebacks. Each season plays with its cast of characters — from the old guns to the new blood — like action figures in an elaborate playset, constantly shifting relationships, rivalries, and set-ups to drive home the most bingeable drama-lite comedy it can muster. But ultimately, when you strip it down to basics, the show only really cares about how the characters get back up after falling flat on their faces.
That’s certainly where Season 4 left off. Sam (Mary Mouser) lost the crucial final in the All-Valley Tournament to Tory (Peyton List), which meant Cobra Kai effectively vanquished Miyagi-Do and Eagle Fang as functional dojos. For Cobra Kai Season 5, Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) now rules Cobra Kai indefinitely after ousting John Kreese (Martin Kove) and is quickly using his riches to expand the hard-hitting dojo’s influence across Los Angeles. At the same time, everyone else in the show is left picking up the pieces.
Though Miyagi-Do has been reluctantly shuttered by Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), he’s recruited the efforts of fellow Miyagi-Do acolyte Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) to undermine Silver and expose Cobra Kai’s toxicity to…well, someone, he hopes. It’s the same mind game battlefield that traumatized LaRusso back in The Karate Kid Part III, making his comeback story several decades in the making at this point. And the show makes this central dynamic as juicy and vicious as possible.
Elsewhere, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) is more-or-less satisfied with saying goodbye to karate as he goes on a father-son bonding trip with Robby (Tanner Buchanan) to Mexico that is secretly a rescue mission for Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), who left on his own to find his father last season. It’s not too far off from the setup of Season 3’s initial road trip with LaRusso and Lawrence, and it serves its job well enough in reconfiguring the troubled dynamic between Miguel and Robby, whose unresolved rivalry essentially paused these last couple of seasons.
What’s odd about Cobra Kai Season 5, at least in its first half, is how underbaked the actual Cobra Kai dojo has become in terms of its members and how they contrast with the “heroes” of the story. Hawk (Jacob Bertrand), Robby, and Miguel are effectively on the same side at this point. Cobra Kai’s main foils include an increasingly disillusioned Tory — who more than suspects her win at the tournament was rigged by Silver — and Kenny (Dallas Dupree Young), a rising star but not one with a ton of beef toward anyone besides Anthony (Griffin Santopietro). The latter continues to get, well, lines in this show, though nothing too close to a fully-realized story arc.
The big bad dojo still has the one-note cringe-king Kyler (Joe Seo), but it takes a little bit to get any fresh faces to mix up the threat level and personal stakes. Devon (Oona O’Brien) eventually returns after her dojo (revealed last season) gets subsumed by Cobra Kai, giving her some play with Tory as yet another troubled youth in danger of being exploited by Silver, taking over for Kreese, who currently rots in a jail cell during what is probably the show’s oddest c-plot yet. But then Silver brings in the big guns, a crew of new instructors led by the ferociously intimidating Kim Da-Eun (Alicia Hannah-Kim), and her talents do not go unused.
The show seems more content than ever to go darker and cut deeper right when you least suspect it.
On the one hand, it makes good sense to let the characters we already know and love spend some time decompressing after so many seasons of random fistfights and melodramatic misunderstandings. The romance and friendships have pretty much settled into a peacetime era, with the shadow of something truly sinister constantly haunting these teens in the background, rather than replaying the same beats of “this one hates this one, so they have to fight it out a bunch of times.” But then the season speeds things up toward the end to set up more tournaments, more drama, more everything, so we can make sure Season 6 is where all the real payoffs get their due.
As a season of Cobra Kai, everything here works as expected and hoped for. The show is still a breeze to blast through, the campy dialogue continues to reign over anything the CW has produced in years or even decades. When the season reaches its actual conclusion, the action hits a fever point I thought we’d seen the peak of back in Season 2. The show seems more content than ever to go darker and cut deeper right when you least suspect it.
It’s great to see a show this consistently entertaining still willing to mix things up in a balanced, thoughtful way. Again, it’s all about comebacks, and what better comeback to point out than the existence of something of a show like this in the first place? The showrunners have proven time and again that amidst the comfortable rehashes that are perhaps unavoidable, Cobra Kai still has some surprises in store for not just fans of the original movies, but the massive audience it’s deservedly accrued over its wonky, but often brilliant ascendance these last four years.
It’s a show that will have to end soon. But the pieces have been set up in the right way to give the Karate Kids, young and old, as terrific a sendoff as possible.
Cobra Kai is currently streaming on Netflix.