CRUEL SUMMER: Cobra Kai's Dark Harvest
There is a moment in COBRA KAI's season two finale that perfectly encapsulates the moral tornado that is Johnny Lawrence's universe. Gutted by the events of the day (no spoilers, here) he sits drowning his sorrows on the beach when his phone chimes. Disgusted, he hurls it away before checking the message. But the viewer learns that Ali, the girl he lost in high-school, has sent him a Facebook friend request. But that news, like the redemption both he and Daniel LaRusso seek, lies hidden in the sand of a dark, tormented twilight.
Nostalgia figures prominently in the YouTube original series. The show's entire premise capitalizes on the nostalgia of Gen-X'ers for whom THE KARATE KID stands as one of the (few) iconic films of its generation. Both Johnny and Danny are molded (and, to a certain extent, still haunted) by the events of the 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament. For Danny, it became the springboard to a life of confidence and achievement. For Johnny it was the door opening on a descent into the dark heart of violence and alienation.
So far, we've been spared the hot-takes (read: sermons) on toxic masculinity, patriarchy and grrl power so beloved by the chattering classes. It could be that COBRA KAI, as a web-series, is unimportant enough to skate below the notice of the cultural cognoscenti and that's not entirely a bad thing. Avoiding the preachy, shop-worn plots of "woke" art, COBRA KAI returns to the big-theme/small-setting framework that made the original KARATE KID so successful. Only by bringing the story (the art, the passion, the struggle) down to interpersonal dimensions can the writers achieve what is lost in the noisy self-censoring of today's culture wars: an original meditation about moral choice, loyalty, honor, good and evil.
Make no mistake, folks. COBRA KAI (like the KARATE KID) is not really about karate, nor does it resort to creating cardboard characters that are cartoonish projections of a hero/villain worldview. It is, to reference Sensei Lawrence, a drama about the "grey areas" in life - places where no clear moral alternative prevails and where complex characters, driven by conflicting motivations, must confront and clean up their own messes. If there is a martial arts lesson in COBRA KAI, it is this: that only by making the effort, failing and coming up short do we realize both our limits and our potential.
Neither Daniel LaRusso nor Johnny Lawrence have become who we might have expected, and neither one behaves exactly as we might anticipate. They, like their students Sam, Miguel, Johnny and Tory (with a Y) navigate a complex moral universe wherein they must fight (literally and figuratively) to discover who they are, what they believe in and the values for which they are willing to stand ... and fall. In a culture content with books and films that are increasingly reliant on formulaic moralizing, this is a refreshing - even a courageous - choice. Show creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg are to be commended for telling a complex story with deftness and skill.
Sadly, our culture that has grown too "woke" for complexity, moral ambiguity and the necessity for personal struggle in an indifferent universe. We've taken refuge in an endless succession of superhero movies and books that roll smoothly toward predetermined outcomes. But like messages in bottles or cell-phones in the sand, people get lost, their lives rarely moving toward premeditated outcomes. We rarely become who we expect. COBRA KAI acknowledges this and dares to say so in a meaningful, moving fashion. I certainly hope we haven't seen the end of this excellent web series.