Your Lack of Growth is Disturbing

Cobra Kai: Season 5

What should we expect from Cobra Kai at this point? I found myself asking that over and over as I watched through the full ten-episode fifth season of the series. At this point this Karate KidIt's the teen-friendly Rocky riff that defined a generation, with karate, montages, and a lot of power '80s rock, as Daniel LaRusso becomes the Karate Kid. continuation has long since logged more hours on content than all the rest of the franchise (including video game and cartoon) combined. This is the defining version of the franchise going forward, which makes it a bit sad that the series doesn't really seem to know what it wants to do with its characters for the long haul.

The issue is growth. How do you continue to write characters that grow and evolve when you have a core concept that you need to maintain? The series is built on the idea of rival dojos, Miyagi-Do versus Cobra Kai, and while the players of those two dojos have shifted around over the seasons, the emphasis is still on those two houses. The kids and adults have to always feel like these dojos, and the whole of karate, are their entire lives. The show has to keep everyone in stasis, for the most part, to continue running the same petty rivalries over and over again. And that sucks because when the series actually lets its characters grow and evolve it find new poignancy with these older characters.

This season of the show features Cobra Kai under the sole tutelage (and ownership) of Karate Kid III heavy Terry Silver. After getting his partner Kreese sent to prison (for a crime he didn't commit), Silver has take Cobra Kai to the next level, following the dream of expanding the dojos scope across the Valley... and eventually the world. Soon every city could have a Cobra Kai dojo catering to kids looking to follow "the way of the fist".

The issue, of course, is that Silver is a sociopath and the version of karate he teaches turns kids into monsters. He's not looking to teach honor and respect, he wants to turn these little kids into soldiers who will follow, and fight for, only him. That puts diametrically against the teachings of Miyagi-Do so, even though Cobra Kai won the All-Valley last season (even if they cheated) and technically the bet made between the dojos would have shut the other dojos down, Daniel LaRusso, Johnny Lawrence, and Chozen Toguchi have to team up to resurrect their dojo and stop Silver all over again.

Any time a television series runs on for more than a couple of seasons you can sense a struggle to keep things "the same" while still finding new stories to tell. The creators know that people tune in for the specific concept of the show but if the series deviates too far it can lose fans. Of course, now letting the characters grow, and keeping everything trapped in amber, can have the same effect. Characters without grown perform the same functions again and again without ever learning anything, and that becomes hard to watch over time.

The biggest offender this season is LaRusso. He hates Silver with a blind passion (which is earned as per the events of the third film). That means that the character is written to act like he has to drive head first into every situation because he sees a terrible and dangerous threat to karate (and karate students) in the Valley. He wants to save everyone, to be the big hero, because he knows Cobra Kai is wrong. He's willing to push and put everything on the line, even if it means ignoring his business and his wife.

If that all sounds familiar that's because that's basically been the same arc LaRusso has gone through, again and again, when facing off against Johnny (in seasons 1 and 2) and then Kreese (in seasons 3 and 4), and now he's doing it again with Silver. It's easy to say, "well, the character has always been written as a hot head," and the show makes that observation. But this series started in 1984 ad it would be nice if, 40 years later, LaRusso could learn how to control that even a little, or pick up on any of the lessons that should have been taught to him over the last four years of this series.

Or take Johnny. The original leader of the revived Cobra Kai (who then got kicked out and started Eagle Fang dojo instead) has grown some over the course of the series, becoming friends with LaRusso and learning how to temper his own worst impulses some. Problem for this character is that he's been written since day one as someone trapped in the 1980s, almost like he was unfrozen from that decade and now has to figure out everything. At first this character trait was cute, making him look like a Gen-X throwback. But he's been around kids for four seasons now, and it's harder and harder to swallow that this shallow idiot could keep himself alive, let alone engender the friendship and adoration of these kids. The show doesn't know how to let him be an old guy from the 1980s without him also being a moron, and he should have grown out of that by now.

Meanwhile, Silver is written as if he was the same character from the third film, simply transplanted back into this fifth season. He was shown having grown up and evolved back in the fourth season, but that was thrown away late in that run and the character has regressed to full-on villain. He's cartoonish and over-the-top, but there's nothing actually relatable about this character at all. A good villain has just enough going on that you can understand where he's coming from, by Silver doesn't get any of that writing. His plans are inscrutable, his desires unknown. Why does he want to run a worldwide empire of dojos? He's already rich and famous and one of the best karate practitioners around. What does he gain from this? We'll never know because the series didn't want something fleshed out and interesting. It wanted a mustache-twirling villain.

Things do slowly get better over the course of the season. LaRusso has a "come to Jesus" moment that somewhat helps him find focus. He deepens his friendship with Johnny and Chozen. And meanwhile each of those guys also finds ways to bond and grow their friendship, making a trio of solid teachers for the kids. There's never a doubt that Miyagi-Do is a good dojo. What is lacking is that balance from the villain or some way to show there are two competing version that could be equally good. We had that at the start of this series, but like so much growth and evolution, that's been brushed aside.

Even the finale this season seems to toss all the growth away. We get to a point where Cobra Kai is defeated again, and there's another tourney on the horizon, but isn't that the same place we've been at in the previous seasons before? Sure, the villain will change once again, but these three guys are stuck in amber, never to truly get out of the karate life and find a way to push past. And not only are they stuck but all the kids they teach are stuck as well, barely having plot lines that let them do anything other than leave karate and come right back to it again to do it all over one more time.

While it wasn't the most believable series when it first started, Cobra Kai has steadily devolved into a cartoon. It's watchable at times, to be sure, but it's hard to swallow all the events that happen. Everything in the series has to be resolved through fighting, and while that worked (to a degree) in the movies it's less and less of a solution in this wider and more fleshed out world that exists in the series. At some point these characters have to move beyond the same old drama season after season and, just maybe, they have to evolve past devoting their entire lives to karate. But then, if they do that, is there even a show anymore? Perhaps the real answer is finding an end game for the series so it can go out before it becomes completely unwatchable.