john hex carter

Cobra Kai and the Seductive Toxicity of Nostalgia

The second season of Cobra Kai dropped on Youtube Premium a few weeks ago. I was an absolute fan of the first season and was surprised I missed its release. I thought I'd just watch a few episodes and then, much like the first season, had accidentally binged the entirety of the second season.

For those that have missed the Cobra Kai boat altogether, it's a show inspired by the 80s movie franchise of The Karate Kid. Acting as a continuation of the story thirty years after the events of the films, the main protagonist is actually the bad guy from the first film, Johnny Lawrence, played by William Zabka as if he never left the role. Ralph Macchio also returns to perfectly play Danny LaRusso, the titular hero. The first season played out as a funhouse mirror of the original film, following Johnny as he picks up a pupil of his own, Miguel Diaz, played by Xolo MaridueƱa, who, much like LaRusso thirty years ago, is looking for a solution to a pack of bullies (Johnny being one of those bullies back then). We watch Johnny rebuild the Cobra Kai dojo, train Diaz and build a new generation. While Johnny is on a path of discovering a balance between honor and victory at no cost, some of his pupils fall through the cracks to become the same bullies that filled the ranks of the old Cobra Kai.

In the course of rebuilding the dojo, LaRusso won't back down from being an obstacle for Lawrence. While Lawrence remembers Cobra Kai as his glory days, LaRusso just sees a new generation of bullies being groomed. We see the events of the first Karate Kid film from Johnny's point of view, where he's convinced himself that LaRusso was the antagonist. As LaRusso is now an owner of a successful car dealership (which has a gimmick of "Hey! Remember me? I won a karate championship thirty years ago!"), and Johnny is barely making rent as a handyman, he can't help but be bitter. When he finally has a way to build something new and change lives (surprisingly the dojo does have a positive effect in the lives of the pupils, if not fully unproblematic), LaRusso keeps popping up to try to knock him down.

The reason? In LaRusso's eyes there's no way Johnny isn't the same dishonorable goon he was three decades ago. He bathes himself in nostalgia for his glory days, building an entire enterprise off of that love. He's built Johnny up as the villain - and deservedly so, as he was a major dick. But time has marched on and to think that Johnny can't grow as an individual is pretty myopic. In reality, LaRusso is still the petty hothead that can't leave well enough alone and is in need of constant reminders of the wisdom and patience that Mr. Miyagi tried to instill in him - and even then, LaRusso has a weakness with Johnny. No patience. No forgiveness.

Lawrence is no saint, though. And LaRusso's assessment of Lawrence was pretty accurate at the beginning of the show: he was still a dick who's life was pretty miserable because of his inability to move forward with the rest of society. That all changes when he's given the chance to teach Miguel, though. He has to learn responsibilities that he passed on with his own estranged son. He learns to own up to his mistakes and try to ask for forgiveness. The Johnny that ends the season is a far road from the Johnny that started the season and it was a phenomenal path.

Before I jump into season two, I want to talk on nostalgia and the cottage industry it has become for the world of entertainment. Nostalgia is a wonderful feeling to have, remembering the good ole days and how certain shows or games made you feel. Even if the good ole days weren't perfect, you're blinded to that for the positive feeling that you've enshrined. And that's the element that makes it toxic - the worship of the nostalgia. Once something is sacred, anyone trying to change it or remind you things weren't all that good, an individual gets harshly defensive. In the nerdy world, you can see this with the harsh response to an all-woman cast to Ghostbusters or the misogynistic and downright racist hate targeting the actors and actresses of the latest installments of Star Wars. I could go into detail on how longing for the good ole days is toxic on a political level, but I'll leave that to smarter people and stick to my wheelhouse on media.

It's no surprise that nostalgia fuels a lot of entertainment nowadays. Of the top ten grossing films of 2018, literally all of them were based off of previously existing intellectual properties, the youngest of which was over a decade old. The Cobra Kai show is fueled off of this same nostalgia of wanting to bring back something from the good ole days. It's wonderfully delicious that a show that is fueled by this same nostalgia is self-aware of the potential toxicity of the feeling and has so much to say on it.

Which brings us to season two. I'm going to have some spoilers here, so if you're digging what you read, you should go and watch both seasons. Seriously, go. This blog isn't going anywhere.

SPOILERS AHEAD


Having season one end with Martin Krove walking into the dojo as Cobra Kai's original sensei, John Kreese, made my heart drop. Johnny had progressed so far, finally realizing the importance of honor over victory, just to have this negative force return to his life. Kreese stood as a physical representation of the toxicity of nostalgia and I had such a treat watching Martin Krove deliver his performance dripping with despicable finesse.

With LaRusso, he really began to reconnect with his daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser), as his second pupil, after Johnny's own son, Robby (Tanner Buchannon). Together, they rebuild Miyagi's old house (with all its 80s montage greatness) and even act as a lightning rod for anyone that found Kreese's tactics with Cobra Kai too extreme. However, LaRusso does this at the expense of his relationship with his wife, Amanda (Courtney Henggeler), and the health of his car dealership. His headlong dive focus on reviving Miyagi Do karate has his life spiral out of balance.

For Johnny, the new season saw his car getting a makeover to be a tribute to Cobra Kai. He goes full-tilt into Cobra Kai as the focus of his life. He moves forward with Kreese, even letting him act as co-sensei for a little bit before letting him take over when he has to deal with another reminder of his Cobra Kai days - his old pal Tommy ("Put him in a body bag, Johnny!") is fighting cancer and a handful of other old karate pals and him go on one last run. As Johnny begins to come to grips with being responsible for his actions, his life gets absolutely turned upside down - Kreese has pushed the class into being full-on bullies just like in the good ole days; Miguel, now seen as a surrogate son to Johnny, is hospitalized; and even Cobra Kai is taken from him by Kreese.

For Johnny, his love of his glory days and inability to see through Kreese's schemes (despite a healthy amount of suspicion) caused him down his path of ruin. For LaRusso, it was a need to honor his mentor and "get back" at his lifelong rival. They've been sucked into interconnected gravity wells and have lost control. The real question is if they'll be able to forgive one another and shatter the shrines of the past to move forward before they're crushed.

That question is exacerbated when it's hinted that another blast from the past might be returning. Ali Mills Schwarber, originally played by the 80s heart throb Elizabeth Shue, was the original girl that Johnny and LaRusso fought over in the first movie. While Shue hasn't gone on the record of returning as Ali, she has teased a potential return which would be something I'd personally love to see. In either event, I'm very glad to hear that season three has been greenlit and am very excited to see what this show continues to say.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, throw me some coin so I can feed my family:

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