When Cobra Kai first debuted, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it would be a quickly thrown-together show to capitalize on Karate Kid nostalgia — a Fuller House-style series with clunky dialogue and lazy plot points, the only purpose of which was to show off some tournament fighting and teen angst. But the series — now streaming on Netflix — is a thoughtful drama that has all the karate and underdog charisma of The Karate Kid, while deftly examining the character’s lives after nearly 40 years. Yeah, there are crane kicks, All-Valley Tournaments, wax-on-wax-off-moments, and plenty of 80’s nostalgia to lap up. But Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) are very much struggling as middle-aged men, husbands, and fathers.
Johnny, the once-golden boy with everything going for him is now a struggling loner and estranged father, ruined by his loss to Daniel decades ago. Daniel has ridden his tournament fame into a successful auto empire and rich lifestyle. But he’s, well, sort of a prick and needs to work on a lot of family issues. When competing dojos open up and the former rivals come face-to-face again, more is at stake than a trophy. By a twist of fate, each is training the other’s child.
Just as the original Karate Kid saga weaved life lessons throughout fight scenes and comings of age, Cobra Kai skillfully integrates tenderness, heartbreak, and sympathy between the fists, creating layered versions of Daniel and Johnny that grow and mature like a Miyagi bonsai. Martial arts techniques are designed to be perfect. There’s no room for error in a fight that could mean defeat, disgrace, or even death. Parenting, though? That’s messy, unpredictable, and as imperfect as it gets. Especially in Cobra Kai.
Through the first two seasons of Cobra Kai — a third is on the way in early 2021— the main characters have taken their beatings. Not just in the dojo, but in the living room, at the dinner table, and every other place there might be an opportunity to grasp a bona fide parenting lesson. Here are eight big parenting lessons found in the show.
1. Trust Is Crucial to the Parent-Child Relationship
In one scene from the original Karate Kid encapsulates the entire concept of trust as it relates to the Cobra Kai saga. According to Mr. Miyagi, you either commit, or you don’t. Any wavering stance between the two will leave you “squished like grape.” In Cobra Kai, the concept of trust between parents and their kids oscillates more than the den-den daiko technique. Daniel can’t leave well enough alone when it comes to his teenage daughter and, though he has the right intentions, ends up sabotaging her budding love life through fumbling suspicion. Johnny, estranged from his own son, earns the trust of his students, who see him as a badass father figure. Ultimately, however, he betrays them and leaves them confused when they follow his instructions but still end up leaving him disappointed.
2. Making Mistakes Is Part of Life
In Cobra Kai, the line between heroes and villains is more blurred than an incoming Crane Kick. Daniel, once the “good guy”, is also cocky, obnoxious, and self-satisfied. Johnny, the “bad guy” is remorseful, human, and even contrite. The point? No matter what your parental pedigree – whether you’re a wealthy provider with resources to spare, or a well-meaning yet destitute dude just trying to make it, no one is immune from screwing up. Even though he’s a good dad on paper, Daniel’s struggles to find the perfect technique when parenting his kids. And Johnny, despite once being an All Valley hero, has sunk to the depths of a dad who can’t score a point.
3. Happiness Is Hard to Find
On one side of the freshly-sanded fence, we have auto magnate Daniel LaRusso. He lives in an extravagant mansion, full of everything he couldn’t buy when he was a kid stressing about leaky faucets in Reseda. On the other side, we have Johnny Lawrence. He’s a sometimes handyman who lives in a roach-infested one-bedroom, littered with empty Coors Banquet cans and beef jerky wrappers — a dramatic change from his upbringing as the stepson of a wealthy tycoon. As a kid, Johnny’s parents could – and did – buy him anything he wanted. (Including that badass red leather jacket, a dirt bike, and a silver spoon in his cocky mouth.) As an adult, Daniel’s kids also want for nothing. Yet, both dynamics prove that payment parenting is ultimately unprofitable.
4. Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness For Parents
In season 2 of Cobra Kai, Daniel becomes so preoccupied with resurrecting Miyagi-Do karate — the twist being that his star student, Robby, is also Johnny’s son -— that he neglects his responsibilities as a parent, husband, and business owner. Johnny, while still conflicted about the sinister, slow-burning mutation of the new Cobra Kai, is more focused on his dojo than his relationship with his actual son, and the students who revere him as a mentor and a father-figure. Both dads’ priorities are unbalanced, and their families suffer. While Daniel’s wife supports his passion for Miyagi-Do, she clearly – and rightfully – resents his tunnel vision. And, while Johnny is busy raising his students, his son is still caught between the conflict of his absent father and the man who is actually teaching him how to grow.
5. Tough Love Works…In Moderation!
Johnny Lawrence wasn’t raised by his mother, father, or stepfather. He was raised by John Kreese, a psychotic martial arts sensei who always left his students guessing whether his brain was in the dojo or back in the jungle of 1970s Da Nang. His love wasn’t just tough, it was unyielding, inflexible, and caustic. But, ultimately, it kind of worked. The Johnny Lawrence we see in 2020 is a product of pure perseverance which, begrudgingly, he owes to Kreese. The endless drills, knuckle pushups, and sparring sessions orchestrated by his former sensei taught him never to give up, no matter how tough things got. Luckily, Johnny’s gradual growth as a man and a father himself, shown through his realization that Kreese was a bad guy, reminds Johnny that his former sensei’s word was not gospel, but still a dubious footnote in the book of life.
6. Helicopter Parenting Can Backfire
A scene from season two shows just how devastating it can be when a parent oversteps his or her bounds. Hawk, one of the most charismatic characters on the show, aptly named for his brightly-colored mohawk, started off as an outcast. He was shy, paranoid about his mildly-deformed lip, and withdrawn from his classmates like a tightly balled fist. In short: he was a high school bully chum. So, when his well-meaning parents phoned the school and demanded the principal make an announcement instructing the other students to stop bullying him, they sealed his fate within the boundaries they’d effectively destroyed. Throughout his transformation into Hawk, the once polite and meek “Eli” becomes rebellious, angry, and borderline sadistic, all thanks to some embarrassing parental meddling.
7. Teamwork Makes the Marital Dream Work
Cobra Kai is packed with examples of teamwork. Some are heavy-handed, like the back-to-back yin yang technique Daniel teaches Samantha and Robby. (Which allows them to dance-fight a nest of Cobras at the mall.) But, one of the more poignant examples of mutual support is a subtle plot thread during which Daniel and his wife, Amanda, are left helpless as the only two remaining employees at LaRusso Auto. And, they’re in the midst of an argument. What do they do? They table the grievances, crack their knuckles, and meet the daily car quota together, proving that a good teammate can cheer you from the sidelines, and help you in the ring.
8. Forgiveness is the Way
“You can’t let the mistakes of your past determine your future,” says Carmen, the mother of Johnny’s prized pupil, Miguel. And, while she’s specifically talking to the Cobra Kai sensei at that moment, she’s essentially wrapping up the central motif of the show in a tightly knotted black belt of wisdom. Johnny is ashamed of his strained relationship with his son. Daniel is embarrassed and guilty over neglecting his familial duties while trying to rebuild Miyagi-Do karate. Even Johnny’s ex-wife — Robby’s mother — has hit the wall with her pill addiction and decided to start rehab. All of these parental figures are flawed. We know it, they know it, and their kids know it. But, even against dramatic odds, Cobra Kai never fails to entice us with a glimmer of hope that forgiveness will prevail, and we’ll get a happy ending. After all, a wise man once said, “For a person with no forgiveness in heart, living even worse punishment than death.”
You can stream Cobra Kai Seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix right now.
Season 3 is coming in January 2021.