‘’The ultimate aim of the art of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the characters of its participants’
-Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan karate-do
Hi there! Welcome to season one episode one review and recap of ‘Cobra Kai!’ Ace Degenerate. Sadly, I cannot think of a better title for the reviews than ‘Wax On’, I’m not Madderrose (but seriously check out her Farscape Reviews.)
So anyway..can I tell you something? Just between me and thee?
Oh my god I love this show!
Love love love this show. It’s got that popcorn munching quality where you’re excited and scared and exhilarated and you just wanna say ‘one more episode, it’s not that late!’ Sweet kicks, sweet tricks, training montages, a kickass soundtrack, you name it. It’s got all that good good action movie stuff.
And it’s a smart show. This is a show about trauma, abuse, legacies, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, toxic masculinity, foreshadowing, payoff, drama, how the past can define us even if we deny that it does. I’ve definitely teared up more than a few times watching it.
And sexual tension you could cut with a knife.
So anyway, I have to come clean right now: I did not see ‘The Karate Kid’ when it came out (my mom said I was too young), and did not even watch it on VHS (or DVD) later. Oh sure, I was aware of it, in the same way you’re aware that your neighbour has a cute dog, it’s just a part of the background noise of your life. But I have to say, although I hadn’t seen it when I first started watching, the show did a great job of making it easy to dive in without prior knowledge.
(Very very short cliffnotes version of ‘The Karate Kid’ : Daniel LaRusso is a kid who moves to California from New Jersey. He gets bullied by these kids who know karate, especially Johnny Lawrence, who belong to a dojo called ‘Cobra Kai’. Daniel gets himself an awesome karate teacher, Mr. Miyagi. He enters the 1984 Under 18 Tournament, and wins and everyone lives happily ever after the end!*)
My husband started watching Cobra Kai when it was on YouTube Red (now Youtube Premium), with much eyerolling from me. I felt that it was a waste of money, and the thumbnails I occasionally saw didn’t really make me feel that interested. ‘It’s about the villain? What? Why should I care?’ I mean, I’m done with reboots where we do a deep dive of the poor misunderstood villain.
But when it got to Netflix, my husband (henceforth known as Wiseguy, because of an in joke of his friends) said we should watch it. ‘Okay, but if I don’t like it, you’re watching it by yourself.’ I said, shrugging.
I. Was. Hooked.
Every evening after watching it, Wiseguy and I would rave about the high points, commiserate over the low points, and wonder what would happen next episode. What was next for Johnny and Daniel?
Oh, and Here Be Spoilers, for episode one of Cobra Kai (and please, if you want to talk about other episodes in the comments, put them under the Spoiler Tag, thank you.). I also do not live in California, and don’t know much about karate or martial arts, so keep that in mind.
Ready? Let’s karate!
So we open on a tournament.
Wait, let me re-phrase that.
We open on The Tournament.
December 19th, 1984. This is when Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) faced off against each other at the Under 18 All Valley Tournament. Daniel, a plucky young kid with no dad and no money, your typical 80s scrappy underdog.
And Johnny, a cocky good looking asshole with money, local fame, a cool bike, looks, a cool leather jacket, and looks. An 80s bully in other words.
Johnny is about to be awarded the tournament trophy, when a girl (Ali, Daniel’s girlfriend and Johnny’s ex, and yep that provided a lot of tension between them) runs up to speak in the referees ear. Daniel staggers onto the mats, limping on a bad leg, but resolute (in the movie one of the other Cobra Kais kicks Danny in the leg, spurred on by Kreese, their teacher and the resident child abuser/cult leader).
We see Johnny, merciless, angry, and enraged. We see Daniel, wide eyed, desperate, and in pain. They fight, Johnny wanting to take Daniel to pieces it seems, determined not just to win, but to destroy him. ‘Sweep the leg’ Kreese tells Johnny (oh so that’s where that comes from!) and Johnny, horrified but compliant, does so.
Daniel seems to be out, but hey, he’s a scrappy 80s underdog! We know that he’s not lost yet, nahhh. And sure enough, Daniel wins! With a (illegal?) kick to the face, Johnny is down, and Daniel wins. We see a cheering, happy crowd rush the mats, Daniel jubilant and victorious.
And then we see Johnny, face down on the mat, the sounds echoing around him-
-And we fast forwards to the present where we now we see Johnny face down on his rumpled bed. Passed out after a drunken binge it seems, as the first thing he does when he wakes up is reach for his (stale/warm/bad?) beer on the nightstand.
He’s gone from losing to being a loser. In a surprising choice, the creators (Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg) have shown a lot of character growth for Johnny. He has gone from a good looking teenaged asshole to a good looking middle aged asshole.
Johnny spends his days working a repair job he seems to hate (he found a dead RAT in a drain gutter! I mean, the only thing worse than finding a dead rat is finding a moist dead rat, gross!), and his nights watching 80s movies (shout-out to Iron Eagle!) and drinking cheap bear. He has no friends in his apartment complex, and when his neighbours son approaches him with a simple question, he brushes him off with ‘Great, another immigrant.’ Yep. He is that kind of asshole.
Meanwhile, his one time rival Daniel LaRusso is the opposite. He has a chain of a successful car dealerships, a happy family, and some small measure of local fame for being the legendary 1984 Tournament winner. They have almost literally switched places, which is a very good place to start from.
But despite the fact that Johnny is an asshole and a loser, I can’t help but feel for him. He has a lonely life, haunted by an event that happened more than thirty years ago. He peaked in high school, and you feel bad for people like that, even as you roll your eyes at them.
Things go from bad to worse with Johnny when he is fired from his job because he called a customer a bitch.
(He didn’t call her a bitch, he said she was bitching, but tomato tomahto, still wasn’t a good move.)
So now he is a jobless loser asshole (definitely the worst Dr. Seuss book). What else can possibly go wrong?
I’m glad you asked!
Heading to his local convince store to drown his sorrows in a cheap pizza slice (where we meet one of my favourite minor characters, the convenience clerk/owner Nestor), he runs into Miguel (that nice neighbours son from earlier), who commiserates with the cashier about Johnnys dickery (literally the cashier says Johnny has a small dick). ‘You think I have a tiny wang? Tell him he has a tiny wang.” says Johnny in a voice that is supposedly threatening.
While he’s sitting on the curb outside, eating crappy pizza and feeling sorry for himself, Johnny just looks so beaten down. Like all the joy and enjoyment has been sucked out of his life.
At this literal and figurative low point, he sees Miguel being hassled by some local teens™. The hassling turns abusive, and Johnny steps in with a ‘Leave the dork alone!’ And after some posturing and heated words, Johnny takes the kids on (striking first, natch), and I sat up and took notice.
And the music lets us know that Johnny is back, with some nice synth and electric guitars. He’s style, he’s grace, he’ll kick you in the face!
It’s pretty badass…until you remember Johnny is beating up kids.
(Yes I know this is mirroring the scene where Mr. Miyagi saves Danny from Cobra Kai, but still.)
Then the cops show up and pepper spray Johnny because he was beating up teenagers.
And you may think that this is the moment that ignites Johnnys spark, inspiring and motivating him. But it’s not. That moment hasn’t come, not even when his stepfather Sid drops by with ‘one last check’ (which Johnny tears up) and to reminisce about Johnnys mom (who was apparently his trophy wife and ew this guy).
Well what’s a guy to do at a time like this? Drunk driving I guess??
After destroying his tv because it was playing a commercial with Daniel LaRusso in it (Daniels car dealership has these super cheesy commercials) Johnny relives his past triumphs and tragedies over and over in his head as he speeds through the night, one hand on the steering wheel, the other on a bottle, to end up where it all began (or ended) for him, the All Valley Arena.
And as he stands there in the parking lot, bottle in a brown bag, Johnny has a very visceral, very real flashback. Where we get a good, long look into why Johnny is the way he is, when we see his old sensei beating him up. Trying to kill him. That’s not hyperbole, Kreese is literally trying to kill him, choking him out even as Johnnys friends protest. A teenager versus a grown man.
So Johnny’s wallowing in the past is not just a symptom of middle aged malaise, but also emotional and physical trauma. He’s an abuse survivor, not that he’d ever admit to that, and it’s obvious he hasn’t been able to process that, or deal with that. It explains his behaviour, even if it doesn’t excuse it.
He’s snapped out of his reminiscing by a car crashing into his, by a teenaged girl who was on her phone and ran into him. Ironically, though it was Johnny who was drunk driving, it was when he was parked that he got into a car accident (don’t worry, he wasn’t in it and no-one got hurt…except for the car). The tow truck takes his car to the LaRussos car dealership for repairs. Which is where our protagonist meets our deuteragonist.
Now lemmie just say, I am not into the whole ‘Oh Daniel was the villain of the first movie’ thing. That’s a very simplistic way to look at things. Oh Daniel always instigated things? Did he instigate things when the Cobra Kais ran his bicycle off the road? When Johnny was hassling his ex, Ali at the beach? Yeah, he poured water on Johnny at the Halloween dance, yep, not a smart move. Which doesn’t mean that Johnny and the Cobra Kais are allowed to beat the crap outta him, come on y’all.
That being said, Daniel is a real dick to Johnny in this scene.
It’s a special kinda hell when you run into someone from high school better off than you. And it’s even worse than that if you look like a hot mess and you’re obviously hungover. And it’s even worse when he calls his friends over to talk about that one time he totally kicked your ass (technically it was his face Daniel says). And And!!!! its even worse when he does you a favor because he feels sorry for you, which Daniel does by having Johnnys car restored for free.
The cherry on top is Johnny also finds out that it was Daniels daughter in the car that wrecked his. (As a passenger, but still.)
As Johnny tries to slink away, Daniel stops him, giving him a bonsai as a parting gift, along with a few words. ‘I don’t blame you for what happened back in the day. I know that wasn’t you, that was Cobra Kai. We’re all better off without it.’
Johnny’s had it. Something snaps, and that spark inside him is suddenly ignited. Whether out of spite, or anger, or just general fed-upness we don’t know but what we do know, is Johnny is Taking Action. He rummages through the garbage to find the cheque he threw away to buy a storefront at the local strip-mall, then recruits his first student (hey Miguel!), with some questionable words of ‘wisdom’ ‘Teach you the style of karate that was taught to me, a method of fighting that your pussy generation desperately needs’ quote unquote (WOW. Johnny really is a relic). We then see him painting the new space with a familiar motto:
*Obviously not the end because there were two more movies and a series.
If you want to watch it, it’s still available on Youtube for free (at least it is in Canada and the US).
Edit: The review for 102 ‘Strike First’ will be up 10am EST next Thursday! See ya then 😉
-The name of the episode is ‘Ace Degenerate’, which is what Johnny calls himself in the first ‘Karate Kid’ movie, just before he and his friends speed down to the beach on their bikes. Apparently this means he was a junior not a senior in high school?
-Daniel gives away bonsai trees to his customers, just like Mr. Miyagi did for him.
– As mentioned, Johnny saves Miguel from bullies, just like Mr. Miyagi originally did.
-The fight between Daniel and Johnny contains all new footage and editing, so that we see things more from Johnnys perspective.