Cobra Kai season 3 is a comeback worthy of the Karate Kid

Cobra Kai season 3 is a martial arts soap opera born of the 1980s teenage exploitation genre, and works on those specific terms. The series started with a love-note first season that was pure feel-good magic. The new season, the first to debut exclusively on Netflix, revels in a new (old) set of tropes. Along with the adults’ dereliction, the kids’ impossibly sophisticated lives, the social caste antagonisms, and Romeo-and-Juliet themes, you also get a rockin’ cameo from hair-metal artifact Dee Snider, and the requisite trashing of a mansion while mom and dad are away. Cobra Kai season 3 is no prestige drama — and if it were, it’d be a lot less fun.

[Ed. note: This review contains mild spoilers for Cobra Kai season 3.]

So, let’s go ahead and address the is-it-better/worse questions: No, Season 3 is not as good as Season 1. Yes, it is a lot better than Season 2. The nostalgia may not be as organic as that first year, but Season 1 wasn’t shouldering the same kind of story weight that these 10 half-hour episodes have to lug around and resolve.

And Season 2 was nothing but unresolved conflict — Cobra Kai vs. Miyagi-do; Johnny vs. his old sensei, Kreese; a love quadrangle involving Robbie, Samantha, Miguel, and Tory. That plus the cliffhanger — Miguel comatose after an all-hands brawl between the dojos — left a lot of broken glass on the floor. Yet for those hoping this third act would be a finale sweeping it all up, Cobra Kai again ends with a promise for more (and Netflix ordered a fourth season back in October, so it’ll actually happen).

Johnny Lawrence pleads with a comatose Miguel, who is laying in a hospital bed with a brace strapped to his shoulders and head
Deprived of the physicality that made Miguel a karate hero, Xolo Maridueña still shines in emotional scenes with mentor Johnny (William Zabka).
Overbrook Entertainment/Sony Pictures Television/Netflix

Crucially, though, all major characters come across better, more engaging, and more of who I wanted them to be all along. The best of the comeback players are Demitri (Gianni Dacenzo) and Hawk (Jacob Bertrand), whose rivalry now has some real heft. It was a distraction in season 2, undermined by Demitri’s egg-headed, unsympathetic whining. But Dacenzo gets a lot more to work with, and a lot more for the viewer to root for in the writing for his character, while Bertrand shines in an unexpectedly pivotal role as the nerd berserker.

Xolo Maridueña also delivers a superb picture of Miguel, who awakens from his coma but remains paralyzed below the waist. Deprived of the gawky teen physicality that made his fight scenes such a joy, Maridueña goes deep with his emotion, angry at and forgiving of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) in such an authentic way it makes both characters better. Their chemistry and affection, which shone in season 1 and went AWOL in year 2, blooms again, especially in the sequence where Miguel coaches Johnny on how to look good on social media.

Kreese (Martin Kove) drove the two apart in retaking the Cobra Kai dojo from Johnny last year, despite scenes in which he was more a pathetic old man than a twisted sociopath living vicariously through teenagers. But good old, fun, asshole Kreese returns and even gets an origin story befitting a Batman villain. That said, while Cobra Kai operates as comic book entertainment, Kreese leaving a slithering calling card in one of Daniel’s showroom automobiles might have been a bit much.

Daniel-san (Ralph Macchio) doesn’t have many emotional journeys left to make, so head writers Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg send him on a trip to Japan, giving Cobra Kai a chance to lasso a few original Karate Kid actors who have yet to appear. In the writers’ defense, though, Daniel at least has a plausible reason to jet across the Pacific while everything is falling apart in the San Fernando Valley. A side mission to Okinawa is a little too serendipitous, but while there he reconnects with Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) and a still-seething Chozen (a still-buff Yuji Okumoto), who is looking for a specific kind of payback after 35 years. Nothing, canonically, demanded a reunion with either character, or this location, but the story commits to them and allows them to drive events forward, in their own way.

Robbie Keene (Tanner Buchanan) standing by his prison cot with hands in his pockets, looking away from a guard in the foreground.
Viewers are left with the feeling that the story is funneling into Robbie, even if in Season 3 he doesn’t do much more than get in prison fights.
Overbrook Entertainment/Sony Pictures Television/Netflix

Cobra Kai season 3 is overall a fast-paced show, which means some of its slower portions seem to drag or linger by comparison. In particular, the character arc for Robbie Keene (Tanner Buchanan) is left unfulfilled, even as the viewer gets the sense the story is now funneling toward him as the hero who has earned a righteous heel turn. This is partially because, like Miguel, Robbie is confined for most of the season, albeit to juvenile detention for his role in season 2’s climactic throwdown. At least that means a good prison fight or two for Robbie, but with so much of Cobra Kai’s emotional budget spent on the characters not behind bars, little is left for him to do except rage at all the father figures who have failed him.

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While the fight choreography is as strong as ever — including a couple of sweet team-up moves bookending the season — the better conflicts are the ones inside, particularly with Mary Mouser’s Samantha LaRusso. The arc of Sam’s own paralytic trauma (Tory gaffed her with some kind of claw in the school melee) sets up a lesson from Mr. Miyagi, drawn from what looks like a deleted scene from The Karate Kid. It also brings some weapons (Sam’s bo staff vs. Tory’s nunchaku) into the show’s satisfying martial arts repertoire.

Heading into Cobra Kai season 3, I worried that the mess made in season 2 was setting us up for a serviceable mop up, and little more. I was especially troubled by the teases for Daniel’s Japan visit, thinking we would be getting more nostalgia sizzle than narrative steak. But season 3 still has plenty of substance; it got me to care again, about what has happened and what will happen to these people, rather than regret the previous 10 episodes as a tale that didn’t need telling. That’s a hell of a good comeback, but then, we expect no less of The Karate Kid.

Cobra Kai season 3 begins streaming on Netflix on Jan. 1.