The Sopranos was a series for the George W. Bush era with its laying bare of the criminal character of America’s ruling class. The despair of the Obama years begat Breaking Bad, the show about blowing your brains out on meth. Cobra Kai is the story of the ascendant Trump era. I finally saw all ten episodes.
What those three shows have in common is a touch of authenticity about their respective historic periods. Cobra Kai is about Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso becoming great again. Miguel Diaz, the emo Hispanic teenager, is gracile, expressive, easy on the eyes. Robby Keene is Johnny’s troubled son who represents our future and our hope.
The object of the show is the sweetheart Samantha LaRusso, Daniel’s teenage daughter. In Sopranos, the analogous character was Tony’s precocious daughter Meadow Soprano. In Breaking Bad it was Jesse’s girlfriend Jane Margolis, the hipster chick who died of a drug overdose. In 1984’s Karate Kid, it was the blonde girl-next-door Ali Mills. What all of those young women represented, is America the Beautiful. And now, Samantha is the wheat-field virgin. She is America, for amber waves of grain. She is the prize.
Who will get her — Miguel the fatherless, assimilated white’ish immigrant?
Or Robby, Johnny’s forsaken son and America’s rightful heir?
Miguel is determined to overcome his underdog status, even if it costs him his honor. You can’t help but cheer for him when his fortunes are rising. Robby, who starts out as a petty criminal, reveals his innate nobility after his sensei takes him under his wing. He eclipses Miguel. His chemistry with Samantha is raw and natural at first sight, and that’s made stark the moment when she stands symbolically naked before Robby with her breasts visible through the sheer white top of her swimsuit. Nothing in cinematography is by accident. (Ali also flashed her charms like that in Karate Kid.)
Cobra Kai is a contest of complementary visions, which are personified in Johnny, the dispossessed White man and in Daniel, the descendant of Ellis Island immigrants and now a self-made member of the upper class.
Johnny’s philosophy is Cobra Kai ruthlessness, though when tempered by his honesty, he is the long-awaited hero who spits on Social Justice and by extension, on every fake virtue, every emasculation and flaccid lie that had claimed dominion over the souls of our people after the Reagan years. When a preening contestant at the Karate tournament makes a speech against hate and intolerance, Johnny tells his protégé: “Kick that pansy bitch in the face.”
Johnny counsels street-fight ethos for every situation in life. Strike first, strike hard, no mercy. But he forgets to tell his impressionable students that while all’s fair in love and war, there are times when honor guides man’s behavior, so you don’t take a cheap shot in athletic competition.
Daniel’s philosophy is Mr. Miyagi’s counsel of balance. In Karate and in life. But while building his successful life, Daniel had lost a bit of that balance. He is comfortable, too much so. The rot is evident in his tenuous control over his family’s dramas, his passive-aggressive tactics against Johnny, and his frivolous use of Karate as a car-sales gimmick.
He also neglected to raise his son Anthony, given the boy’s obesity and video game addiction. Daniel gives all of his fatherly love to Samantha and passes his own sensei’s wisdom to her and to his new student. Johnny gives his paternal devotion, through a plot set-up, to Miguel and his dojo of misfits. This dual misalignment of patrimony drives the action and is symbolic of our displacement.
Johnny and Daniel had lost their way at mid-life and each seeks his redemption. They represent two halves of a whole: the warrior and the builder. In the narrative arc of its first ten episodes, Cobra Kai echos the urgency along with the new optimism of the Trump era: America. Who will keep her?
I made some observations about the first two episodes here.