Cobra Kai season 4 reminds me of a pro wrestling pay-per-view. A good one, to be sure. SummerSlam, the Survivor Series, whatever you’re watching, the best part comes from guessing who the writers have matched to win and whether that will be believable or pleasing to the fans. And in the best ones, well, you get endings you legitimately didn’t see coming. I don’t know who you had in your betting pool for the 51st Annual All-Valley Under-18 Karate Championship, but I didn’t come close to guessing these winners, right up to the last strike.
Cobra Kai season 4’s outcome lingered with me for a good two days after viewing it, much like WrestleMania when it really delivers. But the problem those PPVs have, which Cobra Kai season 4 shares, is they often sag in the middle portion with lesser conflicts and expository dialogue, dithering as they build to the main event. The satisfaction of the outcome makes the journey forgivable; the end of the eighth episode delivers a head-snapping moment, at which point the show quickly sheds its campy wrapper and gets very serious, and very decisive.
Cobra Kai season 4 picks up with old frenemies Johnny (William Zabka) and Daniel (Ralph Macchio) merging their dojos to win the upcoming tournament and drive John Kreese (Martin Kove) out of the Valley, under the terms of a loser-leaves-town side bet that no one expects anybody to honor. Kreese is in charge of not only Cobra Kai but also Johnny’s estranged son, Robbie (Tanner Buchanan), whose time in juvenile detention transformed him into a scowling Karate Anakin.
Robbie has done worse than turn to the dark side. He’s now teaching the Cobras the Miyagi-do secrets he learned from Daniel in season 1. For their part, Johnny and Daniel waste time disagreeing on whose style should take precedence in their instruction. This manifests mainly as a series of humorous montages playing well beyond type. Johnny’s “Eagle Fang” style expects kids to leap across rooftops and kick each other in the gonads inside a dimly lit warehouse. Daniel has the kids chasing carp around a koi pond as another ulterior training device.
But even as it introduces new conflicts worth exploring, like Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser) embracing Johnny’s strike-first ethic, Cobra Kai season 4 can’t wait to bring more characters to an already harried ensemble narrative. It’s a confounding place to be as a viewer, because this year’s callback to the 1980s films is the strongest and most dynamic of them all: Thomas Ian Griffith as Terry Silver is the psychopath the Cobra Kai dojo has desperately demanded, and which the 75-year-old Kove has only subtly provided in the two seasons preceding.
Silver, in the Karate Kid canon, was Kreese’s rich buddy who bankrolled a convoluted scheme to defeat and discredit Daniel in The Karate Kid Part III. The character arc that showrunners Hayden Schlossberg, Josh Heald, and Jon Hurwitz have chosen for Silver practically redeems the entire 1989 film, which was a critical flop. Silver is teased out of his New Age, Malibu rehab lifestyle by Kreese, who needs cash assistance to make Cobra Kai thrive. It’s fascinating to watch Griffith out-Svengali Kove in every scene they share, and it has me genuinely optimistic for season 5, which has already been greenlit.
As if Silver wasn’t enough of a presence, we also get Kenny Payne (Dallas Dupree Young) as the all-new prism through which Cobra Kai refracts its annual cycle of bullying, revenge, and the dehumanization both cause. Again, more time for new characters means less time and distance for the established ones to travel. But it’s not like the writers, or Young, waste the space that Kenny has been given. His character and his circumstances are well-written and sympathetic, especially the breaking-point prank that drives him to Robbie and Cobra Kai.
That is still a lot of territory covered in seven half-hour episodes. However interesting the new characters and their dilemmas are, taken on the whole it feels like the first two-thirds of Cobra Kai Season 4 isn’t held together by anything stronger than a lingering comparison of Daniel and Johnny’s conflicting methods. So the alliance of Robbie and Tory (Peyton List) gets a few quick plate-spins before the story dashes to the other end of the stage to perform maintenance on whatever’s going on with Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) and Demetri (Gianni DeCenzo). It’s a shame because List’s breakout performance over the past two seasons has me wanting more out of Tory than anyone else.
Of all the antiheroes in Cobra Kai, List does the best job at selling the chip on Tory’s shoulder, seething with earned resentment and underprivileged insecurity. Don Lee’s fight choreography, overall, is more visceral and visually entertaining in season 4 than in the previous three seasons combined. It elevates Robbie’s character to the status of Cobra Kai’s undisputed best fighter. But when it’s applied to Tory, we see the kind of barely controlled fury that distinguished the original Cobras in their scenes of the first film.
As expressive and satisfying as List’s and Buchanan’s fight scenes are, Mary Mouser steals that particular show with the bespoke fighting style Lee created for her. It visually marries Cobra Kai’s meta-meta-meta conflict, between Daniel and Johnny’s training and traditions, in a kind of interpretive dance. No amount of expository dialogue could sell the point, and probably no other character could bring it home. The result is a climactic duel in which the viewer is rooting for both combatants — just like the Robbie-vs.-Miguel finale of season 1 — and thus we get a genuinely suspenseful outcome, a rarity for a sports flick.
After the salvage effort — successful nonetheless — of season 3, I was skeptical that Cobra Kai’s story-spinners really had a universe and characters that could extend beyond a trilogy. Season 4 proved me flat wrong. Although it meandered a bit on its way to the finale, I still ended the 10th episode feeling like the show had been reborn. That’s largely thanks to Terry Silver, as well as story-resetting scenes and chemistry involving Johnny, Daniel, and Robbie. And there’s not just a visual cliffhanger to be quickly resolved, like the end of season 2. There’s real ground, new ground to break, especially with Kenny and Anthony, next year.
Cobra Kai season 4 begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 31.