Cobra Kai season 3, the first batch of episodes to premiere on Netflix, does something fascinating with its Big Bad, John Kreese: In a story arc about how old rivalries and past trauma can continue to deal damage across decades, the show’s writers use the character to question the amount of automatic respect and trust that America places in its veterans.
Such a loaded, nuanced criticism sticks out on Cobra Kai. The story of two karate students who fought each other in a tournament when they were kids, and find their rivalry revived in their adult lives as they both take on new karate students, is ridiculous. The show’s characters seem to know none of this makes sense, or is plausible in a normal reality, but knowing a situation is silly doesn’t mean you’re out of that situation.
Every character in the show is stuck, in their own way, in the high-stakes drama of Karate Kid movies, and in that world everything in life can be solved or made worse through karate. Even Daniel’s wife finds the whole thing hard to explain, or at least believe.
Daniel's wife in Cobra Kai is just so fucking over hearing about karate at this point in her life and it's one of the best things about the show pic.twitter.com/74tPPWUn1x— Ben is concerned about everything right now (@BenKuchera) January 10, 2021
Then there’s the issue of Kreese, who has been set up as the ultimate bad guy across the series. Season 3 fleshes out an already bonkers backstory about Kreese’s time in Vietnam in which he was captured and forced to fight other prisoners to the death above a literal snake pit, because Hollywood doesn’t believe you can give something a name without also creating a backstory to justify that name.
Kreese fights in the place of another prisoner, wins, they get released, and the two men open a karate dojo called Cobra Kai to pass down the importance of killing your opponents before they kill you. A strip mall karate dojo is a little different than a death pit in Vietnam, or at least should be to most people, but no one can tell that to Kreese.
So when Kreese returns to the world of Karate Kid at the end of season one of Cobra Kai, we know things are about to get serious. Lawrence is an aging, out-of-touch goofball looking to better himself a little bit by reopening Cobra Kai, but Kreese wants control of the dojo because he’s a bad guy out of a cartoon, someone who seems to just delight in causing suffering in others.
I kinda feel for Johnny in Cobra Kai because dude clearly knows his childhood messed him up bad and he wants to do better but has literally no support, no role models and three brain cells but dammit he's out there trying to stop generational trauma so I feel like I gotta stan pic.twitter.com/0o7W23BNS1— Ben is concerned about everything right now (@BenKuchera) January 11, 2021
During yet another karate brawl between students, the Cobra Kai pupils break the arm of an opponent, and Kreese, of course, is fine with it. Hurting your enemies is the whole point! But in real life you can’t just teach kids to injure other kids. Someone is going to come and complain. Understandably! When Amanda LaRusso responds, we see just how creepy and effective Kreese can be as a villain.
Everything about the scene gives me the willies. She’s alone in his business, he obviously has no regard for any kind of social contract, and Kreese knows exactly how badly Amanda messed up by striking him in response to his veiled threats and aggressive behavior. Suddenly he has all the power in this situation, and is ready to play one last get out of jail free card: he’s a veteran.
In a meeting with local government to discuss the cancellation of the upcoming karate tournament, which in this universe is the only way to solve anything, Kreese begins by introducing himself with his rank, is thanked for his service, he makes a fake show of being a good, but tough, teacher who just wants the best for his students, and reminds the room he was just so happy to serve his country. He’s not the violent one, the people trying to interrupt him are the baddies, and he’s already had to file a restraining order against Amanda LaRusso for striking him.
His status as a combat veteran is the first weapon he reached for, knowing it would likely be the most effective. American society gives a lot of social power to folks who served, and Kreese knows exactly how to weaponize that inherent trust to manipulate those around him.
Whether Kreese would have been as convincing without playing this particular card is debatable, but it’s a card the character is clearly used to playing, and knows how to use to get what he wants. Martin Kove, the actor playing Kreese, is also in his 70s, so his options for actual physical combat on the show are limited, and he makes a more imposing enemy when the threat is more cerebral anyway. It also shows his cunning; whatever he can use for an advantage, he will use.
This turnaround in the power dynamic between a newcomer to the community and a well-known local businesswoman who owns a car dealership is just a small moment in a surprisingly dense show. But as written, the scene between Kreese and the other adult characters of Cobra Kai offers a rare warning about elevating veterans or service members based exclusively on the fact that they’re veterans or service members.
That’s a provocative perspective for a piece of American TV. Our pop culture often turns soldiers into action heroes, and the police into anti-heroes who bend the rules to do what needs to be done. These romanticized versions of the people who hold these jobs run into some friction when compared to reality, where a mob of citizens, including veterans and law enforcement, abused their social position and the trust placed in them to stage a riot in the United States Capitol. Cobra Kai isn’t saying soldiers are particularly manipulative or evil, just that being a veteran isn’t by itself a good reason to believe someone is telling the truth. It’s a data point, not the whole story.
Kreese’s season 3 arc shows the downsides of this particular bias, and how easily it can help cause, and also cover up, ongoing violence and abuse. Daniel LaRusso has already kicked the guy’s butt once in the show’s third season, but the debate scene is where his real threat becomes apparent: Kreese doesn’t need his own fists to do damage, just the trust and backing of the community while he wages war on his rival dojos. And he’s able to get there, in large part, due to bringing up this one aspect of his extremely checkered past.