Storytelling: A Study in Opposites Part III – Cobra Kai
You may have heard of or seen a little show on Netflix called Cobra Kai. This show is great for many reasons, but the main thing I want to talk about today is it’s masterful use of opposites to manifest character development.
In case you don’t know, Cobra Kai is a sequel to the Karate Kid movies from the ’80s. It stars the original actors who played Daniel LuRosso and Johnny Lawrence, Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, respectively, and follows their story as adults.
The main dichotomy or theme of this show is bullies and losers, or, put another way, losers and winners. This dichotomy is borne out really well and serious hats off to the writers of the show for manipulating this theme in all sorts of interesting ways that result in real heart and character development.
I know it’s not a sci-fi show but I think the craft of storytelling is really well done here so it’s worth taking a look at.
Just a note, this post will contain spoilers from the first and second seasons.
Okay, let’s get into some of the great dynamics of this show to see this idea of opposites in action, and how they help to create change and character development. You can find my first two posts on this subject here and here. This post will focus more on character development overall and less on the specific beats of the show, since I’m covering several episodes.
Johnny Lawrence – Daniel LaRusso
The main opposing pair here is obviously Johnny Lawrence and Daniel La Russo. In the movies, Johnny was the main bully, or winner, who bullied the new-to-town Daniel, the loser/underdog, causing him to take up karate with Mr. Miyagi in order to defend himself. Johnny had already been training in karate for years at that point and was the reigning All Valley Champion.
Cobra Kai starts out with Johnny and Daniel in their 40s, from the perspective of Johnny, and we see a big reversal of fortune here. Johnny is now down and out, out of work, living in Reseda (the poor area where Daniel used to live), and Daniel is now the owner of a successful auto dealership (we presume he got his love of cars from Mr. Miyagi) living in Encino (where Johnny grew up in a wealthy family).
This is the main reversal of fortune/opposing pair from which the entire show stems. Johnny and Daniel have essentially switched places in their adulthood.
Another important aspect of the Johnny-Daniel dichotomy is the personalities of these two characters, which have essentially stayed the same. Johnny is still a bully and Daniel is still a hot head who thinks he knows best.
This is where the show develops a lot of heart because Johnny is actively trying to become a better person, and, slowly, mend his relationship with his son, which yay, and Daniel needs to learn to give Johnny that chance. He’s stuck in his idea of Johnny as a bully, just as when they were younger Johnny was stuck in his idea of Daniel as a loser (or was he just being manipulated by Kreese??). I suspect the show is heading towards a place where Johnny and Daniel actually become friends, or at least learn to respect each other. But in the first two seasons, they’re not there yet.
Robby Keene – Miguel Diaz
How It Started
Robby Keene and Miguel Diaz are the second main opposing pair in Cobra Kai and their reversal is also perfect. Robby is actually Johnny’s son, and we learn that, surprise, surprise, Johnny has been an absent father for most of Robby’s life. Due to this, Robby starts off the show as a teen criminal, hooligan, dropout, all of the above. We can call him the bully since he does crimes.
Miguel Diaz, living in Reseda next door to Johnny, is a poor, loser kid who gets bullied by the “cool” kids at school (reminiscent of Daniel in the first movie). We have sympathy for him immediately because he seems like a nice kid who just needs to have more confidence.
How It’s Going
Later, we see a lot of character development with these two, so much so that we can say they’ve almost switched places by the end of the first season.
Robby (remember, he’s Johnny’s son), who also has an absent mother and often goes hungry since nobody is providing for him, gets taken under Daniel’s wing. Daniel starts acting like a father figure to Robby and teaches him karate. Daniel’s calming influence and focus on the finer points of karate allows Robby to begin to let go of the anger he has towards his father and start to live a more balanced, crime-free life. He’s literally becoming a better person.
Miguel (who also doesn’t have a father) gets taken under Johnny’s wing, who also teaches him karate in order to be able to stand up to the bullies at school, which he does, more than once, giving us this beautiful piece of dialogue:
Kyler (a bully): “You want another beat down, ‘Rhea? I’m ready for your lame-ass karate this time.”
Miguel: “It’s not lame-ass karate. It’s Cobra Kai.”
Anyways, Miguel soaks up Johnny’s influence like a sponge, which is both good and bad. Miguel needed to have more confidence, and now he does, thanks to Cobra Kai’s mantra:
He becomes a more confident person, which is exactly what he needed. Unfortuantely, because Johnny is himself still a bully and still on his journey, Miguel becomes a little too harsh, a little too extreme, a little too no-mercy-like, which we see culminate in the final episode of season 1, the All Valley Championship Tournament.
At this point, Robby and Miguel, personality-wise, have switched places.
The All Valley Under-18 Karate Championship
So the final opposite/reversal that we see in season 1 is at the All Valley Championship. Recall that in the first movie, Johnny, the reigning champ, loses to Daniel, the newcomer.
In the show, Miguel, trained by Johnny (who lost before) now wins against Robby, trained by Daniel (who won before), thus securing the championship.
This is a pivotal moment because it provides a good dose of character development for Johnny. You see, Robby becomes injured (like Daniel in the first movie) but continues on to fight Miguel. Miguel, all jacked up on Cobra Kai’s mantra, deliberately attacks Robby’s injured arm to defeat him. He fights dirty to win.
Johnny realizes that he’s done to Miguel what his former sensei, Kreese, did to him, teaching him to be ruthless and win at all costs. Johnny realizes that it’s a false victory because he’s become his enemy, Kreese, who ruined his life. In the next episode, we see Johnny trying to teach his students that you must win with honour, giving us this great exchange:
Miguel: “What was that out there? Punishing us for winning the tournament?”
Johnny: “I’m teaching you a lesson.”
Miguel: “Yea, but what about ‘No Mercy’? You taught us to win at all costs.”
Johnny: “Yea. Well, maybe I’m still learning a bit too.”
Miguel: “I just don’t understand. You had no problem with us attacking anyone else. Why take pity on Robby Keene?” (Miguel doesn’t know Robby is Johnny’s son.)
Johnny: “Look, I wasn’t taught the difference between mercy and honour, and I paid the price for it. If I’m extra hard on you, it’s only because you have the potential to be better than I ever was. You want that don’t you?”
Miguel: “Yes, sensei.”
Johnny: “Alright, then stop whining like a little bitch and get out there and finish your drills.”
So there you have it. By engaging in serious role reversals and dichotomies, the writers of Cobra Kai have created a dynamic, intersting, heartfelt show to watch. As I said in my previous posts, stories are about change, and Cobra Kai starts off at that moment when the characters realize something needs to change. They can’t go on living the way they were. I’m sure if I dissected the episodes more I could map them onto the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (maybe I will), but for now I just wanted to talk about how dichotomies, opposites, reversals, whatever you want to call it, are necessary for any good story because they help show change.