The role of the prophet is not only to predict what is yet to come. The prophet also reminds us of who we are, where we came from, and what is most essential. Like Isaiah, who urged the Jewish people to “remember the former things old,” the prophet grabs us by the shoulders, shakes us, and screams in our face: “Have you forgotten?”
This is the appeal of television series “Cobra Kai,” which recently debuted its second season and YouTube has already announced will be renewed for a third season. Although in some respects a continuation of the corny, 1980s nostalgia of the original “The Karate Kid,” “Cobra Kai” reminds Americans of certain cardinal truths about children that we all know deep down.
The first season of “Cobra Kai,” which aired in 2018, picks up 34 years after the original events of “The Karate Kid.” The original “karate kid,” Daniel “Danny” LaRusso, played by Ralph Macchio, is a successful car salesman in the San Fernando Valley. His old nemesis, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), is a struggling, recently fired blue-collar handyman with a drinking habit. Neither are still practicing karate.
At his lowest, Johnny ends up in a fight with teenage thugs outside a convenience store, coming to the aid of an Ecuadorian immigrant boy, Miguel Diaz. Johnny spends a night in the slammer, but Miguel is so impressed he begs Johnny teach him how to fight. Johnny eventually agrees. He eventually re-establishes the once-infamous Cobra Kai karate dojo, training a bunch of unpopular, bullied kids from the local high school.
Cobra Kai’s resurgence raises the ire of Danny, who is reminded of the bullying he suffered at the hands of Johnny and his friends in the 1980s. Through a series of unexpected circumstances, he employs Johnny’s estranged, trouble-making son, Robby. In time, they develop a friendship, and Danny starts teaching Robby Okinawan karate, as Mr. Miyagi had to him so many years ago. In the final episode of the first season, Robby and Miguel face off in the San Fernando Valley karate championship. The second season picks up in the summer after that championship fight.
Children Need Their Fathers
The first, and most important prophetic message of “Cobra Kai” is that children need their fathers. At the beginning of season one, Miguel has no father figure — his mother fled his deadbeat father in coming to the United States. Miguel’s new sensei, Johnny, obviously fills that patrimonial role, and Miguel’s admiration for Johnny only grows.
Moreover, Johnny was raised by his mother and step-father, a cruel man who mocks rather than loves his stepson. Now an old man, the stepfather throws money at Johnny out of an obligation to Johnny’s deceased mother. In one of the most powerful scenes of season one, Johnny returns all the money, declaring that it wasn’t handouts he needed, but love.
Yet Johnny was himself an absentee father to his son, Robby, who lives with his mother, a miserable women cycling through one-night stands at their apartment. Without a father figure, Robby hangs out with the wrong crowd, engages in theft, and causes trouble at school. It is only when he meets Danny LaRusso, who has pity on the boy and takes him under his wing, that Robby’s life begins to turn around.
Like Miguel with Johnny, Robby adores his sensei. This is one of the greatest ironies of the show: Johnny failed with his son Robby, but finds fatherly redemption in mentoring Miguel; Robby, meanwhile, finds the father figure he needs in his dad’s arch-nemesis.
This increasingly Gordian knot of the role of the paterfamilias is a clear message to our culture: children need their fathers. Without fathers, the likelihood children will suffer all manner of personal and socio-economic problems — mental health conditions, poverty, drug addiction — greatly increases. A large battery of contemporary sociological research supports this.
Moreover, it is not just any father-figure that a child requires (although any mature, responsible man is better than none) — kids need their biological fathers. This is why the tension caused by Robby’s rejection of his biological father for Danny LaRusso is so powerful.
Boys and Girls Are Different
This leads to a second lesson: boys and girls are different. Although both Cobra Kai and Danny’s dojo, Miyagi-Do, teach both male and female students, it seems the boys, more than the girls, need what karate offers them. This is an activity that emboldens them, properly directs their testosterone, and makes them strong enough to defend themselves.
Boys need to be secure in their masculinity. Indeed, multiple male characters acquire love interests after learning karate, and impress girls with their skills. The producers of the show (who include Will Smith) appear to understand, perhaps inchoately, what George Will recently observed: “Parents who have raised sons understand that civilization’s primary task is to civilize adolescent males.”
“Cobra Kai” constantly pokes fun at an American culture that seems to have forgotten this. In one amusing vignette in season one, Johnny, an old-school masculine archetype, reminds Miguel of the differences between boys and girls. Miguel responds: “Don’t you think you’re doing a lot of genderizing?”Johnny simply tells him to be quiet.
In another scene in season two, Johnny takes a phone call from an interested student. He acknowledges that his dojo takes both boys and girls, although it’s increasingly clear the person on the other line is asking about transgender students. “Is this a prank call?” Johnny yells, and promptly hangs up. One hopes this refusal by the show’s creators to cater to aggressive gender identity politics will continue.
There are many other profitable reminders in “Cobra Kai”: that coddling children only hurts them; that strong masculinity must be tempered by humility, charity, and service; that people, even ones who have made egregious life errors, deserve a second chance. These are truths most Americans, and most parents, knew only one or two generations ago.
This is a lesson our “the future is female” world of safe spaces, alternative lifestyles, and public shaming campaigns, has largely forgotten. “Cobra Kai” succeeds precisely because it urges us to return to these basic truths about the human person and society. One only hopes the creators will, to use a common phrase of Johnny’s, “have the balls” to stick this script.