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The Key to ‘Cobra Kai’ Is the Relationship Between Johnny Lawrence and Miguel Diaz

In the spinoff to ‘The Karate Kid,’ an old villain begins to soften as a potential new villain is born

YouTube/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

In the final episode of YouTube Red’s 10-episode Cobra Kai series, Miguel Diaz snarls the following at Samantha LaRusso: “Just wait. Watch what I do to Robby in the finals.” This is him right before he says it:

Here are some things you need to know in order for that sentence and the picture above to make sense:

  • Cobra Kai is set 34 years after the original The Karate Kid, likely the greatest underdog movie of all time.
  • Daniel LaRusso, buoyed by his All-Valley Karate Tournament victory over the reigning champion and high school super-bully Johnny Lawrence, is now a very successful businessman. (He owns several car dealerships.)
  • Johnny Lawrence, anchored to the bottom of the ocean by his All-Valley Tournament loss to the rookie LaRusso, is now a wreck. He’s broke, snakebitten, and just generally miserable. (We find out later in the series that he’s also an absentee dad. He has a teenage son who hates him.) (LaRusso also is a dad. He has a teenage daughter—the aforementioned Samantha—and a preteen son.)
  • Despite the passage of a significant amount of time, and despite some initial niceties when they meet as older men at one of Daniel’s car dealerships, it’s clear that Johnny and Daniel still do not like each other.
  • Johnny begins teaching karate to Miguel Diaz, a tall, wispy, very likable nerd with a big heart and a gelatin skeleton. Miguel takes to it immediately.
  • After Miguel confronts (and beats up) a group of bullies at school who are picking on Samantha, a video of it spreads. Just like that, bang: A big group of kids decides they want to learn karate from Johnny like Miguel. That’s how the new Cobra Kai is born. (And also how Samantha and Miguel begin dating.)
  • Johnny’s abandoned son, Robby Keene, begins working at one of LaRusso’s car dealerships as a way to make his dad angry. (LaRusso doesn’t know that Robby is Johnny’s son.)
  • Robby and LaRusso become fast friends. (LaRusso very much sees himself in Robby. Robby sees the father figure he’s always wanted in LaRusso.)
  • LaRusso begins teaching karate to Robby.
  • Miguel, once 100 percent a sweetheart, slowly begins to break bad, morphing into the new Johnny Lawrence.
  • Robby, once very bad, slowly begins to break good, morphing into the new Daniel LaRusso.
  • Given that Daniel LaRusso hates all things Cobra Kai, Samantha hides her relationship with Miguel from him. It hurts Miguel’s feelings.
  • This gets exacerbated when, through a string of coincidences, a drunk Miguel sees Samantha and Robby interacting in a way that he interprets as flirting at a party.
  • Samantha and Miguel have a big argument about it, which swells up into a shoving match between Robby and Miguel. As they scuffle, Miguel accidentally knocks Samantha down.
  • Samantha ends her relationship with Miguel.
  • Johnny enrolls the Cobra Kai in the All-Valley Karate Tournament.
  • Miguel, now a fully formed fighter and motivated by lost love, tears through his side of the bracket in the tournament.
  • Robby, who entered the tournament on his own (Daniel LaRusso ditched him when he found out that he was Johnny’s son), fights his way through his side of the tournament, too. (LaRusso eventually joins him as his coach for the final match.)
  • Prior to the final match, Miguel sees Samantha. (She’s there with her family because the LaRusso motor group are big sponsors.) He tries to talk to her. She tells him that he’s out of control and that she doesn’t know him anymore.
  • He gets super fucking pissed about it. And that’s when he says:

“Just wait. Watch what I do to Robby in the finals.”

And let me tell you what he does to Robby in the finals: He kicks the shit out of him, is what he does. Robby puts up a decent fight, but an injury in the semifinal match (a dislocated shoulder) renders him only about 60 percent as effective as he’d have been otherwise. And Miguel, fully indoctrinated in the Cobra Kai’s Strike Hard, Strike First, No Mercy ideology, takes full advantage of it, hitting him in the shoulder repeatedly.

(This, of course, is a parallel to Johnny Lawrence attacking Daniel LaRusso’s leg in the original Karate Kid. They do lots of little things like that in Cobra Kai; hat-tipping ideas or motifs or motivations that nod 30-plus years back to the original. It’s really enjoyable. Sometimes they’re tiny winks, like when Miguel cheapshots Robby’s arm and the camera cuts to the sidelines to show Miguel’s second-in-command, Hawk, making the same face that Johnny’s second-in-command made when Johnny cheapshotted Daniel’s leg. And sometimes they’re gigantic, max-volume, self-aware winks, like when Robby gets mad at Daniel LaRusso for making him do a ton of chores, before LaRusso says to himself, “God, I love this part,” and reveals to Robby how all the chores were secretly teaching him the movements he needed to know to learn karate all along.)

(A fun one is when Johnny decides to tell Miguel about his long-standing feud with Daniel LaRusso. He retells the plot of The Karate Kid, except from Johnny’s point of view, and it very much paints LaRusso as the villain. It’s a good bit.)

(Another very good one is when Miguel’s grandmother makes him a Halloween costume to wear to a party, but Johnny sees it, makes fun of him, says he has a better idea, and then the scene cuts to show Miguel walking into the party dressed like a skeleton just like Johnny and his goons were at their Halloween party.)

(Additionally, the title of the Halloween episode is “Esqueleto,” Spanish for “skeleton,” and this seems like a good time to point out that not only is Miguel Latino, but that his grandmother only speaks Spanish in the show. They’re all Ecuadorean. It’s beautiful.)

(One more thing: In Cobra Kai, Johnny ends up having dinner with Miguel and his mother and his grandmother one evening. While there, Johnny asks Miguel’s mother why they left Ecuador. Miguel’s mom mentions that, after she got pregnant with Miguel, she learned the truth about what her husband did for a living. She doesn’t say much more beyond that, other than that Miguel’s dad is “a very bad man” and that they don’t have anything to do with him. In 1989’s Karate Kid III, there’s a part where Terry Silver, the movie’s main bad guy and a sleazy businessman with lax views on where people should be allowed to dump hazardous waste, makes an offhand comment about Borneo. I’m calling it right now: In a future season, it’s going to eventually be revealed that Terry Silver is Miguel’s father.)


This is another screenshot from the season finale of Cobra Kai:

What’s happening here is very much what it looks like: Miguel is lording over a person he’s just kicked in the face. It’s the first point he scores in the 2018 All-Valley Karate Tournament, and what’s more, he’s done it via crane kick. Prior to the match starting, we see Johnny look at Daniel LaRusso in the stands, then lean in and whisper something into Miguel’s ear. Miguel nods, walks to the mat, bows, then gets into crane-kick position. He kicks the kid in the face, the screenshot above happens, and then we see Johnny look at Daniel and smile. There are three important things to point out here.

First: The turn that Miguel makes from kind and gentle kid to an all-caps KARATE MENACE in the tournament is so wonderful. There are still flickers of earnest niceness from Miguel (after he wins, for example, he tries to find Samantha in the crowd, hoping that his victory will have proved his worthiness to her), but mostly he has become a tyrant drunk on the nuclear power of his own viciousness.

In 1984’s The Karate Kid, Johnny had this almost chainsaw-like grit that he attached to his angriest words and fiercest karate attacks. It was chilling and part of the reason that he was so perfectly equipped to be who he was. Miguel, in a similar move, adopts this guttural yell that he hollers out before the start of each fight sequence and also with each punch or kick that he throws. On average, it’s not quite as intimidating as Johnny’s, but his most ferocious yell, which happens after he kicks the defending tournament champion in the face so hard that the guy does a front flip from the force, is absolutely devastating. I’ve watched that specific moment at least 15 times over the past three days and every single time I do I feel my chest insta-fill with fire and pride. This is it:

Second: Miguel becoming the Big Bad in the series is incredibly meaningful (and satisfying). It’s the first time that we’ve gotten to see a Latino significantly worked into the fabric of a true American classic (which The Karate Kid absolutely is). And they don’t ever even turn him into a totem or force him to be an avatar or representative for the whole community. He gets to just be a normal teenage kid karate-kicking his way through normal teenage issues. There’s no, like, “Whoa, check out this zany food that Miguel eats” scene or anything like that. He simply exists, and it’s delightful. The importance of that cannot be overstated.

Third: William Zabka’s performance as an older, broken Johnny Lawrence is as perfectly pitched as anyone could’ve hoped for. He somehow turns the most hated, most despicable high-school villain ever into an agreeable and sympathetic figure. And more impressive still: He does it (a) while still staying mostly true to his villain roots and (b) without making it seem like he’s actively fishing for sympathy. (We find out through flashbacks that Johnny started out a child just as anime-eyed and sweet as Daniel LaRusso. It was his dismissive, toxic relationship with his stepfather that ended up funneling him toward the wicked sensei John Kreese.)

Probably the best example of Johnny grappling with his own existence is when, after Miguel has begun attacking Robby’s hurt shoulder during the tournament’s final match, Johnny tells Miguel that he knows he wants to win, but that it has to be “the right way. You don’t have to fight dirty.” (This comes after an earlier episode where he explains to Miguel how he wants to make sure that he doesn’t end up treating his students the way Kreese treated him, and that he also wants to make sure he doesn’t end up teaching them the reverse values that Kreese taught him.) Miguel, who had been so eager to learn how to not get picked on anymore that he zoomed right past the nuance that Johnny was trying to impart, shrugs him off. “Dirty?” he scoffs. “There’s nothing dirty about winning, sensei. You taught me that. Don’t worry. I got this. No mercy.” Then Johnny stands there and watches Miguel, who arrived to him a beautiful puppy with an admirable agenda, walk out onto the mat, stare down his enemy, front kick him in his hurt shoulder, spinning-roundhouse kick all of his organs into mush, then stand over his body while everyone celebrates his victory.

Johnny hangs his head, knowing he’s fucked up.

The last few minutes of the episode lay the track for the next season (PLEASE LET THERE BE ANOTHER SEASON). We see (a) Robby’s bond with LaRusso strengthening; (b) Miguel not winning back Samantha; (c) Samantha standing in her father’s training room, implying that she’s going to become active in karate again; (d) LaRusso revealing that he’s opening up his own Miyagi-Do dojo so that he can train fighters to take on the suddenly powerful Cobra Kai; and (e) Johnny Lawrence, finally a winner over LaRusso, feeling very empty, sitting in his dojo by himself, staring past Miguel’s trophy, drinking liquor out of a cup.

Then the door opens.

“Miguel?” Johnny says hopefully, wanting for it to be Miguel so he can try to begin deprogramming the meanness out of him.

It’s not Miguel, though.

It’s John Kreese.

And fear fills Johnny’s face.

He’s more lost than ever.