Review- Cobra Kai Season Four

 Sensei and sensibility

Some series reach their fourth season and struggle to reclaim the magic that made them a success in the first place. Not Cobra Kai. This oddball series which once seemed an unlikely excursion is now firing on all cylinders. The fourth season, which debuted at the end of last year, is the best yet. Packed with incident it manages to overcome the potential hurdle of characters constantly shifting allegiances each season by stealth every bit as impressive as the fighting scenes. Mixing old and new characters there is more than enough for both long term fans who recall the films and viewers who have just become hooked by the series. That shorter episode ten part season approach pays off every year meaning there is no slack whatsoever. 

A change of pace brings in the season which actually opens with someone playing the piano in a grand looking mansion. We don’t see who it is yet but as an opening it wrong foots you right away. Our pianist turns out to be Terry Silver, another refugee from the films. Winningly the series wryly acknowledges the unlikely scenario of so many key characters from the 80s coming back in a line of dialogue. It is this self-awareness that gives the show the confidence to pull it off.  Silver turns out to be a man who makes even John Kreese seem personable and Thomas Ian Griffiths' height and mad eyes accentuate his nastiness.

Silver is something new; not just a fighting villain, he’s something of a shady entrepreneur who approaches business like a king fu master does the fight something that doesn’t become fully apparent till the final scenes of part 10. He ad Kreese team up to ensure Cora Kai wins this year's All Valley Championship especially when a bet with Miyagi Do that whoever does win the other will close heightens the rivalry. As the season develops, we start to see differing approaches to the training between Kreese and Silver. This doesn’t manifest itself in the frequent altercations that map Johnny and Daniel’s differing views, rather it plays out like a chess match. Every so often the camera cuts to Kreese’s disapproving face as Silver seems unbound by any rules. It’s an opportunity to broaden the character of Kreese which Martin Kove grabs giving some of his best performances of the series.

Meanwhile the idea of Johnny and Daniel teaming up to see of Cobra Kai for good promises much fun and delivers. If anything the difference between Johnny’s gung ho lack of sophistication and Daniel’s fussy, centred philosophy are only emphasised as they try to both train their confused students. Any scene with Ralph Macchio and William Zabka is gold and this season we get some of their best. Both have further developed a comedic skill yet there are changes too. We see Daniel getting properly angry as he starts to realise his style of training and parenting is not always the best option. We even find Johnny willing to admit that some Myagi Do training is worthwhile. The sequence were each of them tries the other’s training regime is hilarious. The ultimate lesson that, actually, both ways are best combined may seem simple but plays out in the final two episodes brilliantly.

Pleasingly some of the legwork in finding a way forward is being carried by the younger characters. In both camps some of the kids find that their sensei’s training is not sufficient and a combination of approaches could be best. In this respect we see the Miyagi Do and Eagle Fang kids taking more mature decisions leaving Johnny and Daniel looking like squabbling kids.

There are some new characters acknowledging the show’s mainstays are getting older , foremost of which is Kenny. A timid boy who transforms through the season to end up as the bully rather than the bullied, his story is an interesting twist on a familiar theme. Robbie’s story is a sort of reverse of this as he tries to mentor Kenny but ends up horrified by the monster he’s created especially as it was he who gave all the Myagi Do secrets to their rivals.  Seeing himself in what happens with Kenny Robbie learns the hard way about loyalty and maturity. There’s something much better about the way Robbie is written this season enabling Tanner Buchanan to give a much more nuanced performance.

Peyton List as Tori remains a force of nature and the writers delve a little more into her life this time yet without softening the character while there’s a well written interaction in several episodes with Mrs Le Russo. The series offers no easy fixes for someone like Tori but, similarly to Robbie it seems she is maturing Indeed most character have some transformational moments this time round- Hawk loses his trademark mohawk and with it his drive, Samantha finds Johnny’s training more inspirational than her own father’s, and there’s even a small but crucial return for the bizarre character of Stingray who lives up to his name.

The direction of this season is particularly striking especially during the last two episodes set at the All Valley championship. The fighting choreography is stunning making it look as if the kids really are kung fu champions.  Excellent sound design also makes the punches feel a little harder, the falls more painful. The final is brilliantly presented too adding even more drama to the action together with a climactic music. I’d say it matches the iconic high school fight at the end of season two for edge of the seat moments. Normally I find extended sports sequences in dramas a bit dull but this kept my attention all the way through.

Without straying too far from its original remit, Cobra Kai has proved to be surprisingly agile series to the point that forty episodes in there is still much to explore and this season leaves some juicy developments for season five which was released recently. It’s writers are somehow both Johnny and Daniel with the no nonsense attitude of the former and the philosophical life lessons of the latter and a fabulous cast and crew to make it work and you don't need to know anything about king fu to enjoy it. I’m sure even Mr Myagi would be impressed.



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