The writing of “Cobra Kai” takes after the tenets of Mr. Miyagi’s famous ways of self-defense in that it does not reward its brawls, despite being a show about karate. Major fights lead to consequence, pain, and trauma. All of that applies to where the third season begins, after the high school-wide battle royale that left everyone in a worse state than before. On the side of Miyagi-Do, the dojo lead by original “Karate Kid” hero Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio): his daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) has been traumatized by the event and is fearful of another attack from Tory, (Peyton List) a member of the Cobra Kai dojo run by Daniel’s enemy, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). The other major member of Miyagi-Do, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), is on the run after paralyzing his impromptu opponent Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) by kicking him over the side of a guard rail, leaving him unable to walk at the beginning of this season. And the usually timid Demetri (Gianni Decenzo) used his Miyagi-Do training to throw his former best friend and current Cobra Kai bully Eli (Jacob Bertrand) through a trophy case.
This battle was like the blockbuster sequel to the original decades-old rivalry between Daniel and Johnny, enflamed by toxic values from Johnny’s original sensei Kreese (Martin Kove) and the teens’ own personal dramas. Daniel and Johnny are both rocked by what happened, and season three shows them trying to gather themselves, just like their traumatized students. And because Johnny left the Cobra Kai dojo at the end of season two after hearing what happened to Miguel, the dojo has been taken over by Kreese, a wannabe war-lord who has been raising his hot-head students as if they were actual soldiers. In its third season “Cobra Kai” tries to put an end to this rivalry, once and for all, again. It’s a blast.
The secret weapon for this brilliant high school karate soap opera/mid-life crisis dramedy has always been pacing, and when the pacing isn’t quick on its feet, it’s glaringly obvious. That’s certainly the case with the first few episodes here, which struggle to match the energy of the previous seasons despite giving viewers another Johnny and Daniel buddy moment, and some more Cobra Kai vs. Miyagi-Do clashes. And it becomes telling that the series has expanded its amount of perspectives—it’s no longer only the story of Johnny fighting against the engrained values that lead to failure—but that it can’t treat them all with equal immediacy. One major character gets his arm broken in an episode, which you think would be a major development, but the show forgets that thread for a whole episode because it has to juggle other business. You can’t help but think that an earlier season would have handled the gruesome arm break differently.