Is it better to fight back and avenge or take the higher road when dealing with bullies? An ageless question that Netflix’s hit series, Cobra Kai, bases the weight of its story upon, and which includes quite a few Jewish ties and themes. But at what point does the bullied become the bully?
For Jon Hurwitz, one of the Jewish co-creators of the show, it was a supreme love of the material and the original Karate Kid movies that led him to revive it for television with fellow Jewish creators Josh Heald and Hayden Schlossberg. By bringing back the rivalry between Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso and William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence, the creators were able to put certain themes to the test.
One such theme is the ability to hold and maintain a grudge over time.
The series kicked off with the return of the original bully Lawrence returning to his hometown 35 years after losing to LaRusso in the karate tournament. Once he reopens the Cobra Kai dojo, LaRusso wastes no time in opening his own Miyagi dojo, which is inspired by the late Pat Morita’s mentor and teacher. The ideologies of each school clash up front, with Kai instructing no mercy and to strike first, while Miyagi preaches balance and compassion in battle.
By creating a storyline where the former villain is now a star and semi-protagonist on the show, Hurwitz and company are showing that everybody can grow out of their adolescent troubles — but have a harder time letting go of their past. Lawrence may have tormented LaRusso as a teenager, but he’s now the unsuccessful older guy with a crummy apartment and no job. LaRusso grew up to be a successful car salesman, even if his dark hatred for Lawrence and Cobra Kai endures.
Another theme centers on chutzpah, and how it takes on a life of its own.
While Lawrence carried a higher amount of self-confidence as a teenager, LaRusso had more integrity. But as adults, those traits have been fumbled. In trying to settle an old score, LaRusso has dropped his integrity and joined Lawrence on the more wobbling side of chutzpah.
But what if you blend chutzpah with rachamim, the Hebrew word for mercy? Cobra Kai’s methodology is to show zero rachamim; Miyagi requires the fighter to show plenty of rachamim. As the seasons progress, the plot thickens when the actions of Lawrence and LaRusso start to affect the young teens in the Valley who want to learn how to fight. Which way is the right way, and which is the wrong? Is there a middle ground? Can these two older men find it before more lives are damaged?
Enter Martin Kove. The actor has a significant role in the movies and on the show as John Kreese, the Cobra Kai sensei who heavily influences Lawrence as a teenager. He re-enters the fray in the second season, realigning himself with Johnny and pitting him right back against LaRusso. A war veteran who saw too much trauma to keep his heart clean, Kreese moves the chains on this show for the next couple seasons. He’s someone who thinks of a mensch as someone who attacks first and finishes first. But that’s not how Kove is in real life.
Whether it’s a credit to Kove’s acting ability or the original screenwriter’s sense of humor, he’s the opposite of Kreese in real life. Kove grew up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, and travels around the country talking to schools about anti-bullying. He is proud and open about his Jewish heritage. You wouldn’t think that when you see Kreese instruct a group of his students to inflict pain on LaRusso’s students, but that’s acting for you.
It’s Season 4, the latest round of episodes currently trending in Netflix’s Top 10, where Kreese realizes his reign of terror has gone too far. He recruits his old pal Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffin, the best part about the horrible third Karate Kid sequel) to help in the fight, but tarnishes another soul in the process. When he finds the older Terry living in peaceful tranquility, Kreese purposefully twists the old knife in his buddy and pulls him back over to the dark side.
One of our biggest complaints with Cobra Kai is the fact that most of these characters don’t learn from their mistakes. They’re too headstrong or built-in their ways to break out, which has collateral effects on the people they love. Like a rendition of Murphy’s Law and Groundhog Day working in conjunction, they repeat their mistakes while desperately trying to be better people. The hard knock ability to not let the past and all its ugliness entrap you runs paramount through this show.
Imagine this. Two men are assigned by their boss to work together on a project. Each grew up with different teachers and lived different lives, and don’t care much for one another. But they have their assignment and have to make the best of it. The only way the project can be a success is if the two work together. They have to leave their differences behind and find mutual respect to be successful. If they cannot, they will fail.
That’s Lawrence and LaRusso in the world of Cobra Kai. Two grown men who never outgrew their grudge and find their feud impacting another generation. Attitude-based cancer surging through a town. It’s their constant inability to see over the horizon of hate and misfortune that plagues the community, resulting in bloody brawls at school and long-term scars. Only if they can overcome the misguided instruction of rabid souls like Kreese and Silver, will they be able to save not only their families and the town, but their futures as well.
By injecting real Jewish themes into a show he loved as a kid — and casting a real-life mensch in Kove — Hurwitz taught us that certain themes don’t weaken over time. They just get stronger.
Season 5 of Cobra Kai is currently filming and will premiere later this year.