Cobra Kai isn't all about roundhouse kicks. While last season was laser-focused on the All Valley Tournament, this time 'round, the karate action takes a backseat for an installment that's fixed on character growth – and it makes for a revitalized season of television despite an unsteady start.
Season 5 kicks off with big bad Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) opening Cobra Kai dojos all over the valley, Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) in Mexico searching for his father, pursued by Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) with his son Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan) in tow, and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) teaming up with Chozen Toguchi (Yuji Okumoto) to try and put a stop to Silver's malign influence over the kids of the valley.
That's a lot to juggle, which means the series doesn't hit its stride until a few episodes in. Miguel's initial trip to Mexico feels rushed, leading to a fairly obvious conclusion, and his journey home feels frustratingly skipped over. It's not an entirely wasted adventure, as the lessons learned are very important for Miguel, Johnny, and Robby (and Johnny and Robby's father-son road trip is an absolute treat), but, still, it could have been fleshed out further. Similarly, Chozen gets a brief solo mission – an intriguing development that lasts for just one episode.
Indeed, there’s a comparative lack of kinetic energy compared to last season, which built with propulsive momentum to an epic All Valley showdown. Problems arise as plot points repeat, and the stakes don't become crystal clear until surprisingly late in the day. The meandering pace does, however, mean there's plenty of space for some immensely satisfying character growth, and that's where this season really comes into its own.
Where key characters in Cobra Kai previously felt stuck in a rut, unable to develop because the plot demanded certain rivalries, the new episodes offer some very welcome leaps forward with the main cast. Peyton List's Tory has an excellent storyline that makes her more multifaceted than ever. Her unease over Silver rigging the All Valley, coupled with the newfound responsibility of a mentor-mentee relationship with Oona O'Brien's Devon, turns Tory into one of the season's most interesting characters. List gives a strong performance that nails the warring emotions of a champion who's out of her depth. This really is Tory's season.
The relationship between Johnny, Robby, and Miguel is also handled brilliantly post-Mexico: the thorny issues of family and forgiveness are given the right amount of emotional heft – but with a classic Cobra Kai spin – and seeing Robby's journey reach the point it does is another highlight of the season.
Meanwhile, Chozen makes for a welcome addition as a regular. He is, to borrow Johnny's favorite word, a badass – but he's also startlingly hilarious, and Okumoto expertly balances both sides of the character. Chozen is an invigorating presence in the valley, particularly as, five seasons deep into the same core struggle against Cobra Kai, things could easily start to get stale.
As for the two leads, Johnny goes through some major development that promises even more growth for a character who's already come an unbelievably long way. In fact, in a compelling paradigm shift, Johnny is the one who's got it together, while Daniel struggles under Terry's reign of terror. It's a relief to see the events of The Karate Kid 3 treated as a genuinely traumatizing experience for Daniel, too, which makes for a more complex and interesting story for Macchio's OG Karate Kid, while also making Silver even more of a dangerous threat.
And Silver is a formidable foe. He enlists a raft of menacing senseis to work across his dojos, as well as newcomer Alicia Hannah-Kim as the knife-sharp Kim Da-Eun. Hannah-Kim brings a vicious edge to the character which spices up the already delightfully evil Cobra Kai action. The dojo is still a force to be reckoned with, which heightens everything. Silver is truly unleashed in his villainous glory, and Griffith again plays him as a real, nuanced person rather than a cartoonish bad guy, making him all the more sinister. Then, lurking in the wings is Kreese, imprisoned after Silver framed him for a violent assault during last season's finale. Despite this more diminished role, he still casts a long shadow thanks to some brilliant interactions with certain characters.
All the Cobra Kai calling cards are still here – Rocky references, epic needle drops, karate battles, and Miyagi wisdom – but season 5 takes fresh, bold strides towards the future. Once the season finds its footing, it's another rock-solid installment in the Karate Kid saga. There's also a jaw-dropping, air-punching finale so good that it's easily the best episode of the series yet. And, yes, there are some major teases of unresolved plot threads that would need at least one more season to tie together... Here's hoping Netflix allows Cobra Kai to return for its victory lap.
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