Melding the delightful 1980s cheese of the Karate Kid franchise with modern storytelling sensibilities is a key piece of the nostalgic charm of Netflix’s breakout hit Cobra Kai, and as the show enters its fifth season it’s still figuring out how to handle that bizarre two-hander—even as the drama and stakes become as serious as they’ve ever been.
If you like Cobra Kai and revel in the melodrama of the myriad Karate Kid sequels, the fifth season of this series is an all you can eat buffet of deep cuts, callouts, world-building and karate face-offs literally decades in the making. But if you miss the lower stakes and more grounded dramedy of Season 1? This show has come a long way since then, and what you think of that evolution will determine a lot about how much you’ll dig Season 5.
The new season picks up in the aftermath of the latest All Valley Tournament, with the Cobra Kai dojo poised to expand its footprint under the leadership of pony-tailed could-be Bond villain Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith). Silver bribed the referee to win the tournament, forcing Daniel (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny (William Zabka) to close their dojos and cede the Valley. Kreese (Martin Kove) may be in jail, but this being Cobra Kai, you know he’ll still have a role to play.
Balancing the narrative between the adult stories and teen stories is something this show has always excelled at, and Season 5 is no different. Across the past four seasons, they’ve created and reexamined a deep bench of compelling characters, and Season 5 has as much fun as possible just playing in that sandbox, mixing and remixing combinations, friendships and alliances from episode to episode. There’s plenty of that to go around here, and fans of these characters will find a lot of love as this world continues to smash corners together in new and creative ways.
As for the adults, after normally being senseis on the sidelines while the younger generation does the fighting, they get in on the action (literally) as much or more than ever before this time. Where Kreese had always been menacing, Terry Silver is something much worse, more dangerous and sadistic. In Season 5 he fully embraces the insanity fans will remember from Karate Kid III, and it comes to a head spectacularly with plenty of surprises. This also makes for one of the more disjointed pieces of Season 5, as that wacky karate drama vibe is wrapped into real-life stakes of life and death (building on the assault arc that landed Kreese in jail late last season). To conceptualize that more adult type of violence, there’s also noticeably more blood this season overall. Which certainly makes sense, but can still be a bit disconcerting with the show’s tone as it expands and evolves.
But Cobra Kai has always been a show about redemption, with the theme dating back all the way to Season 1 when Johnny restarted Cobra Kai in the first place. As usual, there are plenty of redemptive arcs to go around in the new season, as if the writers have almost made a game out of leading fans to hate—then love—some of these characters over and over again. It’s still just as fun and compelling as ever to see it all play out, even if you can sometimes guess the next beat before it happens.
That said, five seasons in the same-old dojo feuding subplot does drag a bit in the middle episodes, which could use a bit more karate and less drama, but the back half of the season more than makes up for it. There’s plenty of new story to keep the season humming, and for the most part they lean into it well.
Though the adult stars might steal the show in Season 5, led in part by Yuji Okumoto’s hilarious fish out of water Chozen and Courtney Henggeler’s Amanda LaRusso, who remains the heart and soul of the voice of reason in all this karate chaos, the show’s young stars still get plenty to do. At least, when they’re not feuding over waterpark slides or brooding over break-ups, of course. Xolo Maridueña’s Miguel continues to grow and mature as we see the fallout of his search for his birth father, while Peyton List’s Tory is gutted by the realization that her tournament win was bought and paid for by Silver. Mary Mouser’s Samantha LaRusso also has plenty of lingering demons to face down, and Tanner Buchanan’s Robby Keene is slowly finding himself after effectively deprogramming the Cobra Kai from his mind.
For Karate Kid die-hards primed to easter egg hunt, there’s also plenty to dig into here. Some old faces return in unexpected ways, including a surprise or two, and there are more than a few team-ups from folks from across the Miyagi-Verse of old sequels.
Put simply: If you fully embrace the absurdity of this world, Season 5 is a blast. But if you stop for a few seconds and think a little too hard about some of the story beats and twists, the seams start to show. But even with the seams, Cobra Kai remains as wildly compelling and fun as ever.
All episodes of Cobra Kai Season 5 premiere Friday, September 9th on Netflix.
Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.
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