I just finished Season 2 today, and while I think it was overall pretty decent, it certainly didn’t live up to the quality of Season 1. I suspect a lot of this is from what I’ll call Season One Depletion. Basically, you have writers who’ve had ideas percolating in their heads for years, then they take all the best distilled parts, throw all their strongest material into Season 1 to give it the best possible chance of success, and then they get something like 6 months to write the next season. This happened a lot during my creative writing MFA. Spend the summer working on a short story and have it turn out really strong, then get just 4 weeks to crank out a whole new piece; often it’s not even close. But, at least Cobra Kai Season 2 wasn’t True Detective Season 2, and there’s still enough strong moments that the show is enjoyable and I’m looking forward to the next season (which hopefully brings in some fresh writing blood).
In this post I want to focus on one specific thing which I believe is the biggest shortcoming in Season 2: the story structure.
A Story, B Story, and Subplots
Just to quickly clarify the terminology I’m using, the A Story is the main story arc; it’s the chief conflict for the protagonist and the whole story’s main focus. If you were asked “what a story is about,” you’d answer with something about the A Story. The B Story is a second, smaller story that is still it’s own full arc with a protagonist, conflict and resolution. It can be related to and intersect with the A Story, but the B Story is its own entity. Daenerys’s story in the first several seasons of Game of Thrones is a B Story to the War of the Five Kings A Story. Almost every Seinfeld episode has Jerry’s A Story and a B Story around one of the other supporting cast members. In Season 1 of Cobra Kai, Johnny training Miguel is the A Story; Danny training Robby is the B Story.
Sub-plots are events that happen within one of the stories. It’s some new obstacle or conflict which has to be resolved, but isn’t the final resolution of the larger story. Johnny getting Cobra Kai reinstated for the All Valley tournament is a subplot. In fact, the conflict between Danny and Johnny is basically a subplot to both the A Story and B Story. That structure is one of the reasons why Season 1 was so incredibly effective.
The Structure of Season 2
If we ask what the A Story of Season 2 is, we get a weird answer. Johnny’s fight for the soul of Cobra Kai is certainly an A Story. But so is Danny’s effort to create Miyagi-Do as an antidote to Cobra Kai. What makes Danny’s story an A Story rather than a B Story like it was in Season 1 is the amount of time and attention the show gives to it. In Season 1, Danny’s story was an undercurrent running through the show, but the emphasis was always on Johnny. In Season 2, the two stories are given closer to equal weight, and we see Danny moving into the space of co-protagonist. Note for instance that in Season 1, Danny had mostly just his karate plot, while in Season 2 he has a very large secondary conflict with his marriage. His story has grown too big for just a B Story.
There’s nothing wrong with two A Stories, so long as it’s done well. But, in looking at both lines as their own A Stories, we can see where Cobra Kai faltered.
Johnny’s story is still quite good in Season 2. He has a clear conflict in trying to instill honor in Cobra Kai, struggling against both the short-comings in his own teaching, and the overt undermining by Kreese. We see him falter along the way, make progress, and have set-backs. And in the end, the conclusion makes sense. He reached Miguel… to tragic end. We actually get Miguel as a bit of a tragic hero, someone who redeems himself, but too late to avoid the conflicts already set in motion.
The weakness in Johnny’s story is Kreese usurping him. Kreese is only a psychological threat, and we specifically know he’s not an economic threat, so him making an economic play against Johnny makes no sense. That’s something Danny could have done, but not Kreese. Johnny should have come back to an empty dojo the next day, followed by a shot of Kreese out in the woods training everyone.
Danny’s story is where it really suffers though. The main conflict he faces is learning how to be sensei of a dojo. In this he encounters three subplots: (1) learning to teach, (2) growing the dojo, and (3) Demitri.
(1) Learning to be teach — This subplot first focuses on the circle technique Danny tries to teach to Robby and Samantha. This is where the series begins to go downhill. To begin, the circle technique makes no sense. It does make sense to teach an individual to always be moving, and it makes sense to teach his students how to work together. What doesn’t make sense is teaching them to do synchronized moves. Then, Danny’s insight is unearned, gained by seeing a tire left by spinning I guess by an employee who saw it was quitting time and didn’t bother cleaning up his station. The koi pond balance scene feels like an appropriate lesson in the Karate Kid universe, but… it’s utterly useless outside of the koi pond, since they can’t apply what they learned. On solid ground, they can no longer feel where their partner is (by comparison, it is a good moment for advancing the Robby-Sam romance). This should have been something involving verbal communication and placing trust in your partner to handle something so you can focus on something else (this would also serve as a nice point in Danny’s problems with his wife).
The idea here was supposed to be Danny learning to draw inspiration from the outside world to get lessons to apply to karate, but it doesn’t stick the landing. Robby does a better job at the hardware store.
Danny also faces a challenge in being a sensei when it comes to resolving conflicts between his students. This whole part is much better done. We understand the problem, follow how Danny resolves it, and can see how the resolution impacts the rest of the story.
(2) Recruitment — Like learning to teach, there’s some good thoughts here, but it just doesn’t come together. The problem Danny faces is actually really neat; he learns that Miyagi-do just doesn’t proselytize; they’re not evangelicals. …And then immediately Demetri arrives. Literally seconds after Danny has his insight, he gets a new student. It’s just a little too much.
Danny choosing not to use the fight at the beach for advertising was a really great moment though. His insight into what makes Miyagi-do works is a good bit of character development. The pay off was just too cliche, and with nearly 10 hours to tell the story in, this could have been better structured.
Then there’s the Cobra Kai defection. I think the students walking out was a great moment for the show. The issue though is how this works from the perspective of Danny’s plot. His insight into having patience with recruiting has created a problem: it’s hard to have a story with a passive protagonist; they’re just not interesting. The scene were the students leave Cobra Kai works because we see them as being active in that scene. When they arrive at Miyagi-do, Danny is passive and has the story happens to him. Like passive voice, passive characters can have their place, but probably not in an A Story about The Way of the Fist.
(3) Friggin’ Demetri — Easily the weakest point of the show. It’s a weak subplot highlighted by an extremely annoying character. I’m not calling Demetri a bitch, but that bitch sure likes to bitch a lot. That’s all the character does, just bitch, bitch, bitch, except for when he’s being an asshole. You can have a character like this, but it needs to pay off with a good plot. This does not.
Think about how Danny gets Demetri to finally make progress with karate. He puts him in a walk-in fridge, and tells him to embrace his neuroticism. The problem is that it isn’t worrying too much that’s stopping Demetri from progressing; it’s an utter unwillingness to put in any effort. When Demetri finally makes a block and counters against a fellow student, the story is telling us that you can learn karate not by the hard labor we saw in the Karate Kid films and Season 1, but by just bitching the whole time. Compare this with Miyagi training Danny:
Danny: That teacher was really wacko. You really think I can beat that guy?
Miyagi: No matter. Wacko teacher attitude rest in fist. Stupid, but fact of life. Win, lose, no matter. You make good fight, earn respect. Then nobody bother.
Danny: They’ll bury me where I fall.
Miyagi: Either way, problem solved. Ready?
Danny: Yeah, I guess so.
Miyagi: Daniel-san, must talk. Walk on road. Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, you get squished just like grape. Here, karate same thing. Either you karate do, yes, or karate do, no. You karate do, “guess so,” just like grape. Understand?
Danny: Yeah, I understand.
Danny: Yeah, I’m ready. Yes.
Miyagi: First make sacred pact. I promise teach karate. That’s my part. You promise learn. I say, you do, no questions. That’s your part. Deal?
Danny: It’s a deal.
Miyagi: First wash all the cars, then wax.
Danny: Why do I have to…
Miyagi: Remember deal. No questions.
And then Danny puts in a shitload of effort. A bunch more, and a lot more even after that.
The problem here isn’t that Demetri progresses too quickly or that he’s become a Mary Sue — that’s a problem, but it’s a different problem. I’m looking at this from the point of view of Danny’s story. The issue there is that Danny overcomes a significant hurdle in his effort to make Miyagi-do a viable alternative to Cobra Kai by teaching Demetri nothing. An meaningful arc would have been Danny teaching Demetri to find some inner peace, something similar to the balance lesson from Karate Kid, something Demetri actually works to accomplish.
The Johnny vs. Danny Subplot
The final thing I want to touch on with the story structure is the continuing rivalry between Danny and Johnny. We’ve learned that neither of them is an asshole, but they don’t know that about each other. …Then we get the breakfast “I could eat” non-fight and the South Seas apartment scene, and now both characters know the other is a reasonable non-asshole. They don’t like each other, but the relationship between them has dramatically changed. Season 2 acts like none of that has happened, and consistently manufactures faux conflicts between the two. It not only relies too heavily on miscommunication and misunderstanding, but it’s traveling in misunderstandings we’ve already resolved. The show easily could have made the characters far more generous with each other and willing to hash things out while letting the conflict between them come down to differing points of view about Kreese and their disagreement about whether or not he’s changed, or even deserves a second chance at this point. Instead, the show simply hits a hard reset on their subplot, trying to recreate the magic of Season 1, which doesn’t work if it asks you to forget that you saw Season 1.