Have you finished binge-watching Cobra Kai season 3? If not, stop reading now!!! For everyone else, in the immortal words of Johnny Lawrence: "LET'S BEGIN!"
Approximately 36.5 years after their rivalry began, Karate Kid enemies Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) have finally put their beef behind them. The season 3 finale saw Daniel's Miyagi-Do dojo teaming up with Johnny's Eagle Fang students to defeat Cobra Kai, run by Valley menace John Kreese (Martin Kove). The truce came after a surprising — and surprisingly healing — visit from Johnny and Daniel's mutual ex, Ali Mills
Schwarber (Elisabeth Shue). Meanwhile, Daniel's daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) fought through her PTSD and convinced her warring peers to put aside their differences in order to stop Kreese.
As satisfying as the season 3 finale was, it did leave us with a lot of questions: Is Johnny's son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) lost to the dark side? Will Ali return? Is a visit from Karate Kid Part III villain Terry Silver on the horizon? Is Aisha (Nichole Brown) ever coming back? And... EAGLE FANG? EW put all of these queries and more to Cobra Kai creators/exec producers Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This season ends with the team up that we've all been waiting for, with Johnny and Daniel joining forces to defeat Kreese. How did you guys decide that this was the right time to put these two together, and has that been the plan from the get-go?
JOSH HEALD: We’ve always known from the beginning that putting Johnny and Daniel in scenes together is a combustible and hilarious and tense situation all at the same time. And in those early seasons, taking those moments to put them in scenes together, there's these little flare-ups — Oh, they're going to fight! Oh, they're going to argue! And it gets to a place of, Johnny's coming to Daniel's house and it looks like they're going to duke it out in the backyard.
Gradually, we see their relationship get to a place where they have common interests, they have a common enemy, and they still can't really make it work. They’re trying at the beginning of season 3 to get there and it once again devolves, and they actually throw some punches. It’s only when the stakes get high enough that it’s almost a last resort for them both to say, “We’re going to fight through this. We're going to make this uncomfortable thing happen for the greater good.” We know that that's a moment that you really get once in this series to play — the moment that they actually come together. We’ve seen other series pull it off. Jon and I watch Billions regularly, and that moment where Chuck and Axe finally sit down and decide, “Let’s do this” — you’re ending the season on a “Yeah!” moment as opposed to the gut-punch of how season 2 ends.
We were gradually always getting to this point, this apex in the series, but we also are always modulating the ins and outs of seasons and, and cliffhangers can have different textures. This one felt right at this time to finally enter this portion of their relationship.
Rather than giving into fan service right away, you guys waited until this season to have Ali appear, and it turns out she has a crucial role in helping Johnny and Daniel get past their rivalry. How did that idea develop?
JON HURWITZ: Obviously, like pretty much every Karate Kid fan, the three of us fell in love with Ali and have been huge fans of Elisabeth Shue’s for decades now. We knew when starting the show that this character, who really was at the center of the conflict between our two leads, has the opportunity to provide a really valuable impact when she eventually shows up. We’ve had a sense of what we wanted to do for a while, but the timing has always been the question, as to when is the exact right moment.
We felt the way the stories were weaving and what we were building to at the end of the season — where you wanted Johnny and Daniel to be pushed to that place where it's time for them to forget the past and come together — that it was an impactful way for Ali to return on the show. [She can] help these guys look in the mirror and recognize that perhaps they're not so different after all.
On top of that, it was really finding a way for her to advance her character in a way where there's intrigue for us going forward. She’s lived a life, and it's a life that we're interested in and we could perhaps see again one day. But beyond that, it's making sure that [Ali] had meaningful scenes with both Johnny and Daniel [as they] reflect on their past together. [There were] some things that we knew and you get to see in a whole new light, and other things that we never knew about the past that she shared with them. For the three of us, working with Elisabeth Shue was everything we could have hoped it would be, and then some. The fact that every once in a while, I'll get a text or a phone call and I see Elisabeth Shue’s phone number show up on my phone is one of the greatest joys of my life, because I get to talk about Karate Kid with her, and other things. She’s as cool a person as we all felt Ali was.
The Kreese backstory is very satisfying, with his POW experience and also the reveal that he lost the love of his life. How did you settle on this history for him?
HAYDEN SCHLOSSBERG: We have always been intrigued by Kreese’s backstory. One of the central themes on Cobra Kai is redemption and looking at these black-and-white characters and trying to find the gray. Now with Kreese, he's a shade of gray that's almost black [laughs]. So really you have to understand how a person could come up with the Cobra Kai philosophy, and really, truly believe it. We started from that place. Also, we had some things to work with from the original movie. We saw that this is a character who fought in Vietnam, and so that immediately gives you a place to go. We thought, how could somebody really be averse to mercy? Well, put them in a situation where they showed mercy and it backfired and it put them in a life-or-death situation.
What we find is that Cobra Kai is a philosophy born out of somebody who feels the life is attacking them. If life shows no mercy, neither should we — it’s what Johnny says in season 1, and it reflects what Kreese taught him.
We also wanted to start before Vietnam and frame Kreese the way the typical underdog you meet in a Karate Kid movie is portrayed. You meet him as this busboy at a diner that these other kids are picking on, and so immediately you're seeing him in a different light. That’s a side goal of this show is being able to not just continue the story, but do things that make you look back at the original movie in a little bit of a different light. That was definitely one of our motivations when coming up with the backstory.
With Sam, she's really shaken by what happened with Tori, but then she also ends up saving the day by getting Eagle Fang and Cobra Kai to work together. Why was it important for her character to be the driving force in that element of the story?
HEALD: We're always looking for a new POV that we haven't done as deep a dive on. We've seen some deep Miguel and Robby stories up until that moment. Sam has [gone] through this major traumatic fight and [is] dealing with the PTSD that naturally will come from going through something like that — feeling like you're about to be disfigured by someone holding a spiked weapon bracelet to your face. We wanted to feel what that is like — wanting to respond to it, but not knowing if you're up for the challenge or if you even want to be up for the challenge.
In the Karate Kid story, the characters always seem very willing to get into a fight and to have a rematch, and to face their bullies head-on. We wanted to drift a little bit into the zone of Sam not quite feeling like she even wants that right away, and not quite knowing how to respond. We really loved the idea in season 3 of taking her on that journey to get to that place where she can become this unifying character and find her strength and pull her friends together. She’s saying, “There are forces against us that want us to hate each other. Like let's not let that happen.” There is something just very feel good-y about that, but rather than leading with it, we wanted to take her on an even more traumatic journey to arrive there.
Also, can we just discuss "Eagle Fang"? How did you come up with that, and what were the alternate dojo names that you toyed with?
HURWITZ: I can say that from the beginning of the writer's room for season 3, one of the greatest joys that we all had was knowing that Johnny was going to start his own dojo and figuring out exactly what it was going to be called. There was a lot of talk of different animals, because he's not the most creative [guy]. We talked about eagles, we talked about lions, different strong, manly, masculine animals in his mind. We also went back his '80s mentality and eagle that he has on the wall of his apartment. He was brought up in that old school, '80s, America kind of mentality, so the eagle felt strong and correct. And “fang” is just consistent with his ignorance. He thinks it sounds badass. "Eagle Fang" is badass. It sounds cool, and he won't hear any of it if you correct him on the fact that eagles don't have fangs. He's gonna come up with his own metaphors for the karate that he's gonna try to inspire with, as misguided as they are, and as misguided as his teachings in the past have always been.
Speaking of Johnny’s '80s mentality, the beefcake photos that he digs up for Facebook — please tell me those were real photos from Zabka’s teen idol days.
SCHLOSSBERG: [Laughs] Well, we’re lucky that Billy took a lot of photos in the 1980s. Listen, Ralph Macchio and Billy Zabka were teen icons. And we’re surprised at how many Tiger Beat-esque magazines that were back in the day. There were a lot of images to draw from, and we know that it was actually consistent with Johnny's character back in the day to be a little flashy. We thought that that would be a really fun Easter egg.
We were ready to recreate the [pictures], but Billy had some photos on hand that worked. We loved the line, “Do you have one with a shirt?” And the one that he has is barely a shirt.
I missed Nichole Brown’s Aisha this season. Why was she written out?
HEALD: No one's ever written out of our show. What we like are enormous ensembles that have ins and outs. It makes the most of entrances and exits. You saw in season 3 that we brought back [Bret Ernst as] Louie LaRusso, we brought back [Joe Seo as] Kyler, we brought back [Bo Mitchell as] Brucks, who were all absent in season 2. When we're beginning to break [the season’s storylines], if we don’t feel that we're going to be able to pay enough story for 20 characters, at times we will find interesting ways of paring it down. [The goal is] to pack more of a punch when characters come back. Sometimes that's characters coming back from the legacy franchise, sometimes that's characters coming back from our series. So I'll say nobody ever leaves the show for good in our minds, and there always is a strategy and a reason story-wise for why they come in and out, and it serves the long story that we're telling.
Finally, season 4 is setting up to be the battle for Robby’s soul and the soul of karate in the Valley. What can you preview, and should we expect visit from Terry Silver?
HURWITZ: It was really fun for us in season 3 to bring back Terry Silver, but in a way that you've never seen before in those flashbacks. We know how beloved the character Terry is and he is to us as well. We went so far as to introduce a character early on who has a ponytail, and you're all excited and you're like, “Oh my God, it's Terry Silver!” And then [we] kill that character, and then revealed soon after that the other guy was Terry Silver. He’s a character that we have a lot of fun with.
At the end of the season, you saw Kreese make a phone call. You could guess who might've been on the other end of that call based off of the photo that he was looking at there. But we can't really speak to how Terry Silver would respond to that call — or whoever was on the other end of the line would respond to that call. I think you'll have to see if that character returns in season 4.
In terms of Robby, he's one of the most interesting characters on our show. First of all, Tanner Buchanan is a fantastic actor and also just a great young man. He’s one of those actors who, when he's shooting, he's there and he's prepared, but when he's not shooting, he's on set at all times because he just wants to learn. He sits with us often and video village watching asking us questions. He knows everybody on set really well; he’s tight with the PAs, he's tight with everybody there. Tanner is such a joy.
As a character on the show, Robby is somebody who has a deep history with Johnny, he now has a deep history with Daniel, and we saw where he was left, kind of lost and scared at end of season 2. So in season 3, you see him on this roller coaster journey all season, figuring out how to deal with the aftermath of what happened with Miguel and figuring out who to trust and what to trust, and who's truly there for him. You see how season 3 ends and he's there with Kreese. So in season 4, we’ll have to see — does he go full Cobra Kai? Does he embrace the quote-unquote dark side in every way, or do the lessons of his past have an impact as well? So season 4 certainly has a strong journey for the Robby character.
Cobra Kai season 3 is streaming now on Netflix