Cobra Kai and Albert Camus
In Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, Hannah Baker finds thirteen reasons to kill herself – among them, she’s been raped, her friends embarrass and betray her, and her reputation is ruined when she’s labeled a slut. For anyone, these are difficult issues to deal with, and for teenagers, issues like these get amplified in the drama that is high school (in any decade – because, yeah, every generation experiences the same social traumas that accompany pig dissections, pep rallies, and proms).
Netflix’s Cobra Kai (which initially aired on YouTube) takes this sort of high school drama/trauma and turns it around. If Hannah Baker were to step into Johnny Lawrence’s Dojo, she wouldn’t go home, slice her arms, and bleed out in a bathtub. She’d go back to school and beat the shit out of Justin, Alex, Jessica, Courtney, Marcus, Zach, Ryan, Sheri, Clay, Bryce, and Mr. Porter (while something from The Go-Go’s or Bananarama played in the background).
Mr. Porter may have only seen two choices for Hannah – reveal the name of her rapist or “move on” – but Cobra Kai would’ve given her a third option: be a badass. It’s not just the sum of the equation of Cobra Kai’s mantra (strike first, strike hard, no mercy), it’s the governing philosophy of Johnny’s life (along with “don’t be a pussy”).
It’s how Johnny (who plays the Mr. Miyagi role more compellingly than Daniel LaRusso does, at least in the first season of Cobra Kai) eventually grows his karate studio, taking in students who have been bullied or who are otherwise the geeks and nerds that Johnny would’ve never hung out with (or even talked to) when he was a student at West Valley High.
To be fair, 13 Reasons Why is a very different show than Cobra Kai. It’s a serious drama focused on teen suicide (and the aftermath of such an act) that contains advisory warnings and even behind the scenes interviews with the cast to help explain the issues the show deals with (which also include sexual assault, bullying, and depression).
Still, Cobra Kai’s narrative (which is equal parts comedy and drama) deals with similar themes. What’s significant is that, for all the macho, sexist, racist, wildly inappropriate, politically incorrect (brutally honest?) speech that comes out of Johnny’s mouth, he gives the Hannah Bakers of the world an option that resonates with philosopher Albert Camus.
As Camus observed, “There is but one truly serious problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest […] comes afterward.”
In Hamlet, it’s “to be or not to be.” In The Shawshank Redemption, it’s “get busy living or get busy dying.” In Cobra Kai, it’s “Never Die!”
In 13 Reasons Why, Hannah Baker’s answer to the question Camus asks is no, life isn’t worth living anymore. And sadly, this is a common answer for many people struggling with the issues Hannah struggles with, which is one of the reasons Netflix edited out her suicide scene – they didn’t want it to be romanticized or glorified (it wasn’t – if anything, it showed the harsh reality of how empty her death was).
Camus, on the other hand, answers yes, life is worth living. But what’s significant for Camus is that he recognizes that life is absurd—and he uses the analogy of Sisyphus rolling the same stone up a mountain every day (only to have it roll back down every day thanks to an enchantment by Zeus) to illustrate life’s absurdity. As Camus sees it, once we accept that rolling the stone is our task, then our lives can have meaning.
Yes, we are bullied. Yes, we have issues to deal with. For Camus, the adversities we face will never go away, we’ll always have a stone to roll. Thus, the meaning of our lives is found in the struggle we endure every time we roll the stone up our mountain. And, we’ll be happier if we not only accept the stone in our life, but if we willingly choose to roll it.
In Cobra Kai, Johnny shows his students not just how to struggle with absurdity, but how to overcome it. Johnny answers yes, too, but Johnny sees other options beyond choosing to roll the stone, such as choosing to roll the stone back toward the bully who rolled it at you in the first place (because being a badass means you can tell Zeus to f*ck off while giving him a Crane-kick to his face).
For Johnny, fighting back is a better option because fear does not exist in his Dojo, allergies do not exist in his Dojo, special accommodations do not exist in his Dojo, and all genders are equal in his Dojo (even if he doesn’t understand current thinking about the gender spectrum), which means guys hit girls and girls hit guys, so stop being a whiny little bitch about it.
It’s an interesting perspective and there’s a certain nostalgia to it, especially for those of us who remember 1984 as a pivotal year of adolescence, not just the original Karate Kid film, but Van Halen, Prince, Sixteen Candles, and Footloose, as well as Terminator, Beverly Hills Cop, and Ghostbusters (seriously, was there a better year for popular culture?).
Indeed, some generations who bemoan the idea of participation trophies might find a sense of validation in Johnny’s philosophy. After all, life isn’t fair. Life throws sucker punches. Life doesn’t follow the rules, and not everyone is a winner just for showing up. So, being a badass and striking first goes beyond accepting the absurdity to the point of rejecting it.
If you’re born different, if you’re teased and bullied, if people spread lies and rumors about you, are you going to let them? (No Sensei!) Are you just going to accept the absurdity? (No Sensei!) Does absurdity exist in this Dojo? (No Sensei!)
Of course, illustrating absurdity is what Cobra Kai’s narrative does best, as every character, especially Johnny, deals with the absurdities of life on a daily basis. The beauty of the story (in both seasons) is how these absurdities get dealt with.
While most of the absurdities are nothing more than misunderstandings played in equal parts comedy and tragedy (because even when Johnny and Daniel have a drink together and try to communicate, which is funny, it all gets undone by something absurd, which is sad), the point seems to be to show what happens in the aftermath of absurdity. Do you accept it, do you move on, or do you punch it in the face?
What makes Cobra Kai compelling is that Johnny, who typically wants to punch the absurdity in the face (or at least tell it to be QUIET!), isn’t one-dimensional. Rather, he learns how to change and adapt Cobra Kai’s philosophy in a way that becomes his version of Cobra Kai rather than John Kreese’s version.
Johnny learns that being a badass sometimes means that you have to be the bigger man. This has nothing to do with physicality or toughness, it has to do with having the strength to show mercy. But, unlike Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus from the film Gladiator, who views the bestowal of mercy as another form of power he can wield (and scream into his sister’s ear), Johnny actually means it when he tells his students that sometimes there is a need for mercy and that winning without honor (like defeating an injured opponent) isn’t really winning.
When Cobra Kai begins, we see that Johnny has let the infamous Crane-kick to his face (his metaphorical stone that he’s had to live with every single day since his defeat at the All-Valley Tournament in 1984) define his life. But after he decides to train Miguel (who Johnny saw get bullied by four guys) and open the Cobra Kai Dojo again, Johnny realizes that overcoming his defeat is a better option.
So, rather than accepting his stone, he seeks to shatter it. But Johnny, in not wanting to be like Kreese (though still haunted by Kreese), adds the elements of honor and mercy to the Cobra Kai philosophy – which also resonates with Camus, to the extent that Camus advocates compassion (though Camus, who shunned violence, would probably take issue with all the violence in Cobra Kai).
It’s compassion that leads Johnny to choose not to fight Daniel when Daniel storms into the Cobra Kai Dojo after Mr. Miyagi’s house got trashed (and Johnny, who genuinely feels bad, actually takes Daniel’s side). It also leads Johnny to choose to discipline his students for not fighting with honor, to choose to get rid of Kreese (who’d returned) when he realizes that Kreese was starting to infect the students with the old ways, and to choose to walk away from Kreese after Kreese (like the snake in the grass that he is) takes over Cobra Kai at the end of the second season.
This isn’t weakness and it isn’t accepting absurdity. It’s overcoming life by growing into something more than a mantra, and it’s what makes William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence a truly compelling, multi-dimensional character (similar to Lost’s Sawyer, who evolved from a scheming, selfish, con-man into a responsible leader and hero concerned more about others than himself).
In one of the more moving scenes for Johnny, he tells Miguel (Johnny’s star student, next-door neighbor, and surrogate son) that he will never give up on him and that training him has been one of the best things in his life. Given what happens to Miguel at the end of the second season (and given Johnny’s growth), it seems that a third season’s narrative will see Johnny find a way to fight back by helping Miguel overcome a devastating trauma, while perhaps also overcoming his own problems with Kreese.
Similarly, in the second season, Johnny reconnects with his old Cobra Kai buddies (because Tommy has a terminal illness) and we see Johnny’s philosophy come full circle. He cares – about everyone in his life, from Miguel and his students, to his estranged son, Robby, to his old buddies, to Daniel, to Ali (who will hopefully appear in Season Three), and even Kreese (who Johnny seems to be disappointed in rather than angry at).
For example, Johnny cares enough about Miguel’s mother, Carmen, to confront the man she’s dating. Johnny might like Carmen (and he has a really funny dream about her), but he’s honorable about it. When he sees that she’s dating someone, he doesn’t interfere until he overhears the guy she’s dating making crass remarks about her. For Johnny, it’s not necessarily an opportunity to date Carmen (though, that does happen), it’s an opportunity to protect her.
So, while Johnny might agree that life is absurd and that struggling gives our lives meaning, he also grows past the high school version of himself (which, to be fair, we got a glimpse of when he visibly balked at Sensei Kreese’s suggestion to “sweep the leg” and when Johnny tells Daniel “you’re alright, LaRusso” as he hands Daniel the trophy) when he realizes that winning and overcoming your own struggles isn’t everything. What seems to matter more is helping others overcome their struggles.
This is significant because Johnny didn’t initially set out to become a karate instructor. He wasn’t trying to be Mr. Miyagi (in fact, he didn’t even help Miguel when he saw Miguel getting beat up by four guys until the guys threw Miguel into Johnny’s car). But once Johnny decided to train Miguel, other students saw what he had to offer – not just how to be a badass and beat the shit out of their enemies, but how to take care of one another. Because you’re Cobra Kai for life.
Thus, in the closing moments of season two, when Johnny tosses his phone and car keys on the beach, he doesn’t seem to be walking away. Rather, he seems to be walking toward something, choosing to care and maybe that’s the real lesson we all need to learn right now. In our deeply divided world, perhaps there’s too much of a focus on winning (by beating the shit out of one another) and not enough of a focus on caring.
We may be having a bad day, we may get bullied, we may lose everything, and we may even consider Hannah Baker’s option, but as Johnny teaches Miguel and the rest of his students in the lesson with the cement truck, we won’t get stuck if we work together and keep moving.
Edwardo Pérez is a tenured, full professor of English at Tarrant County College in Hurst, Texas and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at The University of Texas at Arlington. When he gets around to it, he manages his philosophical and critical theory website lightsabertoss.com.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien, 1991.