Favorite Fictional Characters, #378: Johnny Lawrence
Updated: Feb 20, 2022
I'll be as direct as possible. If you haven't watched the Cobra Kai series, go to YouTube now and watch both seasons. I'll wait here.
Finished? Good. Yeah, I swallowed it whole too. I expected a nostalgic romp through the modest universe created by the beloved original Karate Kid movie and it's diminishing sequels, and we certainly get that in spades. What I didn't expect was a nuanced, mature piece of long-form storytelling that reignites the rivalry of The Kid Himself Daniel LaRusso and 80's uber-bully Johnny Lawrence. The brilliance of the series is the focus on Lawrence. The 1984 film presented him as the two-dimensional antagonist to Ralph Macchio's plucky underdog, a swaggering teen god misusing karate to enforce his alpha maleness. Cobra Kai acknowledges this adolescent version of Lawrence, and builds on it, evolving the boy villain into a complicated man who has suffered in his life, both before the notorious crane kick at the All-Valley Tournament, and certainly since.
As much fun as it is to catch up with Daniel LaRusso (and Macchio somehow owns the screen whenever he appears - I was surprised too), Johnny Lawrence and his journey are the heart of Cobra Kai. Abandoned or abused by anyone he ever turned to, Lawrence is weary and beaten. He's arrested, both in his adolescence and in the 1980's of his apex. He seems not to have paid the slightest attention to anything that's happened in politics, culture, or basic human knowledge since 1985, rendering him slightly bemused by technology and frustrated by what he considers the flaccid softness of the modern world.
And yet, for a bad ass, he's kind of a sad ass. He's unemployed and usually drunk; a failed husband and father and, frankly, person. And yet somehow, we root for him. There's a charisma to Lawrence, and his non-linear redemption story sucks us in. His scenes with LaRusso are doled out by the show-runners like rare gems, and each moment is worth the wait. The supporting storylines of the next generation play like Dawson's Creek with more bloody noses, and these karate kids seem far more advanced in their craft than seems plausible. But it's all worth it when LaRusso drops a pearl of Miyagi wisdom, or Peter Cetera belts out a familiar tune, or when we see Daniel and Johnny discovering that their journeys have had more in common than they would care to admit. The difference between them wasn't their inherent moral compass or maturity - it was that one of them got Mr. Miyagi for a Sensei while the other got John Kreese.
Hollywood knows the riches that await the proper mining of our childhood memories. It's why Star Wars and Stranger Things and superhero movies are so effective and popular. But we children of the 80's are a notoriously fickle cohort, fiercely defensive of our collective cultural heritage, and swift to punish those who fail to do right by it (Ghostbusters is exhibit A). It works best when lovingly restored by fans who know what made the originals into classics. Instead of soulless reboots, take the well-loved universe and tell us what happened to the characters we grew up with. We want to know what happened to our childhood friends. We want to know if Ferris Bueller is spending thirty years in prison for embezzlement, if Conan ever got to be king, if the Breakfast Club ever gets together for Brunch.
Cobra Kai gets this right, mostly because of Johnny Lawrence's compelling and incomplete journey from villain to anti-hero. Oh, and a nod here to Billy Zabka's amazingly textured performance. Get him an Emmy, in a body bag or not.
And hurry the hell up with Season 3.