I Like to Watch | Cobra Kai Season 2
“I don't know the story and I don't need to but I will say that the question should never be ‘can a fascist change?’ but ‘should a fascist be allowed to change?’ and the answer is ‘no.’”
—Sara Bess (@achenesense) April 12, 2019
I’ve encountered this attitude before. When working with wrongfully accused death row inmates in Chicago (peripherally, as I was the boyfriend of a woman who was professionally invested in this work) I ran into plenty of people who saw no benefit to the idea of rehabilitation. For them, prison was about punishment and punishment was their concept of justice. These were the folks who would respond to a black man, tortured into a confession and imprisoned, by pointing out that if he had not been in a gang or had committed petty crimes before being picked up by the police, he wouldn’t be there to be tortured. That somehow, mistakes before meant that he deserved to be wrongfully accused, convicted, and sent away.
“I don’t know the story and I don’t need to but I will say that the question should never be ‘can a career criminal change?’ but ‘should a career criminal be allowed to change?’ and the answer is ‘no.’”
It seems that those most committed to the ideals of social justice and restorative justice aren’t looking for justice but revenge. No apology made for past mistakes is ever enough, no change of perspective is accepted or encouraged. Joe Biden’s apology to Anita Hill was a waste of his time because, of course, it could never be enough. Louis C.K.’s admission of guilt could never be accepted unless he was severely punished and not allowed to continue to perform. Jussie Smollett wisely withheld any admission of guilt or contrition because, in this paradigm, admission of guilt simply allows those strident Rage Profiteers another foot in the callout shame door.
To deny someone the permission to change is the utmost in hypocritical cruelty.
Mentally traveling back in time to 1984, The Karate Kid was one of those stereotypical stories of unrepentant bullies, an outcast looking to find his place, and a mentor who provides a series of lessons that transforms the outcast into a hero of sorts (if confronting and ultimately beating your bullies makes one heroic). The outcast of the tale is Daniel LaRusso, the mentor is Mr. Miyagi, the unrepentant bully is Johnny Lawrence as guided by the 1980s avatar of venomous masculinity, John Kreese.
In the cesspool that is nostalgia, it’s fine to lounge right there. Good Guy. Bad Guy. Good Mentor. Bad Mentor. A tournament and the Light side of the Force wins.
Translating that story into the world of real humans is more complicated. People grow up and out of their indoctrination. Others die along the way. Some lose so much in their life that the venom and hate festers indefinitely. And others try to reclaim their faded glory, like wearing an ill-fitting T-shirt or buying a car that was popular in his youth only to discover that the glory he had was based on the worst impulses of humanity and has to make choices to change.
YouTube Red’s Cobra Kai Season 1 is fun. We are reintroduced to middle-aged versions of Daniel and Johnny and how that one crazy kick in the face changed their lives. Daniel is a successful owner of a car dealership with a beautiful wife, two children, and all the trappings of modern success. Johnny, on the other hand, has a broken marriage, an estranged son who hates him, and a chip on his shoulder that has developed into a resentment from thirty years ago that has taken over his soul. Both rely on the past to define their present (Daniel still uses that kick to market his car dealership, Johnny still wears Motley True T-shirts and refuses to buy into any technology created after 1990) but the perspective has changed for us. This is no longer Daniel’s story but Johnny’s.
The first season indulged in the Gen X joy of revisiting those nostalgic moments and was so successful, they decided to do a second and, in extending the story for ten more episodes, dive into some truly profound territory.
William Zabka is never going to be any list of great actors but he rises to the occasion in this season. Johnny is chock full of conflict. His views on what makes someone tough is rooted in the strident Cobra Kai mantra: Strike First • Strike Hard • No Mercy and seeing the consequences of that mantra in his students is making him seriously doubt its wisdom. The final shot of Season 1 is the reintroduction of his former sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove), and his presence underscores the epitome of that mantra and likewise provides Johnny with a real life example of the kind of person he used to be but doesn’t want to be anymore.
On top of that, Johnny is in almost every sense a throwback to the eighties. So enamored of that decade is he that he has adopted almost none of the trappings of life post-1985 — he doesn’t have a clue about the internet, he barely understands smartphones, he buys a Dodge Challenger because it’s badass. At one point, his prize student sets him up on Tinder:
OK. The app is downloaded. What kind of women are you looking for?
Super hot babes. Dumb question. Okay, what are your likes?
My likes? What am I supposed to say? Long walks on the beach? I like muscle cars, martial arts, and Iron Eagle. And Iron Eagle II.
Why aren’t you texting this down? Computer dating was your idea.
Look, you have to take this seriously.
It used to be simple. Find a chick in a bar. Bump into her hard, but not too hard. Pretty hard. Then you buy her a beer.
Tried and true, Diaz. That’s how the cavemen did it. Cavemen. That’s another like. Like the ones in those insurance commercials.
[sighs] I think I can fill the rest out on my own. What about clothes? What are you wearing?
You gonna teach me about fashion now?
Might have to.
Later, he goes on a series of dates:
While the series has its funny moments, the themes presented are of a middle-aged man struggling with the embedded concepts of masculine strength, the grey areas between notions of good and bad behavior, the questions of intent versus impact, and ultimately the effort it takes to change. It’s a difficult road for Johnny Lawrence and in many ways he is asking himself the same Sara Bess query: Is Johnny Lawrence even allowed to change?
Daniel has his struggles as well. His desire to put his high school nemesis back down, to not allow him to change, puts his business and his marriage in peril. He is so focused on making sure Cobra Kai doesn’t resurge, he loses sight of everything Mr. Miyagi taught him in the first place: Karate is about defense not offense. In his quest to keep Johnny punished for what he was thirty years prior, no apology offered matters as his agenda is a continued banishment for someone who abused him.
Perhaps I enjoyed this season so much because it is about two men my age dealing with their past and trying to make sense of it all and carve out a place for themselves in an ever-changing culture. Like Johnny, I still listen to the music of my youth, still think most of the films of my day are funny, and value the presence of strength and resolve over weakness and complaint. Like Daniel, I sometimes lose sight of the things that are actually important in the wake of my sense of personal justice.
I don’t know if anyone but someone my age would dig this show but if you want a little insight to the Gen Xers around you, take a few hours and soak it in. If you are a Gen Xer? Watch this shit, it’s badass. Like a Dodge Challenger.
“I don't know the story and I don't need to but I will say that the question should never be ‘can a fascist change?’ but ‘should a fascist be allowed to change?’ and the answer is ‘no.’"
—Sara Bess (@achenesense) April 12, 2019
I don't know the story and I don't need to but I will say that the question should never be "can a bigot change?" but "should a bigot be allowed to change?" and the answer is "no."
I don't know the story and I don't need to but I will say that the question should never be "can a masturbating comic change?" but "should a masturbating comic be allowed to change?" and the answer is "no."
I don't know the story and I don't need to but I will say that the question should never be "can a homophobe change?" but "should a homophobe be allowed to change?" and the answer is "no."
Sara? You’re dead wrong. Not only can people change but it isn’t up to you and the nattering class of self-appointed Keepers of the Wokeness to decide who is allowed to change. Trust me. In thirty years, you might find your Johnny Lawrence moment and struggle with new mores imposed by your children’s children and maybe you’ll entrench and maybe you’ll change but it isn’t up to anyone but you if you do.
Strike First • Strike Hard • No Mercy is a shitty way to live.