When Cobra Kai was first announced as a YouTube Red series in 2017, many were curious to see how the series would go about redeeming Johnny. After all, he was a huge bully as a member of Cobra Kai in the Karate Kid films – films that hadn’t exactly done a great job of making him more than a one-sided villain. Thankfully, Cobra Kai offers more of a morally gray area to explore Johnny Lawrence as a character. The series has never shied away from his faults in the past. In fact, Cobra Kai seems to embrace his mistakes, allowing him to truly grow as a character.
He’s a screw-up. There’s no denying as much. Johnny will never be Daniel LaRusso. The temper is still there, although he’s more capable of holding it back these days, and he loves his Coors. Over the course of three seasons, though, Cobra Kai has turned Johnny from a one-note villain into a fully-realized character. He’s no longer merely a combative drunk looking to pick a fight. He’s a man determined to right his wrongs, even if he ultimately goes about doing things incorrectly.
The Johnny Lawrence we meet in Season 1 of Cobra Kai is a down on his luck man who is simply trying to make ends meet. When he finds himself before LaRusso again, though, things take a turn for the worse and he ultimately decides to reopen Cobra Kai – much to LaRusso’s chagrin. Enter Season 2: Johnny and LaRusso are still bitter enemies, who unknowingly impose their issues with each other onto their students, resulting in a massive fight that nearly kills one of the show’s main characters: Miguel.
Miguel, of course, is presented as a do-over for Johnny, who failed to be there for his son, Robby. While both characters are the same age, Miguel willingly accepts Johnny’s help and cherishes the time with his Sensei as he doesn’t have a father figure to look up to. Whereas, Robby is unwilling to look beyond the past and accept that his father wants to make things right. This is something we see further explained in Season 3 when Kreese steals Cobra Kai from Johnny and seeks to turn the students into trained fighters against Johnny’s will.
Johnny doesn’t want Cobra Kai to be what it was when he was younger. He wants it to be better; he wants the students to be better than him because he knows what Kreese taught them was wrong. He tries to be the good guy, but he can’t seem to get it right, no matter what he does. Thankfully, Season 4 of Cobra Kai looks ready to let Johnny grow beyond Cobra Kai as the trailer shows him working alongside LaRusso.
While Kreese, a war hero, is unable to let go of his past, Johnny wants nothing more than a chance at a future with those he hurt in his past. He wants what is best for Robby, even if he keeps screwing up trying to make things right with everyone else. He knows he wasn’t there for Robby in the past, but he wants to be there now, if only Robby would let him. It’s also clear he’s trying to move beyond his issues with LaRusso, knowing his own personal grudge against the man has done nothing but hurt those around him.
Johnny Lawrence has shown more growth throughout three seasons, while LaRusso often feels as though he has regressed. In a franchise that once feared allowing Johnny to be more than the bad guy, Cobra Kai has allowed him to be more than his past self: he’s a mess, sure, but he’s trying to clean up his mess. After all, as he showed by cutting off his step-father, we are more than what lay behind us.