Season 1 of YouTube Premium’s hit series Cobra Kai ended with Johnny Lawrence (Billy Zabka) reopening Cobra Kai, determined that it would not be as ruthless as the version of the dojo he fought for. All the while, his rivalry with Danny LaRussa (Ralph Macchio) is reignited after 34 years, especially after Johnny’s son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) turns to the uber-successful Daniel-san to train in karate. But when Johnny and his protege Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) beat Danny and Robby in the All-Valley Tournament, a dark figure from Johnny’s past comes back: Sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove).
Kreese, who we interviewed last week, is a big factor in the show’s second season, which plays out over the summer following the All-Valley Tournament. It sets up a dojo vs. dojo rivalry, with Danny reopening Miyagi-do with Robby and his daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) as his first two students. Friend fights friend, and both Danny and Johnny have to deal with deeper issues that have nothing to do with karate.
Decider spoke to the show’s executive producers — Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg — about Season 2, the massive finale and how things set up for a possible season 3.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR Season 2 AHEAD!
DECIDER: Did you guys have a two season plan for the show or a three season plan where we knew that we were gonna set up the two guys Johnny and Danny, and then we see Kreese at the end of Season 1?
JON HURWITZ: From the beginning we knew that the first season was going to be sort of setting up Season 2 of the show, which we consider dojo versus dojo, a fight for the soul of the valley. And we knew from the beginning that we wanted Sensei Kreese to show up at the end of Season 1 in the final scene sort of as this curveball cliffhanger that complicates matters in the second season in the ways that you’ve now seen.
When you met with Martin when you laid it out to him did he understand why he was in it so late the first season and what his contribution to Season 2 would be?
HURWITZ: Yeah, it was a really fun dinner. The three of us got together with Martin, we were all very excited. This is the first time we’re meeting this iconic character that we love so much. And he was very excited to sit down and talk about things, this is a man who has walked around for the last 35 years with people yelling “No Mercy” to him. Some actors don’t embrace that thing happening in their lives, but Martin’s the guy that that enjoyed it, plays into it, has a fun time with it, so much so that he’s put a lot of thought into where he saw Kreese’s backstory being. And when we sat down with him we explained to him our thoughts, some of which overlaps with some of his ideas, some of which were completely different than what he expected. But for him there’s a show called Cobra Kai coming out and he is Cobra Kai. He’s the sensei who founded Cobra Kai, so for him it was very hard to imagine this world where there’s a show on the air and he has to pretend to the world that he’s not a part of it even though he knew that he’d be there at the very end.
So at first he was just hoping, “Can I just be in from the beginning and everyone knows that I’m there so I don’t have to lie to people for a year?” And our big explanation the entire time was it’ll pack a bigger impact if you show up at the end of the season and you’re a surprise, it’ll be a much bigger deal and narratively it’ll send Johnny and Daniel into a completely different sort of head space going into the second season.
Where did you get the backstory for Kreese?
JOSH HEALD: The movie did a great job of introducing him as Darth Vader, as the big bad wolf. And he was asked to play a very one-dimensional character — “You are pure evil, you’re the man in black, you teach a very aggressive form of karate, and you have a very black-and-white view about life.” And writing this series we knew introducing that character would give us so many places to go because he was a mystery in terms of what makes somebody like that, and what is the backstory either shown, or implied, or not even yet delved into that can turn somebody into somebody who had that “strike first, strike hard, no mercy” mentality about life and somebody who would treat his students the way they did.
So like with Johnny where you’re entering Season 1, and you have this character that you’ve only known as the antagonist to your hero, you have this rich opportunity to reboot the expectations, and the point of view. The same thing goes for Kreese, even more so because he had such a way to go to attempt to earn some sympathy, or empathy, or understanding about who that character is and what his relationship is to the world, and to Johnny, and to Cobra Kai. And those are all things that we knew we were going to get to, but like John said we didn’t want to put any of that out there in the first season. There’s so many places to go with that character that we felt it earned its own entrance into the story after we had really gotten the show up on its feet.
How tough is it to take a character like Danny, who was considered a hero in the first movie, especially, and make him a bit of a jerk sometimes and make him neglect his marriage because he’s so angry at Cobra Kai 35 years later?
HAYDEN SCHLOSSBERG: I think whether you like a character or not really has a lot to do with what your point of view is, and I think that starting the show off with Johnny’s perspectives instantly made Daniel an antagonistic character in the eyes of the audience. We tried to write the character in a way that stays true to the original movie, meaning that Daniel’s never doing anything for malicious reasons, even if he is trying to screw over Cobra Kai, he’s doing it because he has a daughter in a school, and he remembers what Cobra Kai was back in the day.
So we don’t want to betray the Daniel that we knew, and we loved growing up, it’s just a matter of now this isn’t his story; it’s everybody’s story. And when you start following it from the Cobra Kai side you start to look at Daniel in a different light. Regarding his marriage in Season 2, I think we understand why Daniel would get sucked back into this role not just because of the rivalry but because just because of a midlife crisis in terms of his connection with Mr. Miyagi and getting back into karate.
So there’s a lot that’s drawing Daniel into this world, he’s not purposefully neglecting the marriage, but it does cause an imbalance in his life. And so I think the key is just not suddenly making Daniel a mustache twirling villainous guy, it’s just making it where everybody has their side of the story.
It always feels like his view of Cobra Kai colors how he thinks things happen, like in the second season when Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) trashes Miyagi-do, the dojo, and he thought that Johnny put them up to it. How complicated is it to write that he’s got these thoughts about Cobra Kai and make that color everything he thinks about what happens with them?
HURWITZ: It’s a combination of what went on in the past combined with what’s gone on in the present. In the past he was terrorized by Cobra Kai in high school. Later on he was manipulated by Kreese and Terry Silver in the third movie, and was actually brought in as a Cobra Kai student in a really messed up way. The people involved with Cobra Kai went the great lengths to mess with a teenager-
HEALD: They threatened to kill him.
HURWITZ: Yes, they threatened to kill him, exactly. So the long and the short of it is his long past, his PTSD if you will, is very well justified for what happened in the past. In terms of the present it’s a combination of being the tournament last year, at the end of Season 1 he saw Cobra Kai seemingly up to their old tricks fighting dirty, attacking injuries, things that even though Johnny has insisted he’s trying to change things, he’s seeing the same results. And early in the season when he’s ready to go and talk to Johnny about what’s going on with Robby and he sees Johnny seemingly buddy-buddy with Kreese again, this man that Johnny claims was dead last year at the All-Valley meet, he doesn’t know what to think. All he knows is, “I can’t let my guard down, this ideology is toxic, it’s been toxic in the past, it’s been toxic very recently, and I can’t take any chances.”
How many times in the writers room did you think you could go to that well without it becoming repetitive where viewers would say, “Come on Danny, can’t you see Johnny for what he is now,”?
HEALD: I feel like we have to always have a measured approach and a specific way into any time that Daniel is being extra confrontational toward Johnny as an individual or Johnny being super confrontational toward Daniel. You can only have so many scenes of, “I told you I’d come back and get you.” You need to find the new ways into that that feel real, and feel organic, and feel like the story is still growing.
With the second season you have this deeper connection between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi than we even had in the first season. He’s now rediscovered Miyagi-do, he’s in Miyagi’s house a lot more. We got the impression he hadn’t been there much in the first season, and because of that these vulnerabilities and old memories and honoring Miyagi’s legacy are driving him forward. So it becomes a little bit more believable that a smaller infraction could actually set off a larger response, that being said there are no small infractions in Cobra Kai, most of the things that happen are pretty aggressive and pretty confrontational.
So the thing that really helps continue to drive that rivalry is the fact that it’s not one man versus another man also because this next generation has taken on the torch of the legacy of both sides, they sometimes act without provocation or for a completely different reason that then the sensei’s have to respond to, so it actually gives you more surrogates to play with in terms of tit-for-tat.
Season 1’s arc was very parallel to the first movie obviously, with the coming age of Miguel, his transformation, and then culminating in the All-Valley Tournament. But in the second season it’s more of a ensemble in a way you see the Hawk story, you see Robby and Sam. Was there any reluctance in going away from Miguel in the second season and making it more ensemble driven?
SCHLOSSBERG: I think it’s all about balance, and we know that as we have more seasons go on we’re expanding the worlds, and our hope is that there’s more story and more characters to care about. I still think that Johnny and Miguel is the one of the central relationships on the show, and we tied it into really what the season story is all about, which is showing mercy.
And so it all culminates with that Johnny/ Miguel relationship at the end, so that was never something that okay let’s put that on the sidelines. We just knew that with Kreese coming into the picture there the interesting things to talk about besides that relationship, so we early on the season put Johnny and Miguel on a good path towards each other and it was really Johnny and Kreese that was the relationship that had the drama going on in it, but as a result of that it affected what happens with all the students in the dojo.
Do you guys think you were able to enhance the father-son relationship between Kreese and Johnny more than what we had seen in the movies, especially the first movie?
SCHLOSSBERG: You don’t really have a sense when you watch the original Karate Kid that there’s any sort of special relationship between Kreese and Johnny other than the fact that he’s the top student over there. But we took that, and we expanded on that, and we made it where this was his best student and as you’ll see going on the show, we haven’t finished that relationship. You only know what you see in Season 2, but really from our point of view in a lot of ways Kreese put everything, all his issues into Johnny as a way to fight the world. And when Johnny lost that tournament there were a lot of stakes for Kreese there, and we wanted that relationship to be as strong as possible.
We talked about this dysfunctional father-son relationship and that’s the thing that really was the relatable real-world drama that we put into Johnny and Kreese this season. And I mean in a lot of ways the whole first season you see Johnny having a fractured relationship with Robby. Our whole thought was how can he really fix that until he resolves his own issues with his own father figure, and that was the big storyline going into this season.
Which character of the secondary characters like as you guys were writing the season you were surprised by how far they have come? I mean to me it’s Demetri (Gianni Decenzo), but there’s others in there as well.
HURWITZ: We love how all the characters have progressed over the course of Season 1 to Season 2. It was really just seeing Gianni as an actor and seeing Jacob as an actor in Season 1, so that Hawk and Demetri, we saw the skill sets that they had, and we thought they were both really strong performers, and loved the idea of exploring this concept of kids who were best friends who have something drive a wedge between them in high school. That’s something that happens to plenty of friends for any variety of reasons — the kid joined the football team, and his buddy does not, and suddenly there’s a whole new group of friends, or a new type of mentality, or wanting to be cool in a different way that’s something that we find very relatable.
In terms of performance I guess we’re not entirely shocked by Jacob’s performance of Hawk because we saw a little taste of it last year, and we were confident he could take it to the next level, but I see why you would respond about Demetri that way because Demetri was somebody who had mostly just comic relief in Season 1 and in Season 2 you get to see a little bit more about what’s under the hood, and we saw Gianni nail those things.
HEALD: we’re also enormously proud of the growth and how much more Mary Mauser does this season as Samantha LaRusso. In the first season she very much was put in that love triangle soap opera sequence of scenes in terms of what her role was in that season, a very relatable story of a teenager trying to reinvent who she is perhaps trying to find her friends, falling in love, oh and it’s tragic love.
But Season 2 we knew that she was going to be asked to really have a much more physical role in the show in terms of martial arts, and she threw herself into training headlong. And she was doing stuff on the weekends without being asked, she was coming in early whenever she had an opportunity to get extra time for training or choreography she was doing it. This was an actress who really didn’t have any martial arts training heading into season two and comes out of it with quite a breadth of experience, and a lot of what you see on camera is her doing her own stuff.
How much of it is the kids especially doing their own stunts, or even the veteran actors because Martin is in great shape, but he’s in his 70s, and Billy and Ralph are in their 50s. –
HEALD: I mean it’s remarkable how much of what you see on screen is the actor doing their own stuff. I mean with Billy Zabka, you have 99% of what you see is Billy, occasionally, the stunt choreographer will tell him, “No, you can’t take that massive fall, you’ll break your back.” But all the punches, kicks, throws, that is largely all Billy. Ralph also wants to do a large amount of his own stuff. In Season 1, he didn’t have a heck of a lot of martial arts to do, he’s got a little bit more in Season 2, and he did a lot of his own as well.
Marty Kove surprised us. We didn’t know where we would be at with Marty in terms of you have an actor in their 70s, and we didn’t know if he had kept up with training. But he showed up in tremendous shape; he had been getting trained, we had arranged for trainers in Los Angeles before we started production to start working on the earliest scenes in the season that that involved fighting and Marty was able to do a fair amount of his own stuff.
The kids are on that level that probably Billy, and the Cobra Kai’s, and Ralph, and everyone were back in the day where they all want to outdo each other and be the most impressive performer on set. So you have this friendly competition between them where they’re going extra hard and don’t want to be taken out of a scene in favor of a some performer, and it enables us to do sequences such as one toward the end of the season where you have all your actors on screen at the same time doing their own stunts. And it lends you a much more creative possibility in terms of how you can shoot scenes like that when you don’t have to hire a stunt performer.
By the way and, obviously I should have just looked this up on IMDb, but the episode where Johnny has the reunion with the Cobra Kai guys because one of them is dying, are those all the same actors from the original movie?
HEALD: Yeah, those are all the same guys. Yeah, I mean everyone looks a little different, it’s been thirty-something years and certain hairlines have changed, but those are the same guys.
And they’re all in that fight scene in the bar, how tough was that getting these guys who may have various levels of fitness so how did you coordinate that?
SCHLOSSBERG: For whatever reason we approach this project with the blind faith that everybody’s going to come in, and they’re gonna fall back into their characters again and be that character at this age and be able to kick ass. And maybe that’s wishful thinking when you have somebody like Marty who’s in his 70s, but when we’re writing the script we just pretend that it’s all going to work out exactly the way we want it to. And we just assume, okay well we’re gonna get these actors, we’re gonna bring them in. They haven’t been in anything in a long time, but these are characters that they know well from back in the day, so they should do a good job performing, and they probably haven’t had to do a fight scene in 30 years, but they’re going to do it and it’s going to be awesome.
HEALD: In terms of Ron Thomas who plays Bobby, he’s kept up with martial arts throughout the years, he’s a black belt, and he’s able to kick and he’s able to get his leg up, and he’s able to do throws and blocks. Rob Garrison had kept up with it much less, but we also had story reasons for that episode why his character wouldn’t be the most aggressive in the fight. Antonio Del just threw himself into it.
We didn’t have a ton of time because we’re talking about actors who are coming back to the show, but if the pace of production is moving, they have a day, day and a half to start learning the moves, but they were very, very excited to put these characters back on and have a little bit more depth to these characters as well as back in the day their point was to be the other guys. With Johnny no one was really looking to tell their story and at least through Johnny’s eyes in this episode were able to see that there was something deeper there and that there is a deeper wound there in regards to Cobra Kai, but yeah, the fighting was the usual run and gun on this show, which is we trust our stunt coordinators implicitly, and they got those guys to where they needed to be to make that such a kick-ass scene.
I was going to ask about, I forgot the character’s name, I guess they called him Chubby at first or the guy who was in the hardware store at first-
SCHLOSSBERG: Paul Walter Hauser.
Did you guys bring him in because you wanted to have a little bit more of a comedy and drama balance or was there another reason why you brought an obvious comic relief character like him in?
HURWITZ: Even before we wrote Season 1 we really loved the idea of there being an adult student in the dojo mixed in with all the kids. It was something that we actually initially planned to have in the first season and it just didn’t fit. It was actually serendipity that didn’t work out in the first season because around that time we ended up watching the movie I, Tonya, and that’s where we saw Paul Walter Hauser for the first time. And I remember watching that that movie and being like, “Wow, they just found this guy that is so convincing and so real.”
And then I did some research on him and it turns out he’s just a fantastic actor, so when we were planning Season 2 we loved the idea of bringing this character in that adds some comic relief as this adult. But it was a role that we were writing very specifically with this actor in mind.
YouTube is going away from new scripted stuff and they’re going to change their subscription model. Was any of that apparent to you when you were writing season two and did it affect the finale at all?
SCHLOSSBERG: What happens at the end of Season 2 was planned way early on in our writing process so everything is done for story reasons, we haven’t had to … every now and then an actor there’s an issue on set and you have to change your story a little bit. But for the most part the story you see on the show is what we think about in the writers room and what we think is where we want to take the characters.
What was the thinking about a having the gigantic rumble in the high school?
HURWITZ: The first thought was we knew that we didn’t want to end the second season with another tournament. There will probably be other tournaments on the show going forward, but this was something that we knew we didn’t want to do at the end of season two, but we did want to have a large fight at the end of the season and this idea of a rumble became appealing to us sort of a classic throwback to folks in movies like The Outsiders.
It was something that we thought that we were really into. We love the idea of over the course of this season having all these individual rivalries within the broader rivalry the Miyagi-Do versus Cobra Kai within there’s Miguel and Robby, and there’s Samantha and Tori, and there’s Hawk and Demetri, and even beyond that there’s Mitch and Chris, and some of the other characters. We wanted to build over the course of the season tension between each pairing there and have it erupt in a big explosive way. So it was by design that we made sure that we made this season take place over the course of the summer where all the trouble was brewing and then have it all explode on the first day of school.
What went into coordinating all of that physically? Were you guys thinking you were getting a little ambitious or was there any doubt that you might be able to pull this off, was there any thought that you might have to scale back?
HEALD: We knew from Season 1 that we had somehow pulled off a tournament and creatively we had to try to find a way of building to that sort of dramatic blow up with a lot of physicality that wasn’t necessarily a tournament. So on paper it made sense, we also discussed it with our stunt coordinators right out of the gate, I mean Hiro Koda and Rachel Koda are the best in the business, the husband-and-wife team. They’ve been doing it for years. They know a large amount of martial arts disciplines between them and we knew that we could write it in such a way that had distinct parts.
There were some fights that were completely separated from the main action. There were some fights that were very highly technical in terms of what was happening and then there was this just a straight-up prison riot portions of it. And looking at it very strategically and talking about it very early we were able to have a script in enough time for us to have all these conversations, and start breaking it down, and really make it a conversation in terms of what is helpful that we can do to make this achievable, and what are the tricks that you can do to make certain of these sequences that say punch, punch, kick, kick, a little bit more dynamic.
But ultimately we knew that as long as you cared about all those rivalries leading into that moment whether you see somebody punching somebody in the face once or you see this incredibly long highly choreographed intense physical sequence, it’s going to have a similar effect in that it’s really these characters and what’s going on with them that you care about, and the more special we can make that action that’s all win for us.
Where did the decision to do what you did with Miguel at the end come from?
SCHLOSSBERG: It was from the very beginning; everything comes from where do we want our characters to be and what do we want our characters to learn. And at the end of Season 1 you start to see in Johnny this realization that he’s led these kids the wrong way, and so this whole season is that Johnny trying to figure out the right path for his students. And we love delving into the gray areas of morality not just in terms of character, but actually in terms of philosophy itself. And I think the 1980s approach to “Well, what’s the right thing to do?” would be just, “Hey show mercy, be the nice person,” but in the real world sometimes when you open your heart out to somebody and you put your trust in somebody it could backfire and you could be taken advantage of. In a lot of ways I was just watching this season again, the entire season is foreshadowed in the very first fight with Johnny and Kreese when Johnny has opportunity to basically kill him right there, but he lets him get away and like he lets him go because he sees his reflection of himself in the mirror.
And Kreese says, “Showing mercy to an old man, that’s very honorable and stupid,” and then he trips him and elbows him in the stomach. And I think we didn’t want it to be so easy where, okay Johnny learns the lesson now you show mercy, and that’s it there’s no reason for a Cobra Kai, there’s a simple philosophy we could all learn. We wanted Johnny to learn as a result of Miguel, we’ll see in the third season what he learns, but ultimately we wanted Johnny to feel like at the end of this season unsure of what to do that there is no easy answer to how you should act at all times. And I think that Miguel there’s this moment that I think the audience is meant to feel like, okay he’s going to let Robby go here and show mercy and that’s going to end the fight and it’s all gonna be good, but that’s not how life works all the time.
HURWITZ: It’s echoing what Hayden said, but very simply one thing that we really liked about this season was both Johnny and Daniel are well-meaning in how they’re trying to run their dojos, both of them want the best for their students, both of them are trying to be good people. And sometimes in life when you have the best of intentions don’t work out the way that you want them to, and the question going to season three is how will these characters respond to what happened in the finale.
I’m sure the repercussions for Robby are gonna be big as well.
HEALD: We always wanted to put him in a situation where he does what he’s been trained to do, but his emotions get the best of him and, look, this was something he never anticipated happening. So what happens in that moment, well you’re a kid, you run, and we’ll just have to wait and see what that means.
The last two scenes, the one where we have the mustache twirling version of Kreese comes out and then the very last scene. What can you tell us are the implications of that in Season 3?
HEALD: I was just going to say that we obviously don’t want to spoil too much for Season 3. For us, it’s obviously Kreese taking over that dojo is something that it on the surface seems like this villainous thing. But like like Kreese says there at the end, for him this is showing Johnny this super hard lesson of life and we’ll see where that goes. I think Kreese wasn’t just trying to screw over Johnny this whole season, I think that relationship between Johnny and Kreese is still there, it was just an untenable situation. And so going into the third season is Johnny wants nothing to do with Cobra Kai. He opened Pandora’s box and it ruined his life the way he probably thought it would, and so he’s at this place where he wants absolutely nothing to do with Cobra Kai. On the other hand you have Kreese now in charge and basically the empire is back so to speak, so something’s gonna have to do something, and I think we wanted to end the season in a way where, okay, you know something has to be done you just don’t know how it’s going to happen and in regards to the phone at the end with Allie Mills.
I think for us it’s that tragedy that Johnny at the very end being so frustrated throws his phone because it’s been chiming all day, and it’s been annoying him, and of course he misses the one text that would be the thing that we’d want him to see. So who knows whether or not he’s going to find out about that and where that’s going to lead. Obviously, we like the idea of keeping these characters from the original movie alive in our world and the possibility of them returning alive, so that fans have something to look forward to as the seasons go on.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company’s Co.Create and elsewhere.