Remember Karate Kid? Well, they made a TV show which picks up that story decades later and… look, there’s really no other way to say it. Cobra Kai is good. Really good. It’s full of romance, nostalgia and karate. A LOT of karate.
And season five, which just dropped on Netflix, is the best season yet. One of the reasons why? Kick-ass Aussie actress Alicia Hannah-Kim is repping down under and getting to live out her dreams of playing a Korean character.
“It’s so personal to me”, says Kim, “because it’s the first time I’ve played a Korean character! And not just any character.”
“Kim Da-Eun has been treated with such care by the creators, so I felt really supported. And to be the first female sensei in this universe, one which is so beloved and well-known… and to represent women, and Asian women, and my personal heritage? It’s layered in meaning for me. I feel so fortunate. Booking a job is always a miracle. But booking a job like this? It’s like winning the lottery.”
“I’m just blown away that I’m on this show! Representing Australians is huge for me. We have an Australian stuntman on the show, Tom. And we were standing there side-by-side in one scene, and I looked at him and said… look at us. Two Aussies. What are we doing here? And we high-fived it out!”
I ask Alicia what she hopes the home crowd think of her star turn this season. She grins. “Look, I hope Australians love this season, love it for all the insane adventures. It’s a rollercoaster they’ve been riding and invested in for five years… and for me, personally… I hope you like it!”
Cobra Kai has literally never been this good. Season five is the feel-good, high-stakes payoff we’ve been craving. After four awesome seasons of catastrophic misunderstandings, our ragtag group of heroes are finally a united front. This season is the “Avengers, Assemble!” moment of the Cobra Kai saga. They did it, folks.
They got their shit together.
But at the core of Cobra Kai is… well, Cobra Kai itself, an institution which changes hands more often than the Australian prime ministership.
Alicia plays new Cobra Kai acquisition Sensei Kim Da-Eun, so I asked her whether or not Karate Kid was part of her upbringing. “Embarrassingly, somehow it passed my household by!”, she tells me during an early morning zoom call. “We were blissfully unaware. But I was shooting another show at the time, called Minx, in Los Angeles. I booked Cobra Kai during that shoot, and on the plane ride over, the timing was so fast, I started bingeing it on the plane, so that I could get a sense of what it was going to be like.”
But did it feel weird to be coming in as one of the bad guys? “No!” Alicia replies, beaming. “I loved that! I really, really loved my audition scenes, and I knew instantly that she was a very special character — she felt very super villain-y, and I love that her origins are mysterious. And obviously, being Korean, I relate hugely to her.
“So I was very excited about it, but it felt unusual to step into an established show! I mean, they’re in their fifth season, and I come in halfway through, and I come in from Korea, so I’m really not part of the world in The Valley. So… not knowing a lot of the backstory, the universe as well as a really avid fan actually helped!”
“In episode seven, we have a really beautiful flashback of Sensei Kim as a child, and she’s watching John Kreese and Terry Silver train with her grandfather, the originator of Cobra Kai through his style. And what moved me so much when I saw the pictures… ‘cos I wasn’t there that day… they’d put the young actress, Sarah Anne, in a pink gi!
“And my character is so extreme, and has obviously been through so much to become this sort of super villain. She only wears black. There’s no hair movement — it’s all so controlled, so seeing her as a child was very moving to me. I think there’s a lot more there. One can only imagine what she went through to become this sort of twisted, dark version of herself.”
The idea that bad guys can be redeemed is one of the central premises of Cobra Kai. The show is rife with genuine stone-cold bastards who gradually have their armour peeled away, presenting us with the nuanced, kick-ass people underneath. Sean Kanan plays another Karate Kid 3 villain returning this season, Mike Barnes. I asked him whether he thought any bad guy could be redeemed. “Well… you know, when you think about it, Mike Barnes was an obnoxious, menacing sociopath… but, irredeemable in a macro, lifelong way? I don’t think so! Are there some people who can’t be redeemed? Yeah, there are people who’ve done things, and are internally broken, and beyond redemption… but very few.”
Sean actually wrote a pretty incredible and confronting book, in which he talks about almost dying during the shooting of Karate Kid 3. On a break, he collapsed after bleeding internally for several days (the whole story, laid out in detail in his book, is utterly terrifying). But he bounced back in a big way, as did his character in Cobra Kai V, the previously villainous Mike Barnes. “You know, I’ve always been fascinated with anti-heroes”, Sean tells me, “and characters that are grey, in the sense that… well, very few things are monolithic, or are black and white, good or bad.”
“Good people do bad things, bad people do good things. But it’s those nano-shades of grey that are interesting to watch in film and TV and art. It’s that intersectionality that I find interesting! I didn’t want to play Mike like he was a bad guy. He was just a guy, who went through some kind of catharsis, got married and had a wife who straightened him out, had a father in law who taught him to work with furniture, and found his way in the world.”
Cobra Kai manages to expose the excessive humanity of Mike Barnes, and maybe a sliver of something human, something vulnerable, beneath the surface of Sensei Kim Da-Eun’s terrifying exterior. So if you want the most optimistic and kick-ass TV show experience ever, take the plunge. Watch Cobra Kai. And thank me later.
Cobra Kai V is streaming now, and good god, if you haven’t watched it yet, head to Netflix and strap in.
Paul Verhoeven is an author, broadcaster and TV presenter. His books Electric Blue and Loose Units are out now through Penguin, and he hosts the podcasts Dish Island and Loose Units. You can find him on Twitter, Instagram, and in person, if you can (he’s very good at hiding).