Fathers Matter—A Lot

The truth of the title is obvious to all but the most fanatically anti-natural-family ideologues, and yet, our culture is drowning in fatherlessness and seems unable to get this most elemental requirement of healthy families right. So, our society suffers.

But the series “Cobra Kai” seems poised to change that—or, at least, to open up a serious conversation about the harmful effects of absentee dads.

The show, a YouTube original, began in 2018 and is a sequel of sorts to the 1984 classic, “Karate Kid.” It focuses mainly on the struggles and exploits of the now-washed-up Johnny Lawrence, Daniel LaRusso’s nemesis in the film. (As expected, Johnny doesn’t remember events in quite the same way Daniel does.)

The basic driver of the show’s two very good seasons (so far) is the feud between Johnny and Daniel, still very much alive—even more than 30 years after Daniel poached Ali Mills from Johnny and sent him to the floor with that iconic “crane kick” in the final round of the All-Valley Tournament. That angle alone would be interesting enough fodder to move the plot along—after all, it’s clearly unhealthy to carry around a 34-year-old grudge, especially about something so minor, in the grand scheme of things.

There is something deeper running under the hood, however: the absence of paternal figures in the lives of its key characters. This is the reason the show is so compelling. Each of the central characters is searching for what it means to be a man in a world where he lacks the firm guidance of a father.

Recall that Daniel’s father died when he was just eight years old. And in “Cobra Kai,” we get more of Johnny’s backstory: He was raised by a cruel, wealthy stepfather, Sid Weinberg, and found refuge from his torments under the tutelage of his merciless sensei, John Kreese.

In addition to Daniel’s and Johnny’s suboptimal fatherhood situations, two of the other central characters—Miguel Diaz and Robby Keene—are in many ways defined by their derelict fathers.

Miguel lives with his mother and grandmother; they fled from Ecuador after Miguel’s mother learned that her abusive husband, Miguel’s father, was some sort of gang member. The two women raised Miguel.

Robby Keene lives with his mother, a woman who drifts aimlessly from one romantic tryst to another to keep the lights on in their small apartment; his father is none other than Johnny Lawrence, who is told by Robby’s mother at one point at a bar that he, Johnny, “gave up on day one” when it came to being there for Robby, and for her.

Daniel finds in Mr. Miyagi a father to stand in place of his natural father, lost to him in death, and Johnny finds in Kreese both a shelter and a tutor in the ways of strength, in reaction to his callous stepfather, who, when the then-friendless, 12-year-old Johnny excitedly said he wanted to learn karate, was told: “I’ll write the goddamn check. I’ll make it out to garbage, because that’s where it’s gonna end up.”

Each of them is troubled in his own way, and their adopted fathers shape them through karate according to their respective visions of manhood. Daniel is taught that karate is for self-defense, defense of others, and to find balance in one’s life. Johnny, conversely, is taught to “strike first,” “strike hard,” and show “no mercy.”

Johnny takes Miguel under his wing after seeing him get beat up outside of a convenience store near the apartment complex where they both live. Miguel finds the father in Johnny he so conspicuously lacks and needs, even as Johnny, in pain, tells Miguel that on the day of his real son’s birth

instead of being up there, welcoming him into the world, I was down here, soaking up the booze from a three-day bender, trying to get the courage to walk across the street. I never got there. I failed my kid on his very first day in this world, and I’ve been failing him every day since.

Johnny’s self-awareness of his own inadequacies—and that failure in particular—is driven, in part, by the fact that Robby trains with Daniel, Johnny’s childhood enemy—as though Robby were Daniel’s own son. Robby was hired by Daniel (who, as an adult, is a bit self-righteous) to work at his luxury car shop, LaRusso Auto Group, a job Robby sought for the sole purpose of angering his dad. But, at the time, Robby was involved with a bad crew, and they try to pressure him to be an accomplice in their scheme to steal a car from Daniel’s shop. But his loyalty to the kind-hearted Daniel and his family gives him the inner courage to resist the siren song of ill-gotten money.

It is clear that the pain of fatherlessness manifests across each of the characters’ lives, well beyond the initial moments of absence. Daniel visibly struggles to know what Mr. Miyagi, a man old enough to have been his grandfather, would do in any given situation, and to balance being sensei of “Miyagi-Do” with being a husband and father. Johnny has before him a vision of masculinity ordered toward faux machismo and domination for personal gain, courtesy of Kreese. That is why he couldn’t find it within himself to stick to his marriage and to the son it produced. The tragic result is that Robby seeks a father in Daniel, just as Johnny did with Kreese—initially out of spite for Johnny, but, thankfully, it’s a relationship that eventually blossoms into something mutually beneficial and healthy for them both, unlike the one between Johnny and Kreese.

Nonetheless and understandably, this pains Johnny greatly, and that leaves him vulnerable to the return of Kreese, who is a very bad influence both on him and his dojo.

Even so, Johnny remains open to growth. There is a moment when Miguel’s mother, after learning of the vendetta between Johnny and Daniel, candidly tells him: “The only way to end a rivalry is for someone to rise above it. You have to be the bigger man.” It’s advice to which he is receptive and, indeed, acts upon and stands by, even when Kreese mocks him for going “soft.” If only Johnny’s real father had been around to teach him that lesson before he became a 50-something, bitter drunkard, stewing over lost love and stolen glory!

The show revolves around the actions and reactions of various fatherless males, and it showcases the cyclical, generational harm generated by missing dads. It’s an eminently human portrayal of the costs of family breakdown, and the lengths to which young men will go to find their place in the world—a world that will stop at nothing to convince them that their own egoism, status, and pleasure are the only reliable barometers for right action. It’s men like Mr. Miyagi who break the cycle, even if not perfectly. Perhaps Johnny can finally do the same.

Fathers matter. We ignore this basic fact to our collective detriment. Good on “Cobra Kai” for telling its audience the truth.

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Photo Credit: YouTube Premium/Hurwitz & Schlossberg Productions

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About Deion A. Kathawa

Deion A. Kathawa is an attorney who hails from America’s heartland. He holds a J.D. from the University of Notre Dame and a B.A. from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He is a 2021 alumnus of the Claremont Institute’s John Marshall Fellowship. Subscribe to his “Sed Kontra” newsletter.