It's a blisteringly cold December day in Atlanta, Georgia, and I find myself sitting outside, watching something truly special. While it will be portrayed on-screen as a sunny day in California's San Fernando Valley, the set of Cobra Kai Season 2 was anything but warm when I arrived to watch former Miyagi-Do student Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) become the sensei he likely never expected to be.
The scene that unfolded in front of me is a rather simple one. Daniel is in the backyard of Mr. Miyagi's home, which was painstakingly recreated by the show's production team in an Atlanta parking lot, teaching one of his new students. Given that he trained under Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) in the Karate Kid films, though, the only way he knows to teach kids karate is through chores.
However, those are lessons from a different time. Now, as I sat in Miyagi's backyard while cameras rolled on LaRusso instructing a new student about how to sand the floor–"Left circle, right circle"–it hit me that even though Season 2 will bring Daniel full-circle in the same way Season 1 did Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), the lessons he's imparting aren't exactly the same as the ones he learned from Miyagi. Instead, like the Daniel character itself, Miyagi-Do has evolved.
"As a teacher, he carries on the legacy of Miyagi; he does not in any way bend that. Sometimes it takes him seeing that through a different prism to be able to relay it to today's generation," Macchio told GameSpot. "Mr. Miyagi took Daniel in because Daniel needed him, where now Daniel is going out and trying to get kids to sign on, that's a different story–not so easy. Therein lies some of the hurdles he has to jump through in the first half of the season to attempt to build Miyagi-Do up and to show a better way in his mind."
For the producers, LaRusso's story mimics Daniel's in many ways. As the character tries to live up to the image of his mentor, the actor is doing the same when it comes to how Morita brought Miyagi to life. "Playing that student all those years and having to step into the Mr. Miyagi role of Miyagi-Do Karate, it's challenging for [Daniel],” executive producer Josh Heald explains. “It's something that [Macchio] really wants to live up to as best he can to do Pat Morita's performance justice, just as Daniel LaRusso wants to live up to Mr. Miyagi.".
Daniel's attempt to live up to the example set by his mentor isn't necessarily coming from a selfless place, though. "First, it's about taking down Cobra Kai and then the Miyagi-ism of it all is it's not about taking them down. It's about showing people a better way," he explained.
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While Season 1 showed that Johnny had matured in many ways and that his vision of Cobra Kai wasn't that of his former sensei Kreese (Martin Kove), he and Daniel were still constantly at odds. Even when, as adults, cooler heads should prevail, Daniel simply can't help himself in wanting to cut down his one-time foe, who Macchio refers to as his character's "kryptonite."
"The toughest thing for Daniel, and it's been really interesting in playing the adult Daniel, is that he has this wisdom. He sees the direction. He's able to shed that upon his students," the actor explained. "But when his kryptonite is in the room, when Johnny Lawrence comes in or the Cobra Kai teachings begin to influence, he snaps back to that knee-jerk kid with a temper."
The situation certainly isn't helped by the fact that Miyagi-Do is competing with a dojo in Cobra Kai that is infinitely cooler than one where the guy in charge tells you so do his yard work. "It's interesting, [Daniel] gains more students [and] he thought it would be a lot easier than it is because, in retrospect, when you go out there, Cobra Kai is a lot sexier looking than [Miyagi-Do]," Macchio jokes. "So it's tough to recruit, and you'll see [in] the first half of the season that's a big challenge for Daniel, as a guy who's found a great woman and a great family and a great business in the car dealerships. And yet he has every resource possible but it's not so easy to sell people on, 'You do these chores, [and] you're going to do some martial arts.'"
As executive producer John Hurwitz explained it, this uphill climb was essentially in rebuilding Daniel after Season 1. "[With] Johnny Lawrence [in] Season 1, we did everything we could to tear that character down to the studs. You have no choice but to relate and be sympathetic to him because of everything he's been through whereas Daniel owns a car dealership, he's got a big house, he's got a nice family, [and] everyone's pretty well adjusted," he told GameSpot. "So the underdog thing happens when you least expect it because, just on the surface, Miyagi-Do Karate is not as sexy as Cobra Kai. You're not being asked to strike first, you're being asked to have a lot of patience and balance and a lot of these zen philosophies that make Miyagi-Do Karate not immediately the shiny new thing that every teenager in town can't wait to have."
Those Miyagi-Do teachings, though, and the setting where Daniel passes them to the students he's able to gather, were especially emotional for Macchio, who's been living with this franchise for 35 years.
"I say at the end of Season 1, 'Welcome to Miyagi-Do Karate.' This is not a spoiler, but for me, when I was walking on that [Mr. Miyagi's house] set–even though it's a rebuild, it's not the place where we shot it 35 years ago–there were moments in scenes where I'm passing on those teachings, teaching him how to paint the fence and sand the deck or whatever," the actor remembered. "It got emotional in a way that I said to the guys, 'This is so strange because this is where all the magic happened.'"
He continued, "I know this show is Cobra Kai. I know Cobra Kai is the angle into the world. Someone may beg to differ, but the heart and soul and magic of the franchise is with Pat. With Mr. Miyagi and that boy, that Daniel, that fish out of water character that needed that guidance to navigate his adolescence and the sheer soulful magic that happened… It was a little bit nostalgic for me to know that those days are in my past, [as] John Hamilton who directed that film and Pat Morita who starred in that film and Jerry Weintraub who produced that film are no longer with us."
Even without them, though, their legacy is forever imprinted on this franchise, and there's no better proof of that than Daniel's Season 2 journey. After being portrayed as something of a villain in Johnny's Season 1 story, the original Karate Kid is doing exactly what his former foe did. He's trying to use the lessons he learned from martial arts to better the youth in his community. In doing so, maybe Daniel will realize he has more in common with Johnny than he'd like to believe. "Different, but same," as Mr. Miyagi would say.
Cobra Kai Season 2 premieres Wednesday, April 24, on YouTube Premium.