Maybe 'Cobra Kai's Johnny Lawrence, played by William Zabka, isn't such a bad guy after all
Producers Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald shed light on 'Cobra Kai' Season 1's central character ahead of the release of the second season
Spoiler alert for 'Cobra Kai' Season 1
"Ex-degenerate man. 8 AM tomorrow, I’m a senior. I’ve got one year to make it all work, and that's what I'm gonna do… make it work. All of it!" says a pumped up Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) in 'The Karate Kid' (1984). The movie shows him as the Cobra Kai dojo's top student, one destined to make it big in the world of martial arts until he comes across Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). And what happens next, as they say, is history.
It's isn't hard to assume that most martial arts movies antagonists looked at Johnny as the influence. For instance, 'Never Back Down' (2008) and 'The Karate Kid' (2010) are a couple of prime examples where the protagonist's nemesis is your typical star-athlete, oozes cockiness and of course, is a first-class bully.
Coming back to Johnny, it's evident this was a boy who was keen on being the best and would do whatever it takes to be the best martial artist. Under the tutelage of John Kreese (Martin Kove), who founded the Cobra Kai dojo, Johnny comes as a keen-as-a-mustard kid who laps up every little lesson that is taught to him. The dojo's creed of 'Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy' too is deeply ingrained in him, one that he struggles to get rid of later in his life (More about that later).
As we see Johnny's downward spiral after his defeat to LaRusso in the All Valley Under 18 Championship, one cannot help but feel sorry to him. Kreese's post-tournament assault doesn't help his case either and he well... just vanishes soon after. Only, to be shown as a passed out alcoholic 34 years later. Between 'The Karate Kid' and 'Cobra Kai', it is established that his life has gone downhill. He hates his home-improvement worker job, hasn't come to terms with a failed relationship and a son whom, he always neglected, and in the eyes of everyone else, he's just a washout.
At this juncture, Johnny is shown as a man in shambles, but with good in his heart. The earliest example is of him rescuing Miguel from a bunch of bullies. Clearly, this was a man who wanted to change. But without a guiding force, it just seemed like Johnny had no other way out of the mess he had put himself in. LaRusso, on the other hand, was shown as a man who had sorted out his life with a bunch of car dealerships in the country.
Echoing the thought, "Unlike Johnny, LaRusso is successful and has a more settled life, while he does struggle to come into terms without Mr. Miyagi's presence in his life, he's still in a far better state than Johnny," felt Hayden Schlossberg, one of the three creators of 'Cobra Kai' along with Josh Heald and Jon Hurwitz.
"For Johnny, it was always about one step forward and two steps back," said Josh Heald. He also felt that his character in the series was not too dissimilar like Mr. Miyagi, who too went through a fair bit of turmoil and went into a shell.
And finally, when Johnny decides to reopen the Cobra Kai dojo with Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) as his student, one can sense that this is would be a fresh start for a worn-out Johnny Lawrence.
For Johnny, setting up the dojo and having Miguel followed by a bunch of students later on in the series meant that his character now had a sense of purpose. "His relationship with Miguel is optimistic and his growth as a teacher is the most important moment in the series," added Heald, when talking about Johnny as the central character in the series.
By the end of the series, it's not hard to figure that Johnny was just a man, who lived his life being influenced by the people in his life. That one moment that defines Johnny as a good man, was when he advises Miguel to win, but not at the cost of playing dirty, a stark contrast to 'Sweep The Leg' instruction by Kreese when he battled LaRusso in the final.
Even after the win, Johnny is still shown to be sorry. Sorry for two reasons: his son (who was clearly the frontrunner to win if not for a bit of dirty pool by Miguel), and that maybe, just maybe, he could have been the father that he always should have been to Robby.
Finally, it is a pleasing sight to see the character come to terms with the person he is and put sincere attempts to make peace with himself. On how he forges a path forward is something we'll know when 'Cobra Kai Season 2' hits the small screen on April 24, 2019.