For instance, what is the question for which Cobra Kai is an answer?
First of all, what is Cobra Kai? One of the most-watched streaming Netflix series, the third season of which was released January 2021, with the first and second season released on YouTube Red (2017, and 2018 respectively). The series presupposes four films, the first of which, The Karate Kid (1984), starred the principal characters of the series, Daniel LaRusso, and Johnny Lawrence, played by Ralph Machio and William Zabka respectively. Three sequels followed: The Karate Kid II (86) and III (89), and The Next Karate Kid (94). I treat the 2010 remake as negligible.
Here’s the deal, Cobra Kai is a Karate Dojo in Los Angeles whose students are taught by Sensei Kreese to “strike first, strike hard, and show no mercy,” that is, to win at any cost, even at the expense of honor and love. Students of this Dojo, led by star student Johnny Lawrence, rule the scene in highschool in 1984, which means they keep their regime in place through intimidation and force. As the new kid from New Jersey, Daniel LaRusso becomes their target, but refuses to kowtow, which in turn leads to an escalation until a mild mannered elderly Mr. Miyagi steps in, defeats Johnny and his buddies, takes in Daniel to teach him Miyagi-do Karate through methods that are counterintuitive but are actually enormously effective. Through staying true to the ultimate guiding principle of self-defence, Daniel overcomes the win-at-any-cost cheating method of Cobra Kai, and once exposed for the unethical cheaters they are, Cobra Kai is shut out of all approved karate competitions.
This narrative answers, among others, this question (or what McKee calls a “premise”): What if a good-hearted, rash-acting weakling is faced with implacable bullies? The narrative plays out one way it could go, and there are many other narratives that take it in a multitude of directions: think Rocky, Star Wars, Zoro, Gladiator, Hunger Games, etc.
But the question the series Cobra Kai is answering is slightly different: What happens when two great rivals, with roles reversed, meet again years after their legendary struggles? Johnny Lawrence lost to Danny LaRouso, the underdog, and as a result Danny becomes competent as a successful business and family man, well-respected in his community, and Johnny endlessly falls deeper and deeper into being a loser, no matter the earnestness of his misguided efforts, all the while haunted by the loss of his golden years of being top dog back in the 80s.
We could push it further, and that is precisely the whole point, as pushing it forward leads to laying out the whole narrative, to write it all out, guided by a controlling idea, say, for instance, through being authentic, owning up to our pretenses, we reveal ourselves to be something bigger than who we took ourselves to be, we grow through the challenge itself, leaving behind what kept us small the moment we rise to meet the challenge.
This requires a narrative where people suffer, and they do so because of an ignorance that makes the “other” into an enemy who we must defeat at all costs, or defend against at all costs, and only when it gets bad, the truth comes along and saves the day, allowing our prejudices that keep us "small" disintegrate in favor of what matters most in life (for instance, Hawk's turn during Cobra Kai's invasion of the LaRusso home). But the darkness (Cobra Kai) always comes back, bigger and badder, and so rather than succumb to it, honorable stand to take is to provide support and defense against “being an asshole."
To simplify: the idea that controls the narrative is that when we seek authenticity, casting aside our pretenses before they destroy us, truth and justice prevail. This counters the idea that guides Kreese's Cobra Kai: Striking first and hard and showing no mercy will lead to dominance of the field, and the exaltation that comes with complete mastery of the world--silencing your enemies and operating with impunity. But from the point of view of the controlling idea, it appears in a negative light: Striking first and hard and showing no mercy may allow you to rise to the top, but your going to be an asshole, that is, you will lose all that matters most in life: friendship, love, peace, creativity, accomplishment, true power, etc. It is interesting to note that the value that guides Kreese's Cobra Kai is the inverse of the value that drives Miyagi-do Karate. For Kreese, life does not show mercy when we are weak--it strikes first and hard, every time--and so there is no choice but to become the hand of reality itself.
Once we begin to engage in these thematic contrasts, what emerges is a constellation of what Gallop calls projections. For instance: toxic masculinity, or trumpism, the zero-sum game of winner takes all, where we leave no prisoners--that is what is being addressed here, and Johnny is ultimately the hero, as he begins to discover that only through “shedding” his Cobra Kai skin, again and again, does he grow beyond his ossified, juvenile projections about people, relationships with women, and about what it means to be a leader.