How Cobra Kai Season 4 Explores the Classism at the Heart of Sam and Tory's Rivalry

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How <i>Cobra Kai</i> Season 4 Explores the Classism at the Heart of Sam and Tory's Rivalry

From its humble roots as a Youtube original series to reaching widespread popularity on Netflix, Karate Kid sequel series Cobra Kai delights in continuing to surprise audiences with its refreshing humor, sincerity, and a healthy dose of high school kids beating the living daylights out of each other each season. Though the series teeters the line of being just this side of corny, even the most outlandish of plot developments (Daniel learning Chi Blocking, anyone?) are balanced with the show’s remarkably grounded sensibilities when it comes to subjects like bigotry, homophobia, sexism, and—this season—classism. Where the original Karate Kid film positioned Daniel LaRusso as the underdog coming from humble means to topple the privileged, well-off bully Johnny Lawrence, Cobra Kai Season 4 flips the script with its complicated Samantha vs Tory storyline, challenging the expectations of both its audience and characters alike.

When we first reunited with Daniel and Johnny all the way back in Season 1 of Cobra Kai, their reversal of (literal) fortune seemed like some much-needed commumpance: Daniel is happily married with kids and living comfortably as the owner of a ritzy car dealership, while Johnny is a lonely drunkard, struggling to make ends meet as a handyman. The series (at least initially) presents their financial states as a fairly just and accurate reflection of who they are as people: Daniel is the hero of the story, and is rewarded financially for the suffering he had to endure at the hands of Johnny, who is now being retroactively “punished” for his misgivings. It’s a very straightforward, black-and-white approach to morality that equates financial success as a pseudo reward for morality: in line with the myth of the “American dream,” if you follow the right path and work hard enough, success will find its way to you.

But then again, Cobra Kai is a show that thrives on subverting expectations and refusing to subscribe to the aforementioned black-and-white morality established in the original film. So although Daniel and Johnny’s lives are presented as seemingly polar opposites when the show begins, the series isn’t content to simply let the LaRusso family skate by on the success of its patriarch; though Daniel may have “earned” his financial success from a storytelling perspective, his children haven’t—and nowhere is that more clear than in Season 4, where Samantha LaRusso goes from a privileged somewhat-brat to a full blown villain in her constant clashes with Cobra Kai student Tory Nichols.

To Samantha’s credit, it’s not as if her disdain from Tory comes out of nowhere: Sam spent the entirety of Season 3 traumatized after Tory attacked her with a spike bracelet during a brawl, Tory broke into Sam’s house in an attempt to attack her again, and it was Tory’s dojo that was responsible for Sam’s boyfriend Miguel being hospitalized for months with a crippling back injury. By rights we should be entirely Team Sam whenever the two girls clash; Tory has proven herself time and again to be a violent, borderline psychotic young woman hell-bent on making Sam’s life miserable.

But just as Cobra Kai works to ensure that neither Daniel nor Johnny are the flat-out good guy or bad guy of their stories, the series also explores the murky morality of the next generation of karate students by giving Tory a tragic, sympathetic backstory. She comes from a broken home with a terminally ill mother, her aunt constantly hounds her to collect disability checks that should be going to Tory, and she’s single handedly working to put food on the table for both herself and her little brother, all of which means that her ability to find and keep a job is critical. This is in stark contrast to Samantha LaRusso, who grew up with her father’s money, isn’t shown to have a job at any point during Cobra Kai, and drives around town in her own convertible.

While it’s not Samantha’s fault that she comes from money, over the course of Season 4 her vendetta against Tory begins to not only grow one-sided, but comes from a vicious place of “moral superiority.” Sam genuinely believes that Tory is evil to the core, and refuses to see her as anything but a miserable young woman attempting to make her life even worse. Sam’s single mindedness towards Tory is what allows her to spend the entirety of the season ridiculing her for things far outside the realm of their karate beef—like her struggles to hold down a job and the fact that she was expelled from school.

Sam’s cruelty, though initially coming from a somewhat understandable place of self-defensiveness after Tory’s multiple attacks on both Sam and her loved ones, goes to new heights in Season 4, to the point that it’s Tory who becomes the sympathetic figure, scrambling to keep her life together as Sam waltzes in and causes trouble both at work and at school. Sam’s privileged, bratty attitude (which prior to Season 4 has been present but not unmanageable) gets so bad that her mom ends up having to step in and defend Tory on multiple occasions—which is saying something, considering Amanda also started the season wanting nothing more than to see Tory behind bars and out of their lives for good.

Where Sam’s class-based privilege towards Tory manifests in ridiculing her for taking an embarrassing job (working as a party princess) to make end’s meet, Amanda’s equally privileged and out-of-touch approach to handling Tory is in treating her like a charity case: attempting to drop off groceries at her house, bending over backwards to get her back in school, and encouraging Tory to start attending therapy. To Amanda’s credit, the latter two do help Tory in the long run, but her motivation for reaching out and helping Tory in the first place isn’t coming from a place of genuinely wanting to help her, it’s Amanda trying to make herself feel better after being the reason Tory lost her job in the first place.

Though Cobra Kai has always enjoyed challenging its audiences to reconsider what makes a hero and what makes a villain, Season 4 takes this dynamic to new heights with the class-based clashes between Tory and the LaRusso women, transforming what should seem like a straightforward bad guy/good guy relationship into a murky quagmire where Tory emerges a sympathetic figure and Sam the pseudo bully. Their climactic fight at the end of the season gave Tory some (much needed) commumpance after enduring constant disdain and harassment from Sam, but as for the future of their intense rivalry, Cobra Kai will likely continue to paint their complicated relationship in shades of gray.

Lauren Coates is a freelance entertainment writer with a passion for sci-fi, an unhealthy obsession with bad reality television, and a constant yearning to be at Disney World. She has contributed to Paste since 2020. You can follow her on Twitter @laurenjcoates, where she’s probably talking about Star Trek.

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