The following contains spoilers for Cobra Kai season 3.
When Tory Nichols (Peyton List) first appeared in Cobra Kai, she was the best red herring ever. She introduced herself in season 2 episode 4 “The Moment of Truth” as “Tory… with a ‘Y’” and every fan of the original film went ballistic. In The Karate Kid, Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) introduced herself to Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) as “Ali… with an ‘I’” so we all wondered if Tory might be Ali’s daughter.
Then season 3 leads us on even more. In the second episode of this season, “Nature vs Nurture,” there’s a scene set in Tory’s apartment. She is caring for her invalid mother, but her mom is off screen. We don’t see her. Why would they hide her if she wasn’t Ali?
Well, it wasn’t Ali. But Ali makes a glorious return all the same in episodes 9 and 10, “Feel the Night” and “December 19” and she’s far from being an invalid. As Johnny says, she looks “amazing.” She opens her reappearance in the penultimate episode by saying “It’s good to be back.”
Dr. Ali Mills Schwarber
Just like Johnny and Daniel, every fan of the Karate Kid franchise still burns a candle for Ali. She was “beyond cute” as Daniel said back in the day, plus she had a fierce independence, defiant against social class snobbery as the privileged Encino cheerleader who fell for the poor Reseda new kid. Ali was way out of Daniel’s league, perhaps out of Johnny’s too. The Karate Kid was Shue’s first major film role and she shined. Previously she had been featured in a Burger King commercial alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar and Lea Thompson. Eleven years after The Karate Kid, Shue’s talent was recognized with a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Leaving Las Vegas.
In a conversation with Den of Geek prior to the premiere, Cobra Kai stars Macchio and Zabka revealed that they were just as excited as the fanbase was to get Shue back in the fold.
“Oh, it was great working with her again,” said Zabka. “We got along really well on The Karate Kid and I bumped into her over the years. I never thought we’d be back together, working as Johnny and Ali, certainly. But working with her was just like picking up, playing tennis with an old partner. It was natural and fun and great and easy. We laughed a lot. We couldn’t believe it. There’s a special bond we all share from that time, like high school best friends or your college friends. Those kinds of relationships snap back effortlessly, and pick up where they left off and that’s what it was.”
“Yeah, there is a sweet kind of connection,” agrees Macchio, “something that’s kind of unspoken because we all came out of this film that has become way bigger than any of us, as far as the consciousness in the world, consciousness in the love for that story. So, we share that and it’s kind of unspoken. And so it was really kind of wonderful to tap into all that.
“When we were shooting, she said, ‘I forget how natural a partner you are to work with.’ Because it was 30-something years ago, and I felt the same way. There was an ease of which we connected just like Billy is talking about.”
Returning to Golf ‘N’ Stuff and the Encino Oaks Country Club
When Johnny reunites with Ali, they have “35 years of stuff to say.” They meet for lunch and in a moment of honesty, Johnny confesses how he screwed everything up to her, apologizing for taking her for granted back in the day, including running over her radio. Ali reciprocates by telling him that she’s separated from her ex, Greg, opening the door to rekindling their relationship. In another scene, after Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) tells Daniel that Johnny told him Ali was his first love. Daniel says she was his first too. “There was just something about her,” says Daniel. “I thought she was the one.”
After lunch, Ali and Johnny go to Golf ‘N’ Stuff, the same arcade Daniel and Ali went to for their first date.
“During some of our date at Golf ‘N’ Stuff, we just laughed most of the time and got to know each other even better and what’s happened over the years for us personally, which fed into these performances together,” Zabka says.
The characters discuss their kids, Johnny’s son Robbie (Tanner Buchanan) and Ali’s, Lucas, who excels at soccer (soccer plays a major component in The Karate Kid, as well as in season 3 episode 4 of Cobra Kai “The Right Path”) and Ava, who is in a punk band. Ali invites Johnny to a party at Encino Oaks Country Club, another great throwback to The Karate Kid. The Encino Oaks Country Club was where Daniel tried to meet Ali but Johnny blocks him and Daniel ends up covered in spaghetti in his all white outfit. In the Cobra Kai finale, Johnny narrowly misses getting spaghetti spilled on him when he arrives at the club in a white Scarface-style sports jacket.
Ali Did NOT Wreck Daniel’s ’47 Ford
For Shue, Cobra Kai gave closure to something that has bothered her for three and a half decades. Ali only appeared in The Karate Kid and at the end, Daniel and Ali made a cute couple. However, when the sequel began, Shue had moved on. She had already put her college education on hold to pursue acting, leaving Harvard one semester shy of her degree (she eventually returned to earn her B.A in Poli-Sci in 2000).
After The Karate Kid, she starred in the ABC TV series Call to Glory and landed the lead role in Adventures in Babysitting soon after. Shue never returned as Ali and the character was unceremoniously written out. At the start of The Karate Kid Part II, Daniel tells Miyagi that Ali crashed his precious waxed on, waxed off ’47 Ford that Miyagi gave him and dumped him for a football player. That cleared the way for Daniel to fall for Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) in the sequel, but it left Ali in the lurch.
In the Cobra Kai season 3 finale, Ali spies Daniel at the Encino Oaks Country Club and greets him with how he introduced himself to her in the original, “Daniel…with an ‘L.’” When Johnny joins them, they are immediately at odds. Ali feels the tension and starts diffusing it, asking if she’s going to have to put them both on a time out. Then Daniel’s wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) shows up and Ali shares tales of their senior year. She explains that she didn’t leave Daniel for a football player (he was just a friend) and that she had warned him about the brakes failing. Daniel denies telling Miyagi otherwise, even though he did.
“For her, for Ali and Daniel, it ended in such an odd way at the beginning of The Karate Kid Part II,” says Macchio. “It was sort of like a one-line write-off of her character, and I know that bothered her over the years. It may have bothered everyone.”
Nevertheless, working with Shue again was a special treat. As Ali, she got to help resolve a feud that was mostly sparked by her character. Macchio explains, “We laughed together and it was sweet to be the three of us, kind of for the first time, playing scenes that weren’t about, “I’m going to kill you LaRusso,” and, “You’re such a jerk, Johnny Lawrence.” And it was kind of a nice for her to sort of facilitate them seeing clearer through the fog of who they actually were, meaning Johnny and Daniel.”
Ali works her magic on the boys and manages to get them to reconcile. It’s something that seemed inevitable, but only Ali could achieve it. “The truth is you guys are more alike than you want to admit,” says Ali sagaciously. And she would know.
If Ali Isn’t Tory’s Mom, Who Is?
This all leaves one outstanding mystery. Who is Tory’s mom? If Cobra Kai is looking to place more Easter eggs, there aren’t a lot of female characters left in the franchise. Could it be Jessica Kennedy (Robyn Lively) from Karate Kid Part III? She was originally scripted to be Daniel’s third love interest but at the time of filming, Lively was only 17. Macchio’s Karate skill lies in his baby face. He was already 22 when he first played the teenage Daniel. And by the time of the threequel, he was 27. Since Lively was a minor, Jessica’s relationship with Daniel was rewritten to be a close friend.
Another possibility for Tory’s mom might be Miyagi’s other pupil, Julie Pierce, from The Next Karate Kid, the fourth and final film in the Miyagi tetralogy. That was the breakthrough role for Oscar winner, Hilary Swank. The Next Karate Kid lacked any of the characters from the previous films except for Morita and it was transplanted from Los Angeles to Boston. This killed that magical chemistry between Daniel and Miyagi. The fourth film flopped. Nevertheless, Swank’s burgeoning talent was evident. Despite a mediocre story, Swank’s performance as Julie shines as the only redeeming aspect of the film. So far, Cobra Kai hasn’t ventured into Julie territory yet, but it would be so cool if it did.
Perhaps Tory’s mom won’t be significant in season 4. It could never hold a candle to Ali. Ali’s return made the conclusion of season 3 into one of the best episodes of the entire series. And the door is wide open for Ali to return again next season. The fanbase is hopeful. As Ali says, “Sometimes it’s good to visit the past, to know where you are now. But you can’t live in the past.” Score a point for Mills.
Cobra Kai season 3 is available on Netflix.