Back in 1984, Elisabeth Shue played the crucial character of Ali Mills, in The Karate Kids, who put into motion many of the events in the film and was the prime catalyst for the rivalry between Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence. Ever since Cobra Kai began in 2018, fans were eager to see the beloved character make a comeback and were further stoked by Season 2's finale episode that confirmed her return. But truth is that Shue didn't confirm her return to the showrunners even when the production of Season 3 was underway and they had to build an alternate (but pretty compelling) storyline just in case.
Remember how Season 2 of Cobra Kai ended? We saw an angry and disturbed Johnny toss his cell phone into the surf, having no idea that Ali (who is now Dr. Ali Mills Schwarber) had read his message on Facebook and sent him a friend request. Throughout the first and second season of the show, Ali had been mentioned by Johnny who reminisced how Daniel "stole" the one good thing in his life and how she is now a pediatric surgeon in Denver married to a doctor.
All that Ali talk, combined with the unexpected revelation in the Season 2 finale, was a sure sign that Elisabeth Shue was going to make her debut in the Netflix series. But the real twist is that the actress was not tapped in to reprise her popular character from Karate Kid even after production of Season 3 of Cobra Kai had begun as she was working on a tight schedule.
Ralph Macchio recently shared in an interview that while Shue's addition to the show was in the works, "but the t's were crossed and i's were dotted not long before she arrived, so it was during the season."
"There was always a back-up plan and a back-up ending. There was a hard out date where they needed that decision and it was right up to the clock striking 12. But it was a big relief and we got to all tango together again and, like I said, there's some connection that's bigger than us with this cast."
But the showrunners still had a back-up plan ready in case Shue's unavailability made her addition to the story impossible. The alternate story would have been that it wasn't Ali but her husband who sent Johnny the friend request and had been the one responding to his messages. "That was the fallback, the 'how are we gonna vacuum ourselves out of the room' from what we've written," Macchio shared in a recent media roundtable for the series.
Thankfully, the alternate storyline wasn't needed as Elizabeth Shue finally returned as Ali and once again met up with Daniel and Johnny in Season 3's episode 9 and 10. Both Shue and the series creators- Jon Hurwitz, Josh Heald and Hayden Schlossberg- didn't want Ali's return to be mere fan service- as Zabka explained, they expected her comeback to play a significant role to the story that was already in place.
"She approached it the way we did at the very beginning of this, where she's very protective of the character and wanted to be represented correctly and for her to not just be thrown into the show for the sake of saying, 'There's Ali,' but that she has a good story. All those things lined up and it was awesome working with her. It was like old times."
Ali returns in Episode 9, "Feel the Night" back to her childhood home for the holidays and we get to know that she has two kids but has recently separated from her husband, Greg. She meets up with Johnny who has recently given a second chance to his relationship with Carmen. Over lunch, the two remember the old days and Johnny apologizes for not treating her right when they were in a relationship. They spend the day at Golf N' Stuff, steadily getting closer and nearly end up kissing before a text from Ali's mom, reminding her of a Christmas Party she is supposed to attend, breaks up the moment.
Episode 10, "December 19" brings the nostalgia train full circle as Ali comes across Daniel ("with an L") and his wife, Amanda at the party. She manages to achieve what fans of Daniel and Johnny rarely get to see- for the rivals to amicably talk to each other without it all ending in a major fight. They have dinner while remembering the good old days and we also get to know why Daniel and Ali really broke up back then.
While Ali's presence was just a cameo, she provides an alternative to the years-old debate of who actually was the bully between Daniel and Johnny. As Ali puts it, there are not just two but three sides to the story and the third is the truth that both Daniel and Johnny have good and bad qualities. The reason for the continued friction between the two, as Ali explains, is because they are "more alike than you want to admit" and when they see themselves reflected in the other, instead of accepting it as something the other, too, is guilty of, they get defensive. Of the two, no one is completely bad or just plain good- they both are grey-shaded characters.
For those who had been looking for a middle road between the "Daniel/Johnny is the real bully" theories, this does serve as a satisfying answer, followed by the sweetest moment of the season, which is, FYI Macchio's personal favourite as well.
"She had a moment where I come back and I want to apologize for years back and she cuts me off. When I turn to leave, it's such a genuine moment on her face and they put the Karate Kid little love story music under it, and it just really was an 'awww' moment for me. It sort of tied it up. I didn't know it when we shot it because I'm leaving and it was me turning away, and you just stay on her for that moment and there was a whole story in her eyes there that I thought really captured the heart of that sweet little adolescent romance from 36 years ago."
Oh, it so did! We would be lying if we didn't want Daniel and Ali to get back together somehow- yes, yes, we know there is an Amanda now but that last scene between the two sure set hearts racing once again. The above quotes come to us via Collider.