A major Karate Kid character has finally made her Cobra Kai debut.
Season 3 of the martial arts dramedy hit Netflix Friday, and along with it came the return of a Miyagi-verse favorite. Elisabeth Shue’s Ali Mills, a former love interest of both Johnny and Daniel’s, returned to the Valley to reconnect with her exes, offering an outsider’s perspective and a bit of wisdom that helped squash the lingering tension between the two senseis.
Her return was highly teased in the series’ second season, which ended with Ali sending Johnny a friend request on Facebook. But in Episode 9 of the latest run, Shue appeared at last, arriving just in time to unite the former nemeses so they can begin preparing for the bigger battle ahead: taking down John Kreese and Cobra Kai once and for all.
Here, TVLine talks to executive producers and co-showrunners Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg about how they kept Shue’s appearance mum, why Season 3 was the perfect time to bring her back, and why Ali became “the force that brings Daniel and Johnny together.”
TVLINE | How were you able to keep Elisabeth’s return such a well-guarded secret?
HEALD | We just threatened everybody! [Laughs] We discussed with all of the performers: ‘Do not post anything to social media, do not comment to your friends or loved ones. Please keep this secret.’ We had [everyone] sign pretty strict non-disclosure agreements with unspecified consequences — I have no idea what they were — but it was enough that it worked, apparently. We also just led with a big warm hug of like, ‘Hey, look around and see how special this is. Imagine how special it will be if people can discover it as a surprise.’ We operate like that with a lot of storylines on this show. We’re probably annoying to work with on some level for the marketing department because we’re always asking for the splashiest and sexiest moments to be left out of the marketing campaign entirely.
But we hark back to that age where there wasn’t an internet. You weren’t bombarded with new clips every day and first look pictures, and the barrage of material that now has become commonplace and necessary to pull in an audience in such a fragmented world. We remember going to the movies and discovering something for the first time that wasn’t in the trailer or commercial, and how magical that was. That’s harder to pull off these days, but that doesn’t mean we won’t keep trying to do that.
TVLINE | I’d imagine it was similar to the big Season 1 finale reveal?
HEALD | We did it with Kreese in the first season. Martin Kove is one of the great champions of the show, and we love that, but that whole first season, there were a lot of therapeutic phone calls of asking him to please not say anything. The moment it’s discovered, it will be an explosion, and you’ll be able to talk about it forever because people will want to. It’ll just be that much bigger. So that was the test balloon, I would say, for keeping the secret with Ali.
TVLINE | Were there ever any plans to bring her in at the very beginning? Why wait until Season 3 to re-introduce Ali?
SCHLOSSBERG | We reached out to [Shue] somewhere during Season 2, after there was a show she could see. We knew she was aware of the show, and had seen it and liked it. We had good vibes about the potential of being able to work with her when the time was right. For the fanbase that is following this story, the hardcore fans, it’s such a big moment to bring her into the story, so we really wanted it to be perfect.
We didn’t know 100 percent if we would get her because there’s all sorts of external factors that could happen. But as soon as we got the greenlight to do Season 3, it was one of the first things we discussed with Sony and our casting. We really wanted to make sure that she would be there at the end of the season, and everything worked out the way you’d hope it would when it came time to getting that whole deal done.
TVLINE | Using social media in the storyline starting in Season 2 seemed like the perfect way to tease her return.
SCHLOSSBERG | From the very beginning we loved the idea of playing her character, at first, through the eyes of Johnny looking at her life through social media. That’s something we felt a lot of people could relate to when it comes to old flames and friends from the past. We knew that Johnny was interested in her and we loved the idea of him seeing her on Facebook and seeing her life which is seemingly perfect. But then when you do meet her at the end of the season, it’s not all roses. She’s dealing with her own issues, and that was the story we pitched to her that I think she got interested in, and something that is relatable to a lot of people. The grass is always greener when you’re seeing somebody’s life on social media, and it leads to a lot of comedy, but also some real moments with them. Ultimately, of course, it was just poetic having her be the force that brings Daniel and Johnny together at the end of the season.
TVLINE | Let’s talk a bit about Ali’s effect on Johnny. I love the line when she tells him, “You have a future to find,” as if she’s championing his future. What did he learn from her and why did he need that reunion?
HURWITZ | Johnny’s life has been a mess for so long. He’s a guy who has self-sabotaged at times in his life, so to be at this place where he’s starting to connect with a woman and have the anxiety of like, ‘OK, I might get involved with someone in a serious way, [and it’s] the mother of my top karate student/surrogate son figure,’ there’s the typical jitters. He’s clearly been hung up on Ali for all these years in one way or another, so to be able to see her again and get a little taste of the past with her, but also perspective of adult life, it’s strong for him not only on the side of his love life, but also in terms of LaRusso and the approach with Daniel.
Her involvement in those scenes with Johnny and Daniel at the country club ends up causing these two guys who can’t seem to take a moment to reflect on their own roles and whatever issues they may have to perhaps realize that maybe they’re not so different after all. Even though she hasn’t seen them in so many years, just getting to spend a little bit of time with them again and be reminded of who they were in high school, she recognizes that maybe she could give them both a little bit of wisdom that can help them move forward.
TVLINE | The scene at Golf N’ Stuff when Johnny and Ali are on the bench outside: Why did you stop short of having them kiss?
HEALD | We went back and forth on that almost-kiss and we came really close to maybe saying it could’ve been a real kiss. Ultimately, we wanted to preserve that moment on the steps when she helps Johnny realize that his life makes sense with Carmen in it, and we didn’t want to feel like he needed to have a little bit of a dalliance to get there. It was more of an emotional connection [with Ali] than a physical one. That should be the takeaway there.
TVLINE | With Cobra Kai already renewed for a fourth season, is there any chance we’ll see Ali again?
HEALD | We won’t comment on what our future plans are with anybody who’s a legacy character from those movies other than to say that we have a long story left to tell. We always leave the door wide open for anybody from the Miyagi-verse to come in and out of the series.