A look at what makes Kenny Ackermann such a tragic character
Attack on Titan's third season is halfway done, so now is a good time to take a spoiler-filled look back at one of the most interesting new characters, Kenny Ackermann AKA Kenny the Ripper. Kenny was introduced at the start of the season as a wild card, an experienced serial killer with a fondness for cowboy hats and a history with Levi. It's only when he's lying on the ground dying that we learn the truth: Kenny has lived a fundamentally sad life.
Kenny's life as a serial killer began with him killing Military Police, using the persecution his family had faced as an excuse to show off the strength he was so proud of. That all changed when he attempted to kill Uri Reiss, a Titan shifter who easily overwhelmed Kenny. What shook him up so much wasn't Uri's power, but Uri's kindness. Uri could've easily killed him, but instead bowed down and apologized for the government's treatment of the Ackermann family. In doing so, Uri completely upended Kenny's worldview.
To Kenny, power is everything. Those who have power can do whatever they want to those who don't. Kenny lived his whole life that way, and yet Uri's actions completely contradicted that view. There was someone stronger than Kenny had believed possible bowing down and humbling himself before someone weaker. Kenny pledged himself to Uri in the hope that he would be able to figure out what made Uri so different. Sadly, he was blinded to the truth by his own myopic beliefs.
Kenny spent years observing Uri's altruism and genuine desire to build a better world, a dream that was later passed on to Frieda. In doing so, he grew to envy their ability to be so kind to others. He tried to understand how they could be so kind with no benefit to themselves, and ultimately concluded that it was because they were strong. Uri and Frieda both had the power of the Founding Titan, which made them the strongest people Kenny knew. In Kenny's world, strength is all that matters, so the only way he could understand Uri was by connecting Uri's kindness to his power. Uri was the strongest and kindest person Kenny knew, so the two had to be connected in his mind. Kenny grew to envy Uri's kindness, wishing he could be a better person as well. Unfortunately, Kenny's only conclusion was that he should try to obtain the same power that Uri and Frieda posessed, hoping that being strong would also make him kind.
This is why Kenny's life is such a sad story. Here's someone who wanted to be better than he was, but couldn't understand kindness and altruism as anything divorced from power. Kenny's world doesn't allow for someone to act for reasons beyond their own power, so the only way he could reconcile Uri showing weakness in front of him was by concluding that it too was an expression of power. Living like that kept Kenny from ever connecting with anyone on a deeper level, leaving him alone with his idea of power. Even later, when he and Uri had grown to be friends (of a sort), Kenny still couldn't understand what drove Uri, couldn't view the world from anyone else's perspective.
Even at the end, when he realized that people didn't always act based on power, he couldn't completely divorce that revelation from his fundamental beliefs. He finally understood that people weren't just driven by power, that everything from basic physical desires to higher ideals of love and family could motivate people. Even so, he couched that realization in the same language of power that he had always used, saying that everyone was a "slave" to something, implying that what he saw was still the same world of power and powerlessness that he had always lived in. All that his realization told him was that ideas have power over people, not that people can choose to be better, to have goals of their own for no other reason than their own desire. It's a step on the right path, to be sure, but still far from truly understanding others.
In the end, Kenny lived a sad and lonely life precisely because he tied everything in the world to his idea of power. His world didn't hold room for altruism or kindness for their own sake, only examples of people showing their power. Kenny never understood one of Attack on Titan's core ideas: having hope, having something to drive you forward, is what makes you free. Even confined inside the walls, people like Eren are able to keep moving and living because they have something driving them forward, something Kenny lacks. Whether it's Eren's desire to destroy the Titans or Uri's desire to build a utopia within the walls. Without anything driving him beyond the idea of being the strongest, Kenny was never able to grow as a person or learn what drove people like Uri to be more. He came close to the truth near the end, but ultimately died before ever reaching his goal. So ended Kenny the Ripper.
Skyler has been an anime fan since he first saw Naruto on Toonami in 2005. He loves action shows and strong character writing, and finds writing about himself in the third person awkward. Read more of his work at his blog apieceofanime.com and follow him on Twitter at Videogamep3.