Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody
– Bob Dylan
One of the reason that Attack on Titan is so engrossing is the character development. Some are fun for superficial reasons, like my favorite, Jean. Others are made interesting by their complex motivations, like Reiner, or by their role in the complex story, like Erwin. And then there’s Kenny Ackerman, who undergoes a most unexpected and authentic transformation that is as satisfying at that of any character’s in Attack on Titan.
As Kenny lays dying, he struggles to live not because he’s afraid of death (though he admits that)—it’s because he has one final thing he must do. He knows Levi, revealed as his nephew, very well, and expects that he will find him before the end. He does.
With his final words (to me, one of the best anime quotes about life), Kenny explains what he’s learned, which in summation, is that everyone is a slave to something. He lists a number of those things, like alcohol and religion, but the ultimate conclusion is the same. As Casey put it in an earlier article describing the same scene in the manga, “As human beings, we must be slaves to something. It is in our nature to serve—whether our master be God, other people, an idea, an object, an idol, nature, or ourselves, we must become a slave to something.”
Although Kenny’s murderous life cannot be excused, it is no doubt the product of the discrimination and killing of his people. The violent and selfish man he became naturally bent himself toward power, and set the final journey of his life upon getting the power that Uri held, the power of the Founding Titan. But ultimately, and against every fiber of Kenny’s being, his final act demonstrated that before he realized it, because of his deep friendship with Uri and the grace that Uri showed him, he actually served a different cause. Instead of increasing his life, he chose to give that power to Levi, an “adopted son” whom he loved, a gift that is literally life. Kenny had become a slave to something completely different.
Kenny, the most vile of men, had at the end of his life, been redeemed.
I encourage you to read Casey’s earlier article on this same scene, but from the manga—it does a better job diving into the redemptive aspects of this episode, as well as the slave analogy, than I ever could: Kenny Ackerman: the Pursuit of Fulfillment and the Power of Testimony.