This, thankfully, was much less unpleasant than I was anticipating. That doesn't mean it was a particularly good episode, but it also didn't deal in anything anti-Semitic, which I was concerned it might, given the source for the episode's title, Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice. (Granted, that also means that Funimation has even less of an excuse for its use of the term “shylock” a few episodes back, but hopefully that will be changed for the disc release and the dub.) While many things happen in that play, the scene most people tend to be familiar with is when Shylock, the Jewish merchant, seeks to claim his pound of flesh from Antonio, the man who didn't repay his debt. This is the inspiration for William's own youthful bargain in the episode, and while it's a nice demonstration of his intelligence, it's also not entirely relevant to what's been going on.
The episode is framed by the discovery of Charles Augustus Milverton that the Lord of Crime (or at least one of them) is William James Moriarty – and that the man calling himself that isn't the original middle Moriarty brother. He figures this out thanks to an old court file documenting the resounding victory of a couple of orphans over a peer of the realm, Lord Baxter, who tried to cheat an orphanage out of three hundred pounds. That's an enormous amount of money for the 19th century, and Baxter's claim that he was going to use it to secure a site for a new orphanage was, sadly, enough to convince the matron. When Baxter reneged, little Will and Louis decided to make him suffer for it.
There are a few issues with this episode, and at least two of them come from the subtitles. Baxter is referred to as both “lord” and “mr.”, which doesn't make it entirely clear if this is one of Will's early victories over the peerage or just him taking down a rich asshole. While that doesn't seem to make a whole lot of difference in the short term, if we're framing this episode in the context of William growing up to become the Lord of Crime with a master plan to dismantle an oppressive society, the nature of Baxter's class is something that really does need to be established. It's also difficult to believe that a couple of kids could amass six hundred pounds doing favors, advising, and odd jobs, but what's more unconvincing is that they'd keep it to themselves when part of the point of this episode is painting Will as a friend to the downtrodden, meaning specifically the orphanage. Yes, he wants to get Baxter for his duplicity, but would he do that knowing that if he fails he won't have any cash to help feed himself, his brother, and their friends? Something about it doesn't quite track. (We won't even get into him representing himself in court, because that's more in line with typical anime absurdity and therefore gets a pass.) Less of an issue but still worth mentioning are two more little pieces that make this a slightly less well put together episode than usual: in the illustrations of The Merchant of Venice Shylock is missing his yarmulke, which is present in nearly all official illustrations of the character to reinforce his ethnicity, and the matron of the orphanage is consistently referred to as the “madam” of the orphanage, which has an entirely different connotation.
Those issues aside, seeing a reminder of Will and Louis' past isn't a bad thing. We know how things eventually worked out for them, but this is more about how they got to that point in the first place; them honing their strategy, if you will. William knows just how far to push Baxter to get what he wants, though he does appear prepared to go farther if he has to. More amusingly, he's the kid who makes up algebra problems for fun during his free time, which absolutely tells us a lot about his personality; that he's helping his friends to solve them foreshadows him becoming a teacher, which seems to be something he does genuinely enjoy. It's a bit of a look at who he could have been had life been kinder to him, and there's something very bittersweet about that.
But his life is what it is, and he's certainly working with it. Part of that means finding out who his most dangerous nemeses are, hence him laying a trap with the court files. He has his answer now.
Watch out, Charles Augustus Milverton. The Lord of Crime has your number.