When a show’s most common criticism is its prolific amount of nudity, that’s a pretty good sign. And as HBO’s Game of Thrones marches confidently on towards the finale of its second season, critics searching for some sort of flaw with the series can still only point to the anachronism of bikini-waxed, medieval va-jay-jays.

Who knows what the standard for downstairs grooming really is in the mythical realm of Westeros? And frankly, who cares? With its second year of swords, power struggles and a little bit of dragons ,Game of Thrones has taken another step towards joining shows like Sopranos and The Wire as an all-time HBO great.

Like its first season, Thrones continues to expect a lot from its viewers. Never a show to underestimate the attentiveness of its audience, each episode throws in new characters, expands its plot lines and shuffles viewers through George R.R. Martin’s (author of the source material A Song of Ice and Fire) world of places like King’s Landing, Qarth, and Winterfell. But in exchange for keeping track of its complex universe and deluge of characters, the show consistently delivers one of the most compelling story lines on television.

The second season opened in seeming chaos. Following the deaths of both King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) and his Hand, Ned Stark (Sean Bean), the seven kingdoms of Westeros are made as hell. And faced with being ruled by King Joffery Baratheon (Jack Gleeson)—a snotty 17 year-old, product of incest, and genuine asshole—three other kings aren’t going to take it anymore. Robb Stark (Richard Madden), Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and his younger brother Renley (Gethin Anthony) each have their eyes set on the Iron Throne. And more importantly each has the army needed to fight for the seat. Who’s got that popcorn?

In each episode, show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss routinely set the ideal pace, which has been key in not only developing Thrones’ multidimensional story, but keeping audiences interested. It is this depth of purpose that gives the show more than its share of immediate thrills. And no, its not just the boobs.

A scene in the latest episode “Blackwater” perfectly demonstrates how Thrones, despite being the definition of fantasy, can bring a frighteningly tangible feeling of realism to the screen. In the middle of Stannis Baratheon’s siege of King’s Landing, Joffery abandons his men at the battlements, leaving only Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) as the only source of authority in the defense of the city from 10,000 men with more than enough battering ram. As the camera pans across the remaining soldiers, the screams and dissonance of war still raging in the background, viewers can feel the fear and desperation creep through the ranks. Unlike other, more traditional fantasy epics, a heroic rally around a fearless leader is far from certain. And that’s what Thrones is all about—suspense from an ever-present uncertainty.

But the show has brought more than visceral exhilaration. It has built upon the foundation of its first season, which has proven to be little more than prologue.

Of course, much of this excellence comes from the very distinct characters that Martin created. But the excellent casting has really make these characters come to life. Specifically, Peter Dinklage has achieved even more in his portrayal of Tyrion Lanister this season than in last season’s Emmy winning performance. Amidst the moral cesspool that is King’s Landing, Tyrion has taken Ned Stark’s place as the audience’s source of hope. Dinklage has developed a signature cadence for delivering Tyrion’s trademark wit, making the character an always welcome presence on screen. Unlike Ned, however, Tyrion “enjoys the game,” and is not hampered by Ned’s overdeveloped sense of honor and duty when finding ways to deal with his enemies. This given the audience not only someone to cheer for, but a contender in this mad contest to survive the game.

One story line that has unfortunately fallen short of the typical standard of excellence has been Jon Snow’s (Kit Ca) travels beyond the Wall. On its face, it’s a plot that should be more than compelling. It’s what gave the show’s its ubiquitous climate change warning (“Winter is coming”). Unfortunately, Jon Snow’s scenes this season have been limited to wandering around the wastelands beyond the Wall and letting himself get kidnapped. Is this part of a larger plot build up that will payoff in the the end? With Thrones, the odds lean toward yes, of course. Nevertheless, you can’t help but feel there’s more potential here.

Still, as the second season draws to a close, it’s clear we have something more on our hands than that brilliant first season. Like the best on today’s small screen, Game of Thrones is a show that’s smarter than it needs to be. Rather than rely on simply gore and sex to satisfy its audience—which let’s be honest, would keep most of us watching—Thrones has perfected a multidimensional storytelling technique which adds a sense of depth and longevity to the series.

And don’t worry, you’ll get your share of boobs and decapitated heads, too.

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