Before going on, I should say that, like any fan of the books, I've had my frustrations and disappointments with their adaptation to the screen by novelists-turned-showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. But, as noted, I was a fan of the show before I was a fan of the books. And what a feat of compression Benioff and Weiss have pulled off! Martin's novels are so dense and wide-ranging that you'd think them unfilmable. This week I took a brief toe-dip back into the third book, A Storm of Swords, and I was amazed at how much Benioff and Weiss have cut, while seeming to cut so little. As a magazine editor for more years than I like to remember, I am suitably awed.
Which brings me to a few particulars regarding the first episode itself. I agree that it has some particularly good "talky" scenes, and I think they demonstrate Benioff and Weiss's talents neatly. Take the meeting between Jon Snow and Mance Rayder: The Mance of the show already differs clearly from the Mance of the novels, who is a bit of a jokester/troubadour. But the more somber take on the character offered by Ciaran Hinds (whom I've loved since Rome and Munich) seems entirely suitable. And Benioff and Weiss did a nice bit of rewriting when it comes to Jon Snow's stated motivation for betraying his Night's Watch brothers and joining the wildlings. In the book, he says he's doing so because he was always treated as a bastard by the Starks in Winterfell. The show's take—that he's doing so because he feels the wildlings are more serious about fighting the White Walkers—is not only clever, but it underlines one of the powerful themes of the series, i.e., that everyone in the Seven Kingdoms is too busy killing one another to recognize the existential threat gathering north of the Wall.
By contrast, the Daenerys/slave-trader and Tyrion/Tywin scenes play almost exactly as they do in the book, with the latter in particular lifted virtually verbatim. I agree it's a great scene, one of several that Tywin—whom Benioff and Weiss have actually made more prominent than he is in the books—should have this season. As an aside, I'll mention that I've been a big Charles Dance fan going all the way back to White Mischief, Alien 3, and, yes, Schwarzenegger's The Last Action Hero, in which Dance played the villain. I can still hear the bottomless contempt he managed to pour into his delivery of the word "cretin" (pronounced with a short "e").
Regarding your disappointment with Stannis: I wasn't particularly happy with the casting of Stephen Dillane (I think Stannis should be a larger and more formidable figure), but the character is meant to be utterly unlovable, and a leader whom men are disinclined to follow. Ser Davos (for reasons of backstory that have been cut to the bone on the show) is a singular exception, which makes his arc with Stannis all the more tragic. But I agree that this relationship is less compelling than it ought to be.
As for the Barristan Selmy reveal, this was one of my two big disappointments with the episode. In the novels, Ser Barristan joins Daenerys's retinue by posing as the squire of another character who's evidently been cut from the show, and he doesn't reveal his true identity until much later. It's a nice little mystery—as Ser Jorah repeatedly points out to Daenerys, he's way too old to be a squire—and, ultimately, a very satisfying revelation. I can see how Benioff and Weiss might feel that his character was peripheral enough during Season One that viewers would be underwhelmed by his eventual reveal. But they seem to have split the difference in a somewhat clumsy manner: If Ser Barristan doesn't merit having his identity kept secret for a while, then he probably doesn't merit being the closing scene of the season premiere either.
My other disappointment was perhaps inevitable. One of the great scenes of the novel (told in flashback through Samwell Tarly) is the battle on the Fist of the First Men between the Night's Watch and the White Walkers with their wights. It's a truly harrowing bit: at night, in heavy snowfall, the zombies encroaching relentlessly. (There's even an undead bear!) In the show, by contrast, it all takes place off-screen, while Sam and his mates are out collecting dung. I'd say this was a terrible mistake, but I assume it was a decision that was largely if not entirely mandated by the show's budget. Instead, we got that weird and frustrating scene to close Season Two, in which the White Walkers march past Sam like a Halloween parade and, inexplicably, don't kill him.
But I've gone on too long already. Ross, I remember you hated that Season Two closing scene, too. What did you think of the opening episode of Season Three?
Douthat: First, a hearty Dothraki thank you (you don't want to know what that involves) to you both for having me along for a season's worth of obsessive Thronesing. Second, you remember correctly, Chris: I thought that the first season got better as it went along, and the second season (mostly) got worse. Coming to the show having read all of the books (or all of the books then extant, since A Dance With Dragons wasn't out yet), I spent the first half of Season One wondering how anyone who hadn't read the novels could possibly understand what was going on in the present, let alone figure out the (incredibly important) backstory that explained the motivations of Targaryens, Baratheons, Lannisters, and Starks. I'm pretty sure that most viewers couldn't actually figure it all out, but then the drive to Eddard Stark's execution was well-executed enough that it didn't really matter: By the last few episodes, you didn't need to keep up to be hooked.
I thought the premiere was excellent: The Tywin/Tyrion and Daenerys/slave trader scenes were both flawless adaptations of great moments from the books.
In Season Two, on the other hand, I thought the earliest episodes were the strongest, and then a combination of weaknesses inherent to Book Two and mistakes by the showrunners made the finish much less potent than I had hoped. "Blackwater," the penultimate episode, was a tour de force, but in the stories that didn't converge on King's Landing and were wrapped up in the finale instead, I thought the show went out with a whimper: Theon Greyjoy's disastrous capture of Winterfell was better in the novel, mostly because of the presence of a crucial character whom I gather we'll finally meet this season; Daenerys's sojourn in Qarth, tedious in the books, was reshaped by Benioff and Weiss to be ... just as tedious; Jon Snow just slogged around the glaciers for far too many episodes; and I absolutely hated the season-ending scene, both for the reason you cite, Chris, and because I thought it was dumb to show one of the Others/White Walkers, and even dumber to make him look a none-too-menacing CGI critter you'd expect meet in the back of the Star Wars cantina. I know they were going for the equivalent of the successful supernatural shock that ended Season One, but this time it fell flat.