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.
So that's the baggage I'm bringing to this season—well, that and the feeling of long-term dread, instilled in me by the disappointments of A Dance With Dragons, about Martin's ability to wind up his story. But here I'll end the carping, because I thought the premiere was excellent: The Tywin/Tyrion and Daenerys/slave trader scenes were both flawless adaptations of great moments from the books, and all the business with Margaery and the orphans—in which we see how the Tyrells intend to take advantage of the Lannisters' great weakness, which is their inability to see that there's more to politics than the raw exercise of power—was an example of Benioff and Weiss's ability to expand on what's implicit in the story they're adapting. The Stannis storyline is dull at this point, I agree, but I don't mind it in small doses, and while the Selmy reveal was inevitably somewhat anticlimactic given that most viewers probably don't remember him from Season One, I don't think a scene-setting season premiere needs a "holy sh-t" moment to send us off. Nor did I miss the battle you're pining for, Chris: After seeing the Other and his undead minions at the end of Season Two, I didn't need to see them again so soon, and in general I'm always happy to spend less time rather than more north of the Wall.
If there's anything I'm hoping for from this season, it's that this will change—that Ciaran Hinds's Mance and Rose Leslie's Ygritte between them will make up for the fact that Kit Harrington is one of the least interesting members of the cast, dragging down material that's already not as juicy as the intrigues to the south. So here's to that possibility, and here's looking forward to next week.