Kristen Baldwin
February 09, 2018 AT 11:24 PM EST

So much of what we watch on TV is Stuff That Already Happened — yet it’s still always a little disorienting, for me at least, to tune in for an event we’ve spent all day reading about. (Welcome back, Tonga guy!) But as NBC’s Olympic anchors reminded us frequently at the top of the broadcast, no matter when you watched the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, you were a witness to history. “The global gathering that is the Olympic Games seems to always come at a pivotal moment,” intoned Mike Tirico, with a serene smile. “The global flashpoint of North Korea is just 60 miles away, and yet the power of sport has bridged that gap.”

Certainly, the significance of the political figures in attendance — including Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong, the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit the south since 1953 — can’t be understated… but perhaps it didn’t have to be stated quite as grimly as NBC Sports Asia analyst Joshua Cooper Ramo. Asked by Katie Couric what it meant for the country that both the North and South Korean delegations would march together in the parade, Ramo took things to a jarringly dark place: “Are these teams taking the first steps down a new and peaceful path, or is this the very last image of fellowship and hope before tragedy strikes the people of this peninsula?” he pondered solemnly. “Hundreds and thousands, maybe millions of lives are at stake.”

It was a disproportionately apocalyptic moment for what was otherwise a dazzling and peaceful spectacle. The ceremony, titled “Peace in Motion,” was designed to unfold like a “winter fairy tale,” as event executive producer Yang Jung-woong explained last month, and indeed the pageant played out like a beautifully art-designed fable. It began as a short film with five Korean school children venturing into a fantastical ice cave, where they encountered an empire of luminescent animals within the stone. The kids followed a white tiger — an animal that represents trust and strength — into Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, where the animal emerged on the world stage as an elaborate, elegant, literally larger-than-life puppet operated by six black-clad dancers beneath his stripes.

From there came the exaggerated pageantry one expects from the Olympics: A dreamlike puppet menagerie of Phoenixes, elk, bears, and horses frolicked with fluid lines of dancers, while the mysterious Inmyeonjo, or “human-faced bird,” undulated serenely in the center of the stage — bringing delight to our child protagonists and sending Korean Twitter into a meme-making frenzy.

The endless Parade of Nations — turns out it is not a small world, after all — rolled on with an obligatory cheer. Only the aforementioned Pita Taufatofua of Tonga broke the monotony of marching, entering in his now-trademark grass skirt and bare, oily chest. (“I wonder if that oil is freezing,” murmured Couric thoughtfully.)

NBC

It’s always moving, though, to see the tiny delegations — like the one-athlete operations of countries like Luxembourg, Singapore, and Malta — stride into the stadium with regal pride and a calm but evident joy. (That is, before they’re pushed out of the frame by the hyped up mob of U.S. athletes, who crowd the cameras with tongues out and cell phones up.) The Parade built, of course, to the historic climax: the joint entrance of the North and South Korean delegation, an electric example of the “politics and pageantry” announcers promised from the start.

Before the torch was lit, our five tiny tour guides emerged from the darkness, holding candles that symbolized the 2016 presidential protests in South Korea, as four well-known Korean singers — Ha Hyun-woo, Jeon In-kwon, Lee Eun-ju, and Ahn Ji-young — crooned John Lennon’s “Imagine.” By the time beloved South Korean figure skater Yuna Kim glided across the ice base surrounding the Olympic cauldron to light the flame, it brought to mind something NBC’s Mike Tirico said earlier in the evening: “We have heavy tonight,” he noted, “but we also have happy.”

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