Earlier this season, "The Walking Dead" hammered home the notion that the world had been irrevocably changed, and that our heroes must continue pushing forward -- adapting to their new life and new surroundings, and refusing to live in the past -- in order to survive. "We can't go back" became a mantra of sorts, adopted by Rick and co. to excuse the terrible things they've had to do throughout the series's run, and convince themselves to keep going despite every urge to give up, and every loss they've encountered along the way. Even Gareth, the cannibalistic gang leader at Terminus, spouted those words, convinced that he was doing the right thing as he slit people's throats in order to feast on their flesh.

So viewers no doubt experienced a bit of whiplash when a new mantra entered the fold during last night's season five finale, "Conquer," which offered a direct counterpoint to that earlier way of thinking.

"Everything gets a return," says Morgan, as he's greeted in the woods by a member of the Wolves, the mysterious gang that's been lingering on the fringes of this back half of the season. Yes, Morgan is officially back (sometimes begging really does work!), and he's finally reunited with Rick after a season of following in his footsteps (and teasing viewers with a handful of fleeting appearances). And what a return it is, as he quickly topples two Wolves with some serious bo-wielding skills.

Before they're rendered unconscious, we get a bit of exposition delivered by the first Wolf (oh, how I love a good expository chat over a campfire), who explains that the group takes its inspiration from early settlers of the area, who put a bounty on wolves and employed native tribes to help drive the animals to extinction. The natives believed that people were wolves transformed into men, the Wolf says. "They're back now," he sneers, showing off the W carved into his own forehead.

It still doesn't fully explain the group's motivations, or its origins, but the good news is that Morgan survives the encounter, and can counsel the Alexandrians about what they're up against moving into season six. The display the Wolves left last week, of the naked woman strung up in a tree, implies that they're a vengeful people, as does the trap they set at the food factory, in which Daryl and Aaron are caught before they're rescued by Morgan. It must have taken a lot of time and effort to plan and rig such an elaborate setup (and pack it full of dozens and dozens of zombies), and the limbless torsos hanging in those trucks certainly imply that the Wolves had some fun hacking up their victims before using them to torment the living. Even the first Wolf's seemingly-benign conversation with Morgan betrays a darkness and an all-consuming need to conquer as he snaps at the man for daring to take a sip of coffee.

"I want everything you have. Every last drop," the Wolf says. "I'm taking you, too, and you're not exactly going to be alive."

Thankfully, Morgan's picked up some pretty impressive fighting skills in his travels, and he dispatches of the two men in short order, a zen-like aura buzzing about him as they fall. But Morgan doesn't kill them (shame, really), and that puts him in stark contrast with Rick, the man he's been chasing -- and perhaps idolizing -- all this time, and who's become a bit more cold-hearted since they last met. (The difference in their chosen mantras is certainly telling.)

The very moment of their reunion, in fact, occurs only seconds after Rick is finally given the go-ahead to execute Pete, an order he instantaneously obeys. The set-up to that resolution unfurled throughout the 90-minute episode (a bloated running time that hindered the proceedings, in my opinion), with talk of a community-wide meeting, led by Deanna, which would determine Rick's standing in Alexandria following his upsetting outburst in last week's installment. Rick's group was well aware that Deanna would float the notion of exile, and Maggie tried to head this off by appealing to the leader directly. Reg, doing his best mansplaining routine, assured Maggie that the two camps were better off living together.

Unfortunately, Reg doesn't survive long enough to see that promise through. Through a chain of boneheaded events -- beginning with anyone letting Father Gabriel do anything -- the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad reverend leaves the front gates wide open, allowing a flood of walkers to come waltzing in. Rick, on his way to Deanna's meeting, discovers the mistake and races through the community searching for zombies until he's surrounded by them, beating them back one by one before shoving his hand up one's head until its eyeballs explode. (A visual every bit as disgusting as it sounds.) He then crashes into the meeting carrying the corpse, defiantly throwing it down and delivering yet another impassioned speech about how screwed Alexandria is without him.

"The ones out there, they'll hunt us, they'll find us, they'll try to use us, they'll try to kill us," Rick declares. "But we'll kill them. We'll survive. I'll show you how."

Amazingly enough, Rick's ranting doesn't immediately win everyone over (I guess revealing that he planned to kill some of them to prove a point isn't the best way to ingratiate him to the locals), but that quickly changes when Pete barges in, wild-eyed and wielding Michonne's katana. In a struggle, Pete accidentally slices open Reg's throat, and Reg bleeds out in front of everyone, prompting Deanna to tell the constable, "Do it." Rick is only too happy to oblige, delivering a bullet to the doctor's head.

In the scene directly preceding Rick's discovery of the open gate, the constable is sitting in his house, psyching himself up for the meeting, when we hear Bob's words from earlier this season echo through his head. Even as he was dying, Bob truly believed that life could get better for the group, and its members shouldn't compromise too much of themselves in the process of surviving. "This is a nightmare," Bob said of the apocalypse. "And nightmares end. ... They shouldn't end who you are."

It's unclear who Rick will wind up being as the series progresses, but for now, he's securely back in the leadership saddle -- and he can't go back.

Other thoughts:

- I floated the theory last week that the Wolves could be made up of the exiled Alexandrians, who were mentioned again during the finale. Since we still don't know their whole story, I still think it's a possibility, considering the Wolves' vengeful nature and what little we know about the exile (they were driven out far beyond Alexandria's walls, left with enough food and water for a day, and stripped of their guns). Aaron said two men and a woman were banished; the only Wolves we've seen so far have been the same two men, and we still don't know the exact size of their pack. (And we also know that they killed a woman very recently.) Aaron seemed to regret the exile, and I think he'll continue to regret it as season six picks up with the pack as Alexandria's main antagonists.

- Carol's simultaneous disdain for the Alexandrians and willingness to lie to their faces continues to delight me. As the group is formulating its gameplan for Deanna's meeting, Carol suggests that they pretend to agree with the community's peacenik ways, "because these people are children, and children like stories." Later, she boldly threatens Pete with a knife, daring him to lay a finger on her. "Play your cards right, maybe you don't have to die," she says as she thrusts a casserole into his arms. "And I want my dish back clean when you're done." Add that to the pile of perfect Carol moments from this season.

- Abraham doesn't mince words when it's his turn to vouch for Rick at Deanna's meeting: "Simply put, there is a vast ocean of s--t that you people don't know s--t about. Rick knows every fine grain of said s--t. And then some."

- Several opportunities for annoying characters to die didn't pan out, with Glenn unable to pull the trigger on Nicholas (who shot him first! And continued attacking him! And let a zombie come at him! How many reasons to kill someone do you need?), and Sasha prevented from offing Father Gabriel by an intervening Maggie. Gabriel's death has been a seeming foregone conclusion ever since his introduction, and yet he somehow continues to survive. His pronouncement, "The word of God is the only protection I need," as he went off into the woods alone actually made me groan, and his umpteenth improbable escape from peril had me rolling my eyes so hard that I'm surprised they're not stuck in the back of my head.

- I've missed Eugene, who didn't have much to do in the back half of this season (or during this episode). Here's hoping he can utter more than a handful of lines in the season six premiere.

- The Richonne 'shippers were probably doing cartwheels during Rick and Michonne's heart to heart, in which Michonne assures the sheriff's deputy that she'll always be on his side.

- This season was bookended by butchering, with the Terminites actually eating their prey. We don't know yet that the Wolves are doing the same (perhaps my cries of "cannibalism" were a bit misguided; my bad), but they have the same penchant for throat-slitting that Gareth and co. enjoyed so much. (RIP, Poncho Guy.) I don't think it was a mistake that Reg was killed in this same manner, either. Bloodshed is expected on "The Walking Dead," but this action is especially brutal -- and tellingly, is a means of killing that's specifically human. It seems that "Everything gets a return" is also true of terrible ways to die; look for that mantra to repeat itself -- especially as Rick and co. face another evil outside threat -- throughout season six.

- Until then, enjoy your summer. "The Walking Dead" is slated to return sometime in October.

Photo credit: Gene Page/AMC