From left, Beck Bennett as Vladimir Putin, Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and Cecily Strong as Melania Trump on SNL. (Will Heath/NBC)

For weeks, watching the interactions between Alec Baldwin and President-elect Donald Trump has been like watching a tennis match. Look left: There’s Baldwin, spackled in orange makeup, mercilessly mocking Trump on “Saturday Night Live.” Look right: There’s Trump, tweeting that the show is unfunny, unwatchable and “just can’t get any worse.” Back to Baldwin, quipping that he’ll stop his impersonation if the president-elect releases his tax returns. Back to Trump, telling the “Today” show how “the skits are terrible.”

SNL’s main event used to be its weekly celebrity hosts; lately, those guests have been a mere sideshow to the Baldwin-Trump battle. This week, Baldwin took another swing.

The show opened with a skit that portrayed Trump as a bumbling idiot who doesn’t realize how Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of him. Putin appears in Trump’s office through a fireplace, carrying a Santa-like bag with a gift for Trump inside: an “Elf on the Shelf” that has clearly been reconstructed into a surveillance camera. Putin instructs Trump to place it next to his internet router and leave it there all year.

“Vladimir, I’m sorry,” Baldwin-as-Trump tells the shirtless Putin. “But I didn’t know you were coming, so I do not have a gift for you.”

“Please, Mr. Trump,” Putin replies. “You are the gift.”

Even when soon-to-be first lady Melania (played by Cecily Strong) tells Trump she wants Putin to leave, the president-elect is easily swayed to let him stay as soon as Putin calls him “so smart.”

Saturday’s show had the highest metered-market ratings since its post-election episode. Viewers were ready for Trump’s rapid-fire response. They refreshed his Twitter page again and again, but the president-elect kept quiet. His most recent tweet came three hours before SNL aired, and was about the U.S. naval drone seized by China.

https://twitter.com/ohmyword1/status/810514134819278848

https://twitter.com/DeannaMc1/status/810500553469992960

SNL will be taking a holiday break during the next few weeks, so viewers will have to wait until Jan. 14 — the week before Trump’s inauguration — to see if the feud has ended for good.

But it is possible that by then, Baldwin will have ended his stint as Trump, as he is not a regular cast member on the show. In September, the Hollywood Reporter claimed Baldwin had been hired to play Trump for the entire SNL season — but that was when it appeared Trump was likely to lose the election. Since his win, NBC has declined to comment on whether Baldwin will keep the job.

The actor himself has made no mention of whether he wants to keep playing the role. Though it surely keeps his name in the headlines, the weekly preparation for SNL is known to be extremely time-consuming. And Baldwin is hardly rolling in free time: He is involved in at least eight upcoming films, according to IMDb, in addition to his bi-weekly radio show, “Here’s the Thing.”

From press secretary Sean Spicer's comments about the show to the president angrily tweeting about Alec Baldwin, here is Donald Trump's history with SNL. (Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

Who would replace him as Trump? Some have suggested that one of the well-known Trump impersonators, such as John Di Domenico, should take on the role. But it seems unlikely that the show would bring in a new cast member midseason, especially someone who doesn’t have Baldwin’s name recognition.

No current cast member has impersonated Trump on the show. The role was previously held by Taran Killam, whose contract wasn’t renewed for this season. SNL’s longest-serving cast member, Darrell Hammond, has also played Trump. Since 2014, Hammond has been the show’s announcer. It would be surprising for him to leave that job to be reinstated as a full-time cast member.

So perhaps SNL executives are hoping they can convince Baldwin to stick around. He certainly seems to enjoy the opportunity to goad Trump. Before this week’s episode, he tweeted, “I won’t apple-agize. Tonight at 11:30. Live.” A minute later, he shared a photo of himself backstage in his blonde wig and red tie.

He was ready for his next move. But without Trump swinging back, is the game still as fun?

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